For Trump, a high-velocity threat like none he's ever faced

WASHINGTON (AP) — From the moment Donald Trump became a national political figure, he has been shadowed by investigations and controversy.

They have been layered, lengthy and often inconclusive, leaving many Americans scandal-weary and numb to his behavior. And with each charge against him, Trump has perfected the art of deflection, seemingly gaining strength by bullying and belittling those who have dared to take him on.

Now Trump is facing a high-velocity threat like none he's confronted before.

It has rapidly evolved from a process fight over a whistleblower complaint to an impeachment inquiry within two weeks. Much of the evidence is already in public view. A rough transcript of a phone call in which Trump asks Ukraine's president to help investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden. The whistleblower's detailed letter alleging the White House tried to cover up the call, and possibly others.

Unlike special counsel Robert Mueller's two-year investigation, which circled an array of people in Trump's orbit but not always the president himself, Trump doesn't have the benefit of distance. His words and his actions are at the center of this investigation.

"The Mueller report , it was always Manafort this and his son that. There was a cascade of players," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, referring to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. "This was just Donald Trump and a disturbing conversation with another world leader."

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Donald Trump faces impeachment inquiry
ARCHIVO - En esta foto de archivo del 30 de noviembre de 2018, la entonces embajadora de EEUU en Ucrania, Marie L. Yovanovitch, habla en Kiev. Yovanovich declara el viernes 11 de octubre de 2019 ante las comisiones del Congreso que investigan al presidente Donald Trump antes de posiblemente iniciarle juicio político. (AP Foto/Efrem Lukatsky)
Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, center, arrives on Capitol Hill, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, in Washington, as she is scheduled to testify before congressional lawmakers on Friday as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
FILE - In this March 6, 2019 file photo, then U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, center, sits during her meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev, Ukraine. (Mikhail Palinchak, Presidential Press Service Pool Photo via AP)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the House impeachment investigation during a formal signing ceremony for the U.S.-Japan Trade Agreement at the White House in Washington, October 7, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Adam Schiff (D-CA), Chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence Committee speaks to the media before a closed-door meeting regarding the ongoing impeachment inquiry against US President Donald Trump at the US Capitol October 8, 2019 in Washington,DC. (Photo by Olivier Douliery / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben McAdams, of Utah, addresses the media at Midvale Senior Citizens Center Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, in Midvale, Utah. McAdams is changing his position to support the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. He said Friday he has not made a decision on whether the president should be impeached, but he supports investigating what he calls serious allegations. McAdams was previously one of a small handful of undecided House Democrats. He says he changed his mind because the Trump administration is unlikely to cooperate with an investigation unless it's conducted as an impeachment inquiry. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Staunch Trump ally Sen. Chuck Grassley pushes back against calls to out whistleblower
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., listens as Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and other House Democrats discuss H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which passed in the House but is being held up in the Senate, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) speaks to reporters after the Trump administration blocked U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland from giving testimony in the House of Representatives' impeachment investigation of Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 01: Tourists make photographs inside the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on October 01, 2019 in Washington, DC. Under the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House of Representatives has opened an impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump following revelation that a whistleblower filed a complaint that Trump was seeking damaging information about a political opponent from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 30 : President Donald J. Trump talks to reporters about the whistleblower after participating in a ceremonial Swearing-In of the Secretary of Labor Gene Scalia in the Oval Office at the White House on Monday, Sept 30, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
KIEV, UKRAINE - OCTOBER 01: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to the media on October 1, 2019 in Kiev, Ukraine. Ukraine has been at the core of a political storm in U.S. politics since the release of a whistleblower's complaint suggesting U.S. President Donald Trump, at the expense of U.S. foreign policy, pressured Ukraine to investigate Trump's rival, Joe Biden, and Biden's son, Hunter. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on September 24, 2019 shows US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, on September 24, 2019 and US President Donald Trump in Washington, DC, September 20, 2019. - Amid mounting allegations of abuse of power by the US President, Pelosi announced the start of a formal impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives, the first step in a process that could ultimately lead to Trump's removal from office. (Photos by Mandel NGAN and SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN,SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., reads a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., steps away from a podium after reading a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
U.S. President Donald Trump reacts to audience applause after his address to the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to address the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
WASHINGTON, DC - September 24: Surrounded by journalists, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-CA) emerges from a meeting with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, before the delivers a speech concerning a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on Tuesday September 24, 2019. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Members of the White House press corps - holding in the Trump Bar at Trump Tower - watch U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) live on television as she announces an impeachment investigation of U.S. President Donald Trump in New York City, New York, U.S. September 24, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump ATTENDS a bilateral meeting with Iraq's President Barham Salih on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York City, New York, U.S., September 24, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks to news reporters following an impeachment proceeding announcement, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., September 24, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) walks through a House corridor following an Impeachment Proceeding announcement, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., September 24, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL.) speaks to news reporters following an Impeachment Proceeding announcement, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., September 24, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 1125 -- Pictured: Host Jimmy Fallon as Donald Trump during the "Trump U.N. Speech" Cold Open on September 24, 2019 -- (Photo by: Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Protesters with "Kremlin Annex" call to impeach President Donald Trump in Lafayette Square Park in front of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to the media in response to an announcement by Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) at the Capitol Building September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry today after allegations that President Donald Trump sought to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate leading Democratic presidential contender, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, which was the subject of a reported whistle-blower complaint that the Trump administration has withheld from Congress. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) walks with her press secretary, Connor Joseph, to a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol where formal impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump were announced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. Spanberger is one of seven freshman members of the House with national intelligence or military backgrounds who recently spoke out in an opinion piece calling for an investigation of Trump. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: Reporters and congressional staff members wait outside a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol where formal impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump were announced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry after allegations that President Donald Trump sought to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate leading Democratic presidential contender, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, which was the subject of a reported whistle-blower complaint that the Trump administration has withheld from Congress. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 24: Reporters crowd around Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., as he leaves the House Democrats caucus meeting in the Capitol on impeachment of President Trump on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 24: Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, arrives for the House Democrats caucus meeting in the Capitol on impeachment of President Trump on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Protesters with Kremlin Annex with a light sign that reads "NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW" call to impeach President Donald Trump in Lafayette Square Park in front of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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So, suddenly, Washington is different and the history of Trump's presidency has changed. By year's end, he could become only the third American president impeached by the House of Representatives.

That new reality caught Trump and his advisers off guard, according to people close to the president. If anything, they thought the specter of impeachment had been lifted after the Mueller investigation ended without a clear determination that Trump had committed a crime.

The contours of that investigation played to Trump's strengths. Mueller spent two years in silence, allowing the president to fill the vacuum with assertions that the investigation was a "hoax" and a "witch hunt." The details of the investigation that did leak out were often complicated and focused on people in Trump's sphere. Even Mueller's pointed statement that he had not exonerated Trump did not seem to stick. There was ultimately plenty of smoke, but no smoking gun.

Numerous other Democratic inquiries appeared likely to meet a similar fate, including House investigation into Trump's business dealings, his tax returns and a variety of administration scandals. For many Americans, they were one big blur of investigations without any clarity of purpose.

Then the whistleblower gave the Democrats what they needed: a simple, easily explainable charge — that the president sought a foreign government's help for personal political gain — and his words to back it up.

For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., and several Democratic moderates who had resisted calls for impeachment, the calculus shifted . It was now more of a risk to recoil from impeachment than charge ahead.

"What we're seeing right now is a completely different moment in the history of this country," said Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla.

One thing that didn't change — at least not immediately — was the clear partisan divide over Trump's actions, both in Washington and across the country.

According to a one-day NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted Wednesday, 49% of Americans approve of the House formally starting an impeachment inquiry into Trump. Among Democrats, 88% approve of the investigation, while 93% of Republicans disapprove.

Mike Staffieri, a retiree and Republican who lives just outside of Richmond, Virginia, said Democrats were trying to "throw enough poop at the wall and hope something sticks."

On Capitol Hill, some Trump allies concurred, confidently dismissing the impeachment inquiry as just another partisan effort to take down a president who is despised by many Democrats. That rough transcript of a phone call in which Trump presses Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to work with Attorney General William Barr and personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani on an investigation into Biden? It's just Trump being Trump, according to his backers.

"You've heard President Trump talk. That's President Trump," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

Mark Updegrove, a presidential historian and president of the LBJ Foundation in Austin, Texas, said it's that enduring support from Republican lawmakers that currently separates Trump from Richard Nixon, who resigned in the midst of the Watergate impeachment inquiry because his party began to abandon him.

"The big difference between this and Watergate is that you had both Republicans and Democrats being deeply concerned about the president being involved in criminal wrongdoing," Updegrove said. "It was a bipartisan effort and you certainly don't have that here."

But it is early, compared with Watergate. There were small signs that some Republicans were trying to keep some measure of distance from the president. Some GOP lawmakers fled Washington for a fall break claiming they hadn't yet read the whistleblower's complaint. Others said they were open to learning more about the situation.

Trump's hold on the Republican Party makes it nearly impossible to foresee a scenario in which the GOP-controlled Senate convicts Trump if he were impeached by the Democratic-run House.

The president is acutely well aware that it's his party alone that can protect him. In the midst of the past week's firestorm, he tweeted to Republicans: "Stick together, play their game and fight hard Republicans."

He later deleted the tweet.

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