I listened to the Senate roll-call votes on the two articles of impeachment. Despite the inevitability of the outcome, there was a solemnity to those moments when each senator went on the record stating “guilty” or “not guilty.”
Has it all been worth it?
I expressed skepticism soon after the inquiry was announced last September. Then I had three misgivings. One, Trump thrives on attention and being the center of attention, and this would give it to him. Two, people outside of Washington are not likely to be much engaged by the whole thing. And third, the norms that made the Nixon impeachment-pressured resignation and opposition from his own party members possible are no longer in place in our culture.
Have I changed my mind? Was impeachment worth it? I think it was. I’ll match my three earlier misgivings with three arguments for the value of the process.
The impeachment process put a stake in the ground. It has put House members, Senators, and many others on record on this President. It has provided information, testimony, and argument that frame the issues and what is at stake here. That has been worth doing, even if the outcome falls short of removal from office.
The impeachment was worth it, second, for a series of “profiles in courage,” (to use the title of a little book by John F. Kennedy). Many names might be listed for their courage in the face Trump’s intimidations and attacks. I cite Congressman Adam Schiff, whose eloquence has been, at least at times, remarkable. Then there were the diplomats, especially Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and military officer Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. To this list I would now add Senator Mitt Romney, who bucked party leaders to cast the lone Republican votes of “guilty as charged.” In the present darkness, their light shines. One might compose a corollary list of “failures in courage,” but we’ll leave that for another opinionator.
A third reason I now think the impeachment worth it is that while the outcome of the trial itself is behind us, there will be as Sen. Romney put it, “an appeal to a higher court,” the vote of the American people. It is a least possible that many voters will share the judgment of Senators Portman and Alexander that while conviction and removal from office was not the best choice now, the President did abuse his powers and office. I think everyone really knows that.
One of the biblical texts I hold close as core conviction is Galatians 6: 7. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” I believe that. There is, despite all the malice, evil, and injustice, a moral meaning to life and in the universe. God is not mocked. Truth will out. Yes, it may be a long time coming. But it will come. And it will come for Donald Trump and his minions.
I conclude by quoting the larger passage in which this verse is set because it provides a word of encouragement that I, and perhaps you too, need in these days.
“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Galatians 6: 7 – 10, italics added.)
The Senate’s acquittal of President Trump could flip the Senate to the Democrats. That is because swing voters could be more negatively influenced by the Republican’s Senate “trial” than the rushed job by Democrats’ House impeachment. Why is that?
Let’s start by comparing each party’s main critique of the other party’s performance. Republicans charge the House Democrats for not proving their case that Trump was guilty of abusing his power or obstructing Congress. The Democrats charge the Republicans in the Senate for not allowing critical new testimony and previously denied documents to be shown in the trial.
For voters, the simplified positions come down to this: the Democrats could have done a better job, like pursuing the courts to get testimony or documents, while the Republicans barred the Senate from receiving additional relevant information.
In my view, Republicans have the weaker message in addressing the issue of fairness because it boils down to “the Democrats needed to do a better job.” That is a charge that all of us have been blamed for at some point in our lives. It is not pointed. It is not a direct accusation of not being fair. The Democrats are accused of rushing the impeachment, but they are also accused of holding the impeachment too near the next presidential election. That’s a confusing attack.
On the other hand, the charge of not allowing witnesses who have spoken directly to the President, is simple to understand as a necessary condition for conducting a fair trial. The Republicans’ defense of why testimonies were not necessary is fractured. Some like Senator Lamar Alexander say no more information is needed. They admit that the President did try to get a foreign power to influence his election, but insist such behavior does not require his removal from office. That explanation undercuts the President’s position that he did nothing wrong.
Republican Senators will be heading into a quagmire of endless explanations of why they voted for no new witnesses as more of John Bolton’s book reveals the President’s involvement. Plus, the courts will likely force the Trump administration to release more damaging documents. As the Republicans’ justifications become more tortured and complex, the public will lose interest in the details and just remember what the Senate failed to do. A simple message always overshadows a complex one, particularly if a simple one is repeated and supported by a unified group.
As Chris Wallace of Fox News said, the Democrats “will be able to argue, … from now until November that this was a cover-up and that all the Republican senators who are up for re-election in 2020 were part of that cover-up.” Democrats just need to remind the public that trials involve “critical” witnesses and the Republican Senators denied their appearance. That decision might have saved the election for Trump, but it might also help the Democrats flip the Senate.
The Democrat House managers in the Senate Trump trial repeatedly stressed the need for Congress to check the growing power of a president. The Senate failed to do so, and in a cavalier manner because they assumed that Trump’s support is critical for winning their primary elections. But is Trump’s support a magic potion for winning their general elections? Not on recent evidence.
Admittedly Trump rallies are huge. As the Iowa caucuses were about to begin, Trump visited the state. As reported by “The Hill,” Trump attracted 7,000 people in Des Moines, twice the number that attended Sen. Bernie Sanders’ rally in Cedar Rapids, which his campaign claimed was the largest held by any Democrat during this political cycle in Iowa.
However, Trump’s ability to get his candidates elected is limited. In the 2019 Alabama Senate race, Trump supported Luther Strange in the Republican primary, who lost to Ray Moore, whom Trump then supported. Moore then lost to Democrat Doug Jones, the first Democrat to win a Senate race in Alabama in 50 years.
A more telling measurement of Trump’s limited ability to help Republicans is to look at Trump’s endorsements of Republican Governor candidates in 2018 and 2019. Seven of his 13 endorsed candidates going for an open seat or challenging an incumbent lost in 2018. Last year he endorsed in only four governor races, and his candidate lost in three of them. In the 2018 US Senate races, Trump did well with incumbents, but horribly with challengers: only four of his 14 endorsed candidates won. (In 2019 there were no Senate races.)
The Brookings Institute also did a study of how candidates fared in 2018 for House and Senate races where Trump and Democratic politicians such as Joe Biden endorsed. Brookings tracked the PVI (partisan voter index) for the states or districts involved. Trump supported candidates in heavy Republican leaning districts that measured R+7.6, whereas Biden choose districts that were swing districts with roughly divided support between the parties. Trump’s endorsed candidates won 56% of the elections, Biden’s won 76%. This is a pattern that could be repeated in statewide races where urban higher-educated voters, who have been steady conservative voters, are upset with Trump’s imperial behavior.
The takeaway is that since 2018 Trump’s ability to sweep other Republicans into office does not match his power to attract people to his rallies. That’s because Trump is a unique phenomenon to watch, but not a force in persuading swing voters to vote for his candidates. It appears that congressional candidates will be judged more on how well they have served or will serve in public office than whether Trump endorses them.
There is another unintended consequence of acquitting Trump that plays to the Democrats’ advantage. It mutes Trump’s image as a victim, which has energized his base of supporters to come out and save him. Now that he is a victor, there will be some relief among his core support and hence they could be less motivated to mobilize folks to get out and vote.
Meanwhile Trump’s acquittal should stimulate Democrats to mobilize voters to do what the Senate refused to do. The public is on the same page as the Democrats. According to a January 28, 2020 poll by Quinnipiac University, 75% of voters favored allowing witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial, and 53% said President Trump was not telling truth about Ukraine. Although this is a national poll for all registered voters, it does show that Democrats have the potential to sweep up swing voters in key states to support senators who would act as a check on Trump from further expanding his executive powers. If the Democrats run solid candidates to beat incumbent Republican senators, they can also campaign on stopping a Republican Senate from appointing one or two more Trump adherents to the Supreme Court.
The Trump Senate trial has provided the Democrats a platform for carrying a simple message: the public needs a functioning Senate — one that is a real government watchdog, not a guard dog for their party leader.
It’s likely that former Vice President Joe Biden – and his run for president – will be the real casualties of the impeachment and Senate acquittal of President Donald Trump. It comes down to “electability,” elements of which – race, gender, and more – nobody is quite sure how to measure. But the impeachment drama’s focus on Ukraine may turn out to be a body blow – possibly fatal – to the Joe Biden campaign.
To see this, Democrats and their leadership, such as it is, need to look beyond the primaries to the general election campaign. What happens in Biden-Trump matchup? Everyone knows how Trump operates so that’s not hard to figure out. It goes like this, according to Trump:
“The whole thing was a witch hunt. They didn’t find anything. Look, at the Senate vote. They voted. I didn’t do anything wrong. There was nothing there.”
And he continues:
“They’ve got to look at Biden. What he did. He was in charge of Ukraine for Obama and his kid got a $50,000-a-month job there with a corrupt natural gas company. How do you suppose that happened? Joe did it. There’s a big conflict there. They’ve got to investigate that.”
This will be repeated over and over and over by Trump and his surrogates if Biden is the Democrat’s candidate. And, no, it doesn’t have to be true. It only needs to create doubt, particularly doubt among the large number of voters who never thought the phone call to the Ukraine president was such a big deal and never quite followed the impeachment process. And this Biden stuff, that looks like a real conflict of interest, influence peddling, right?
By seeding doubt about Biden and opening the way for thoughts like that, Trump likely can destroy a Biden candidacy, convincing voters that Joe and the Democrats don’t have a claim to the moral high ground. That could be enough for Trump to win. And it’s an “electability” cloud over Vice President Biden that Democrats need to ponder.
Already, hoping to somewhat minimize the problem, Biden’s son, Hunter, has admitted (on “Good Morning, America”) that getting involved with Burisma, the Ukrainian company on whose board he served, was “poor judgment.”
In Trumpworld, that won’t cut it. Heck, they’re already starting. Sunday Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst suggested to Bloomberg news that if Biden were elected he should be impeached for his past connections to Ukraine, a statement she made citing widely discredited claims about Biden’s actions while Vice President.
A very wise friend has counseled me that President Donald Trump will be defeated when he becomes a laughing stock for public debate, because the ultimate fear of a narcissist is to be made fun of.
We may have reached that point in Wednesday’s impeachment trial, thanks to the very skillful use of video technology by Rep. Adam Schiff and his team. My takeaway goes something like this:
Schiff used Trump himself to make his case, with brief video clips of the President inviting Russia and then China to help him investigate his political rivals, and also bragging about his power to withhold evidence from Congress.
Some of those videos were of the President as he prepared to board his helicopter, shouting at hapless reporters forced to resort to this demeaning manner of interacting with the President. After the second or third of these clips, the image of a very large man with a strange haircut and a somewhat-orange face, wearing a very large coat and a yard-long necktie and waving and shouting became, well, comical.
Where else would the Latin term “quid pro quo” wind up determining the fate of a president who possibly had to Google it before using it—over, and over, and over. “No quid pro quo” is the 2020 version of Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” of Nov. 17, 1973. For those of us who speak very little Latin, it is a welcome primer.
We were spared images of the same fellow hunched over his laptop sending out literally dozens of Tweets based on misinformation or lies from sources that most of us would reject as nut cases. Does he wear the same uniform when he tweets at 1 a.m.? Whose book will break that story?
But we did enjoy a very long narrative that resembled a routine from the old Abbott and Costello team of long-ago radio. That was the tag-team dialogue that went something like this:
Three Amigos: You must make an announcement of an investigation into the Bidens.
Zelensky aide: But we can’t make the announcement until we have a date for a White House meeting.
Three Amigos: You go first.
Zelensky aide: No, you go first.
Three Amigos: Please, be our guest, you go first. . . and so on.
Abbott and Costello play Alphonse and Gaston. After you. No, after you. Optional tap dancing.
The image of these three white guys: Rick Perry, Gordon Sondland, and Kurt Volker—in sombreros, perhaps with a mariachi band, propositioning a suspicious team of Ukrainian diplomats is delicious in itself. A remembrance of Desi Arnaz here?
Somewhere in the realm of humor must be the very weirdness of the president’s public appearance in the midst of what he claims is a laughable attempt to impeach. He shows up at Davos, the annual gathering of the real ruling class of the modern world, plus political leaders and hangers-on. While the group is pretending to place real actions on climate change over quarterly dividends, President Trump is selling American coal and oil and debunking the world’s leading scientists as doomsayers. With a straight face! Now, that’s comedy, albeit of the dark side.
Maybe Trump was just kidding at Davos; it’s an escape valve he often uses when caught in a particularly egregious insult or lie. The president was just kidding, his minions assure us. Well, if Trump has a sense of humor in any way, I’m the Prince of Sussex.
I don’t know if Schiff has a sense of humor, but he seems to have a sense of irony. Plenty of that to go around (read Lindsay Graham). My favorite impeachment manager (after Schiff) was Rep. Zoe Lofgren, 72, who is a player in her third presidential impeachment. Lofgren comes across as your favorite older aunt who is also sharp as a whip. I saw her repress a smile in her address to senators, and I saw that twinkle in her eye as she perhaps recalled a time when members of the Congress could address each other civilly and with respect and not be called out for it by their president.
And then there is Rudy Guiliani. No, we won’t go there.
Is it sacrilege to examine impeachment as a theme for a stage show? Perhaps, but if they can make a musical out of Les Miserables, think of what could be done with Trump, Guiliani, and the Three Amigos; with Volodymyr Zelensky as Jean Valjean?
If we can’t get justice from this show, at least we could have a few laughs.
Now that President Donald Trump’s Senate trial has begun there are some critical points to keep in mind. All analysis, up to now, is based on the very low probability that 14 Republicans would break party ranks to convict Trump on the two articles of impeachment (Abuse of Power & Obstruction of Congress).
It is not likely they will abandon Trump, despite two recent developments. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded Trump violated the law by withholding Congressionally approved assistance to Ukraine. And Lev Parnas, an associate of the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, said that Trump approved and directed public tax dollars to influence the election by asking Ukraine to investigate his potential main rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Republican senators won’t break from him because these “facts” don’t matter in their upcoming primary elections. It doesn’t matter if they lose liberal independents, since they never had them, and in most states these independents don’t vote in the primaries. As long as they can keep their core Republican primary voters, who are 90 percent-plus behind Trump, these Republican senators will win the primary.
But then it gets more problematic, since winning their general elections could be severely jeopardized if the public perceives the trial as phony or not taken seriously by the Republicans. More important, the conservative independents, who are more Republican than Trumpers, could be swayed to vote for a Democrat who believes in the rule of law. That doesn’t mean those voters would necessarily opt for liberal candidates, for they could just sit on their hands and not vote. This is what makes the senate Republicans vulnerable in the general election, much more than their Democratic challengers.
For instance, there are 22 Republican senators up for reelection in 2020, while there are only 12 Democrats. Ballotpedia did an analysis of these races using the 2016 presidential election and ratings from three of the top organizations analyzing the races (Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales) and this analysis identified 12 Republican incumbents and 5 Democratic incumbents as potentially vulnerable. The Republicans have a greater exposure.
The Democrats do not need to win the Senate impeachment trial by convicting Trump, no matter how much evidence that he should be. If the Republicans refuse testimony or admission of documents, polls indicate that would alienate more voters than anything else. A poll taken by ABC News and The Washington Post on December 10, before the House voted for impeachment, showed 70 percent of Americans believe that administration officials should be able to testify. That attitude crossed party lines; 79% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans and 72% of independents agree that Trump should allow them to appear in a Senate trial.
The struggle to control the trial’s image will not be a high drama TV event. The senators do not speak! Their questions or motions are submitted on paper to the presiding officer, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who decides whether to bring them forward. If he refuses, he can be overruled by a simple majority of 51 senators. Almost all of the TV political pundits have made much of the 51-vote rule, which allows the Senate to create its own procedural rules for the trial. It gives narrow control of the trial to the Republicans, since there are 53 of them.
There is a slight wrinkle in that description because the Standing Rules of the Senate detail the rules of order of the United States Senate. Normally it takes a two-thirds vote to alter any of the 43 standing rules that were last adopted in 2000. These rules could serve as a possible hurdle for the Republicans, and they may seek to alter them to protect Trump.
It can be argued that all rules in the Senate trial will be procedural rules. However, there are standing rules, which normally supersede all procedural rules, such as lowering the threshold for appointing judges. There may be an opportunity for Democrats to use them to their advantage and for the Republicans to either accept their interpretation or vote to oppose it – in effect changing the standing rules.
There are two standing rules that could present such a situation, but these two examples would have to be vetted by a parliamentarian to determine if they would apply in the Senate Trial.
The first is the right of any senator to call a closed session as long as the motion is seconded. This could be done by the Democrats after the initial two presentations but before the House Managers give their final presentation (which is what is in the procedural rules). This would allow the Democrats to adjust the timing of their last word for a better TV time to allow the most public to witness it. They could use the closed session to determine which Republican Senators are wavering or what the Democrats best summary might be to persuade them when they return to the full open trial session.
The second, is the right of any senator to place a hold on a motion to prevent it from reaching a vote on the Senate floor. The Democrats could request such a hold if no testimony has been received. They would vote to lift the hold if testimony was allowed.
In the past, both Democratic and Republican Senate majority leaders had employed a “nuclear” option, by using just a majority vote to permanently alter the standing rules. Both actions had to do with eliminating the 60-vote rule for approving federal judicial appointments, including Supreme Court nominations.
This means that the Republicans probably could exercise that authority; with 51 votes they could do anything. But if they they use this nuclear option, it would appear to the public as excessive force in manipulating the senate trial to Trump’s advantage. That could be the straw that breaks the public’s back in seeing the Republican-run senate trial as a fair one.
Most dangerous to the Republican senators seeking reelection this November, is that this move could dampen the support of their traditional conservative constituents to get out and vote for their reelection. Interestingly, one of the few mentions of the two-thirds rule being needed to change the senate’s standing rules was brought up by Fred Lucas, a reporter from the conservative The Daily Signal, which is funded entirely by The Heritage Foundation.
The conservative tradition is to respect the law and procedures. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejecting the request by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to have four White House officials testify during the impeachment trial is going to hurt the Republicans more than the Democrats. When the Republicans realize that problem, they will likely offer to repeat the process that was used in President Bill Clinton’s trial — having off site testimony videotaped and then selected portions shared with the full senate.
Having live testimony with cross examining would make for a huge TV audience, but given the character of those testifying, the spectacle would likely confuse rather than educate the public on Trump’s guilt. Plus, there is no telling what they will say. In the Clinton senate trial, all of those testifying had done so before, so it was known what they were going to say.
Democrats should propose having Chief Justice Roberts make the final decision on what portions of the videotaped testimony should be shared. Although the Republicans could overrule his decision, that action will be remembered by the public long after what was said in the testimony.
The bottom line for the Democrats, and the Republicans as well, is that their behavior will be judged as much as President Trump’s. Since he will not be present, the actions of the House Prosecution Managers and the President’s Defense Team will receive the immediate attention of the public watching and the media personalities commentating afterwards.
One of the aspects of performance art is to induce foolish behavior by those viewing the performance, as by luring exasperated police officers to make fools of themselves in trying to arrest demonstrators. Keep this in mind as you watch the next acts of the impeachment drama.
The Senate impeachment trial is likely to be another dreary parade of focus-group-tested speechifying. The opening round, sparring between Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell, is an effort to get Senate Republicans acting badly or as one might say, acting McConnelly by rigging the trial. It’s a measure of Pelosi’s shrewdnesss that she has put the Senate Republicans in this spot, and so far they are eagerly playing their assigned bad-guy roles. She probably knows that McConnell is more than ready to suit up as a villain.
Of course, the real point of this play-acting is to influence the 2020 elections, particularly the chances for electing Republicans in Congress, by inducing them to speak whoppers and look like sycophants to Don Donald. Eventually, Pelosi herself will look foolish if she refuses too long in sending over the impeachment charges and allows House Democrats to behave in too naked a political fashion.
Politics now has become a dumb-show, where the point is not to resolve issues but to get others to prance on a stage to a script written by your opponents. The media lap this up, of course, but this can’t be what the Founders had in mind when creating a self-governing Republic.
The Constitution says that the Senate “shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.” The immediate question before us is when? Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said that she will hold up delivering the two articles of impeachment to the Senate until the Democrats know what the rules will be. Reality is that the rules will be what the Republicans want, no matter how long Pelosi hangs back. Hence the case for getting this charade over with, and soon.
In Bill Clinton’s presidential impeachment Senate trial, leaders of both parties met and hammered out an agreement on the rules, which the Senate passed unanimously even though the Republicans had two more Senators than they do now. It’s not the number of Republicans in the Senate that is shaping this trial, it’s the intensity of loyalty to Trump that is endangering any bipartisan path forward.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News he was “taking my cues” from the White House and “There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position” in shaping the trial. Trump has tweeted that the effort to remove him from office is an “attempted coup.” That is a pretty strong cue that McConnell will not be reaching an agreement with the Democrats on the Senate’s trial procedures.
If no agreement is reached, McConnell only needs 51 Senate Republicans to pass a resolution governing the proceedings, as long as they do not alter the current established Senate rules, which were applied to the Clinton impeachment. Changing those Senate rules would take two-thirds, or 67 votes, to pass.
Defining the difference between the two sets of rules is up to the trial’s Presiding Officer, which would be Chief Justice John Roberts. According to Adam White, a director at George Mason University’ Law School, Roberts “is very, very wary of the courts being seen as being brought into a political process” and will keep a low profile. But will he be pulled into the spotlight given the probable intensity that the trial could ignite over any of his rulings?
An example of how this conflict played out in the last impeachment was when a senator wanted the Senate doors open during their deliberations. The presiding officer then, Chief Justice Rehnquist, ruled that 67 votes would be needed given “consistent practice of the Senate for the last 130 years in impeachment trials.” The motion failed to get the 67- vote majority. The doors remained closed. What would happen if Chief Justice Roberts makes a ruling that a certain motion requires 67 votes and the Republicans strongly disagree? They could insist that only a majority vote is needed to overrule his decision, contending that their motion could be reasonably reconciled with the Senate rules. Would Roberts choose to simply defer to whatever 51 senators wish to do, even if it changes an established Senate rule?
The current Senate rules according to Hilary Hurd and Benjamin Wittes, in a LawFare blog this December, are weirdly detailed, even specifying speeches and specific times of day when things must be said and done, and yet they offer no rules of evidence or standards of proof, which matters could be defined solely by the Republicans. That leaves the Republicans controlling the trial’s content used to determine if Trump violated his oath of office.
Although the word “trial” is used, this is not a criminal or civil trial. It is a political trial. There does not need to be a violation of a criminal code, only the belief by two-thirds of the Senate members that a president is guilty of the House’s charges. With Republican leaders repeating Trump’s “witch hunt” description of the House impeachment, there is no likely outcome that two-thirds of the Senate will remove Trump from office.
So why have a trial that isn’t a real trial? Because the real jury is the public not the Senate. In fact, the Senate is not a jury so much as an active player in the trial. While the senators cannot speak and must sit and listen, any member can submit written requests to the Chief Justice, to ask questions of those testifying or to make motions to change procedures. More importantly, the majority of senators (51) can introduce new procedures at any time, as long as they do not change established rules.
Unlike common trials, this historical event will be televised, with the exception of the deliberations, assuring that this will be a “show” trial. Each party will have to calibrate their strategies based on how the public perceives their honesty and diligence in pursuing a just conclusion. The facts supporting or dismissing the two articles of impeachment will influence a far smaller portion of the public than the behavior of the parties.
And the public has been watching. Throughout the weeks of congressional impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, 62% of adults in a December Washington Post-ABC News poll said they had closely or somewhat followed it.
McConnell seems to understand this dynamic, even if he did make a critical mistake telling Fox News that he was going to run the trial in accordance with Trump’s interests. That cost him credibility. He tried to salvage it in his reply to Senate Minority Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer’s request for live testimony from White House staff that Trump refused to allow to appear before the House Committees. Rather than just swatting Schumer down, McConnell left open the possibility of it occurring later.
McConnell has also opposed Republican suggestions that the Senate immediately dismiss any impeachment articles they receive. That would be a gift to the Democrats and would serve to amplify their characterization of the Senate Republicans as abandoning their responsibilities. The Senate has never declined to hold a trial in the 19 previous cases in which a federal officeholder was impeached, In similar fashion, Pelosi could overplay her hand by indefinitely withholding the delivery of the impeachment articles to the Senate. That would work to the Republicans benefit for the same underlying public perception — the Democrats would be shirking their duty.
The stakes are high for both parties in how this trial is seen. According to the December Washington Post/ABC poll, the public is evenly divided. Those favoring impeaching Trump and removing him from office are at 49%; those opposed are at 46%. The numbers didn’t move from October’s poll, suggesting that the hearings had practically no influence. A short Senate trial would seem to have the same result.
Could a longer trial with testimony and additional evidence move the dial either way? I doubt it. Unless there is a strong testimony quoting Trump delivering a straightforward command to get information to influence the 2020 election, each side will rely on the same arguments that they have been making for the last three months.
That poll also revealed a critical difference in the public view of Clinton versus Trump. It showed that only 33% believed Clinton should have been impeached and removed from office, with 64% believing he should not have been . That comparison is comparable to Clinton’s 70% approval rate at the time of his impeachment, with Trump’s steady low 40% approval rate.
Trump is not popular. However, a lengthy trial without a damning quote from Trump, will allow him to play the victim, at which he is a master of portraying himself. The sympathy vote could turn out critical independent voters, who are less ideologically oriented than either Republicans or Democrats. Following a long trial, they might vote against the “mean” Democrats, thus hurting their chances for winning the Senate and retaining their majority in the House.
So I end up in favor of letting the Republicans run a quick phony trial. They will satisfy their base, but not sway the independents, because they will be repeating the same boring and unconvincing points they have been making. That will deny Trump the victim role he desperately needs to play. And it will allow the Democrats to characterize the Republicans as being cravenly subservient to an ineffective leader who is more concerned with his political future than the country’s needs.
One nagging thought (well, one of several) persists as House Democrats move to draft articles of impeachment.
I know Pelosi, Nadler et al. have many good reasons to limit their case to the aid extortion Trump et al. tried to work on Ukraine. This scheme does comprise the most egregious high crimes, with the most serious potential consequences, known to have been undertaken by and at the behest of this president. The Dems want to sustain momentum, keep the public’s attention, and avoid distracting from the primary rounds that begin next month. Past scandals didn’t move the all-important public opinion meter, so better to concentrate on one that might. And since they haven’t a prayer of turning enough Republican senators to get a conviction, the best they can do is establish a record (as Schiff ably did).
But is it wise to put the whole case in this one basket? This scandal seems to have moved that meter only marginally. Trump’s earlier potential crimes and misdemeanors, if less serious, may be easier to understand. Together they establish a modus and motive that support the Ukrainegate case.
The witnesses taking the stand earlier, and committee chair Nadler himself, showed this when they recalled how candidate Trump publicly urged Russia to hack the Democratic National Committee’s emails. What hasn’t been recalled, and was too little noted at the time, was that the only change in the 2016 Republican platform that team Trump demanded was weakening its expression of support for Ukraine against Russian aggression.
Indulge in reverie for a moment and imagine how the hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal would sit against a Ukrainegate bribery count. That’s only reverie, of course; even if it had time, this House wouldn’t want to follow the stained-blue-dress precedent and convene hearings on anything so petty and seamy. But it already has a record of multiple past instances of obstruction of justice, complete with convicted henchmen, in the form of the Mueller Report and James Comey’s congressional testimony. The fact that Mueller’s own appearance fell flat doesn’t gainsay the strength of the record his team established.
If you’re going to charge Trump’s latest obstruction of justice, why not charge his past obstructions? If you’re going to call him corrupt, why not include counts for taking foreign emoluments and for self-enrichment by steering federal business to his hotels and resorts?
Republicans would howl that the Democrats are getting desperate and flinging whatever they can find. But if the Dems limit their case the Rs will still call them desperate and holler that all three years of witchhunting could turn up is this so-called Ukrainian nothingburger.
The public, the real arbiter, deserves a refresher course in this president’s outrages. The sum is greater than one of its parts.
Congress’s first round of impeachment hearings wound up largely focused on whether President Trump had offered a quid pro quo for receiving a favor from Ukraine, i.e. Trump would release held-up military aid and other signs of US support only after Ukraine investigated a particular company that employed Joe Biden’s son and the former Vice President for his actions as well.
Aside from trying to determine if an actual bribe had occurred, the basis for impeachment comes down to whether Trump abused his presidential power by asking a Ukraine for a personal gift of campaign assistance or was he merely seeking out whether there was corruption in Ukraine before releasing military assistance to them. Let’s take a look at this critical question.
America’s founders feared foreign governments destabilizing our young democracy. They wrote into the constitution, “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present… from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
The House of Representatives is trying to determine whether Trump was seeking a “present” from Ukraine. Specifically, the charge is that Trump was asking Ukraine’s new president to publicly announce that his country would begin investigating a company for corruption that employed Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. This would provide Trump an explosive issue that would damage his potential main opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Just this May 2019, Trump’s own polling showed Biden beating Trump in the election. That was followed up in September, when Trump’s reelection campaign, and the Republican National Committee, announced plans to spend $10 million on an ad targeting his potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden and the impeachment proceedings. In October, Trump targeted $1 million, out of an already-existing $8 million ad buy, toward anti-Biden spots in early voting states. A 30-second commercial, titled “Biden Corruption,” attacked the former vice president for pushing the removal of Ukraine’s former corrupt head prosecutor Shokin.
Trump would have greatly benefited if he could have convinced Ukraine’s president to announce that he was investigating corruption in Burisma and by extension Hunter Biden, who served on its board. Joe Biden could also be investigated since he was Vice President during that time. No verdict would even be needed; just the investigation could be enough. And that was the message that was sent by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, not a government employee, to the Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland.
Testifying under oath before the Congress’s impeachment hearing, Sondland clearly identified Giuliani as Trump’s spokesman saying, “Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States …”
Sondland’s description of Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine as being motivated by personal interest and not national interest, was also the conclusion reached by the state department’s top Ukraine official, George P. Kent. He testified before Congress how Trump sought to manipulate American policy in Ukraine to meet his personal political goals, circumventing career diplomats and policy experts and inserting his personal lawyer Giuliani into the process.
President Trump himself was recorded on the July 25 call to the new Ukrainian President Zelensky asking him for a favor of looking into “Biden’s son … and …that [Joe] Biden stopped the prosecution…” of Shokin. Investigating Hunter Biden or Joe Biden was never mentioned in any documents provided to the public prior to that call, from any government intelligence agency. Trump’s request was made immediately after Zelensky said his country was “ready to buy more Javelins [anti-tank missiles] from the United States for defense purposes.” Trump made the connection between providing military aid to Ukraine that Congress had already approved and asking Ukraine to conduct an investigation that no one had requested from the US government. That call lead the whistle blower to file a complaint that Trump had used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.” How else could it be interpreted?
Well, Trump and Congressional Republicans simply describe it as encouraging Ukraine to conduct those investigations to see if the Bidens had participated in Ukraine’s well-known culture of corruption. Republicans say Trump’s motive was to protect our foreign aid from contributing to a corrupt nation that could waste US tax dollars.
Curiously, Trump and Congressional Republicans’ argument ignores that Zelensky’s top prosecutor, Lutsenko, had told Bloomberg News in a report May 16 that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden.
No one, to date, has testified that Trump directed any federal employee, (excluding Giuliani, who is not a government employee) to investigate either of the Bidens. However, Trump in public statements and via Twitter has repeatedly suggested that they need to be investigated. By going public with these suggestions, he avoided a paper trail and he can legitimately claim not to have ordered government employees to investigate the Bidens. However, if you work for the executive department and you repeatedly see and hear what Trump wants through the media or through his personal attorney Giuliani, it is likely that you would act accordingly.
Joe Biden wanted to end corruption in Ukraine. Trump claims he wanted to end corruption in Ukraine. But Biden wanted to change prosecutors in order to pursue a more vigorous attack on corruption, as reflected in Zelensky’s overwhelming electoral victory. Trump wanted an investigation of Burisma for possible corruption, since it had been accused of corruption in the past. Three previous general prosecutors investigated Burisma and did not file any charges. Trump wanted Ukraine’s government to go back and look for some corruption. He also questioned the legitimacy of Hunter Biden being on the Burisma board, although no past Ukrainian prosecutor had found a reason to investigate him, including the two most recent reformist prosecutors.
Trump did not need to get a conviction of either the Burisma or the Bidens. He just needed a public statement that an investigation had begun. Trump, through Giuliani, rejected the offer that Ukrainian’s general prosecutor make such a statement. Instead, Ambassador Sondland said they were told by Giuliani that Trump wanted Ukraine’s President to make that public statement.
That would be the favor Trump wanted. Something to use in an anti-Biden media campaign. That is a request to have a foreign government sway our electoral process to benefit a particular candidate.
So, which narrative is to be believed? Hunter got a cushy job, Joe Biden got to be an anti-corruption champion. Neither benefited from US aid to Ukraine. No government official in Ukraine or the US has connected them to corruption in Ukraine. However, Trump’s claimed role as a fighter of corruption has focused solely on just the one company, Burisma, which employed Hunter Biden. Neither Trump nor Giuliani ever pursued investigating any other corrupt company in Ukraine.
Trump unambiguously asked Ukraine, both through public statements and through his personal attorney directing government employees, for an investigation that would have helped him win the 2020 presidential election. Republicans in Congress defend Trump by arguing that no Ukrainian investigation was begun on the Bidens, so Trump did not receive any benefit, i.e., no harm was done. However, Republican defenders of Trump have not shown any effort by Trump to stop corruption other than seeking to investigate the one company that employed his main opponent’s son.
The president of the United States repeatedly asking Ukraine to investigate a single company, that had already been investigated by the highest prosecutors in Ukraine, was needlessly redundant and served only to benefit his personal political interests. None of the three ambassadors familiar with Trump’s insistence on an investigation told Congress during their testimonies that it was critical to our national interests.
But will the public understand, and more importantly be concerned, that Trump’s “request” for a favor from Ukraine was an abuse of his presidential power by contorting a national policy of fighting corruption overseas in a way to serve his own political interests? If so, is it grounds for relieving him of his position as the leader of our nation?
Although only the House of Representatives can decide, it is important for citizens to have thoughtful discussions on this impeachment question. Discuss this issue with friends and foe. And share this piece with your local congressional representative as well.
American democracy is in serious danger. It’s time for respected civic heavyweights get off the sidelines — that’s retired generals and admirals, former Cabinet officers, corporate executives, university presidents, ex-mayors, governors and members of Congress, religious leaders and even entertainment and sports figures — and band together to defend it.
Individually, some do speak out on this pressing issue or that. Among the most vocal, retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey is often on TV talking geopolitics. Former Defense Secretary and White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta regularly criticizes Trump administration policies. Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich appeals for national unity.
Occasionally Bill Gates appears to talk about education and world poverty. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen says the U.S. has lost its place as the world’s moral leader. Former Secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz have advocated action on climate change. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell opines sporadically. Actor Sacha Baron Cohen has just spoken out about the dangers of social media.
But there have to be hundreds, even thousands, of such leaders who are distressed about and/or disgusted with the increasingly hate-filled tribalization of the U.S. population and inability of the polarized political parties to solve any serious problem.
Most of them are fretting in private. Instead, they should join together and form a powerful organization to systematically criticize bad behavior and praise good; advocate sensible action on pressing issues; raise money to elect moderate candidates and defeat extremists in both parties; and help political reform groups working to combat corruption and polarization.
And, as the growing reform movement shows, there are hundreds of thousands of citizens already active and potentially ready to join them.
The threat to democracy ought to be obvious, but anyone in doubt should read “How Democracies Die” by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who’ve devoted their careers to studying examples from 1930s Germany, Italy and Spain to 1970s Chile, 1990s Russia and Peru and current-day Venezuela, Turkey and Hungary.
They trace a consistent pattern that begins with deep polarization (ideological groups ceasing to judge each other as mere rivals, but as menaces to the nation), followed by policy stagnation, popular discontent, and the rise of a demagogue who claims he alone can fix things.
His ascent to power (often by election) leads to a gradual or swift tearing down of democracy’s constitutional and informal guardrails, leading in turn to prosecution or violent suppression of opponents, complete domination of judicial and legislative branches of government and silencing of independent media and civic organizations.
Levitsky and Ziblatt make a convincing case that the process is underway in the U.S. now, with Donald Trump as the guardrail-busting demagogue. The book came out before his current declaration, through his lawyers, that a sitting president has absolute immunity from any legal proceeding, including being charged after shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Even a Supreme Court dominated by his appointees might not uphold this claim, but it underscores his authoritarian bent.
Even if he’s not reelected, the underlying threats to democracy remain: deepening polarization, government’s inability to solve serious problems and public distrust of major institutions. Add to that public confusion about what is true: chronic income and wealth inequality, hostile foreign bots (and extremist domestic ones) spreading divisive disinformation; and the failure of schools to prepare young citizens for jobs in the AI future or to critically navigate social media.
The threat cries out for intervention by respected figures — acting together to maximize their influence and encouraging concerned citizens to join them in a movement to safeguard democracy. I once proposed this idea to one of the worthies I cited above. He said, “Ah, you guys in the media would pay no attention.” I think he’s dead wrong — if the movement were big enough, relentless and well-financed.
There’s a historical precedent for such a movement. It’s brilliantly described in Lynne Olson’s 2013 book, “Those Angry Days,” chronicling the late 1930s and early ’40s battle between isolationists and interventionists over whether to provide military aid to Winston Churchill’s beleaguered Britain as it waged a last-ditch struggle against Nazi Germany.
Actually, two groups led the interventionist cause. One was a citizens’ group organized by Kansas editor William Allen White (the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies), which enlisted governors, mayors, college presidents, newspaper editors, writers, businessmen, actors and prizefighter Gene Tunney to serve on its executive board.
The board, in turn, helped organize grassroots groups all over the country. “Our idea,” White wrote, “is to fill the radio and the newspapers and the Congressional mail with the voices of prominent citizens urging America to become the non-belligerent ally of France and England.”
When France fell, White’s group mushroomed to 700 chapters in 47 states. Members sponsored rallies, radio broadcasts and newspaper ads and shipped petitions with millions of signatures to Capitol Hill and the White House.
Franklin Roosevelt privately wanted to aid Britain, but was intimidated into inaction by an isolationist-dominated Congress, public reluctance to again get involved in European conflict, and propagandizing by Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee. U.S. military leaders also opposed giving scarce arms to Britain, fearing they would be captured by a victorious Hitler and ultimately used against an ill-prepared U.S.
The second group, based in New York’s exclusive Century Club, consisted of internationalist-minded bankers, lawyers including future Secretary of State Dean Acheson, journalists including columnists Joseph Alsop and Walter Lippmann and Time-Life publisher Henry Luce, and, ultimately, retired World War I commander Gen. John Pershing.
This group secretly wanted the U.S. to enter World War II directly, but argued tactically for aid to Britain. It, too, agitated with newspaper columns and stories and radio broadcasts — but its members also applied direct pressure in Washington, where they had close contacts in the Roosevelt administration, the military and Congress.
Ultimately, of course, Adolf Hitler and the heroic Churchill — capped by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor — decided the issue. But the two groups certainly shifted public and government opinion.
The future of American democracy is at stake again and democrats of all parties should not silently sit by.
US politics is controlled iron-fistedly by a “duopoly”—of, by and for the Republican and Democratic parties, their donors, allied special interests and scores of vendors, pollsters, ad writers, idea suppliers and friendly media outlets.