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Why this Trump scandal sparked an impeachment push (and Mueller didn't)

After Robert Mueller released his report on the Russia scandal, the impeachment push failed to begin in earnest. There's a reason things are different now.

After Robert Mueller released his report on the Russia scandal, about a fourth of the U.S. House decided it was time to pursue impeachment against Donald Trump. There was ample evidence that the president had obstructed a federal investigation into his own alleged misconduct, and it wasn't hard to argue that the Republican had met the "high crimes and misdemeanors" standard.

Those impeachment proponents, however, struggled to persuade everyone else. Polls showed relatively broad skepticism toward the idea; there was little guarantee that impeachment articles would secure a House majority; the odds of success in the Republican-led Senate were zero; and House Democratic leaders saw no upside -- political, legal, electoral, or otherwise -- to pursuing such a campaign.

As Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) officially launched a presidential impeachment inquiry late yesterday, it was obvious that the calculus had changed -- but only in parts. The public skepticism hasn't yet changed; there's still no guarantee articles of impeachment can pass the lower chamber; and few genuinely believe the Senate will remove Trump from office.

So why is the process moving forward now, after failing to advance in the wake of the Mueller report? The New York Times' David Leonhardt, an impeachment skeptic who's changed his mind, summarized the dynamic nicely in a tidy paragraph:

In his dealings with Ukraine, the president committed a new and clearly understandable constitutional high crime: He put his own interests above the national interest by pressuring a foreign country to damage a political rival. He evidently misused taxpayer money in the process. He has shown he's willing to do almost anything to win re-election.

If presidential impeachment is an inherently political process, and I believe it is, the complexities of the Russia scandal weren't altogether helpful. This new controversy, in contrast, is more straightforward -- and as a result, easier to explain and defend.

Based on what we now know, the sitting American president tried to use his power to get a foreign country to help his political campaign by coming up with dirt on a domestic opponent. As part of the scheme, the same president personally delayed life-saving military aid the foreign country needed, creating the impression that the aid hung in the balance while he sought illicit campaign assistance. Then he lied about it. Then his administration circumvented the law in the hopes of covering it up.

And that's just what we know right now. The picture may yet get uglier.

To be sure, the Muller report painted a brutal picture of its own, but the nuances made the image blurry. Trump's misdeeds were tied to the actions and recollections of others, and the controversies dealt with things that had happened in the recent past.

The latest scandal erases the nuances. Indeed, Trump and one of his high-profile attorneys have already acknowledged that many of the key details are true.

What's more, the scandal is forward-looking: the president, desperate to win at all costs, hatched a scheme to tilt next year's American election in his favor. The integrity of our electoral process is worth protecting against an ongoing and immediate threat created by the incumbent.

Congress has an obligation, not just to hold the president accountable for wrongdoing that now appears painfully obvious, but also to take steps to prevent and discourage Trump from additional abuses. That's the difference between this scandal and the last.