Trump on trial: The 1 thing you should know about impeachment this week
It’s a mind-numbingly boring way to spend about six-and-a-half minutes, watching the Senate clerk call roll on the vote to call witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial. If you stick around for Chief Justice John Roberts to declare, “The motion is not agreed to,” you’ll sink another minute into the empty pantomiming of civic duty. At the end of it, the result is exactly what was expected when this whole process began: The Republican-controlled Senate voted not to seek new information in Trump’s trial, cutting the process short and paving the way for his long-certain acquittal.
And it is certain. Unless there are several dramatically unforeseen changes of heart in the next few days, it’s likely that by the middle of next week, Trump will be a president no longer operating in the shadow of impeachment. He’ll have emerged into the sunlight of acquittal. It may even happen before he delivers his third State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Below, you’ll find our week-by-week accounting of the impeachment trial. You can review what, on the whole, was a speedy process that played out almost exactly how we expected. There were a few moments of intrigue along the way — could Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner vote to hear witnesses to save his seat in a purple state? Would Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee break rank, freed from the pressure of re-election? — but in the end, the way things look today is exactly how we expected them to look in December. The Senate’s Republican majority, expertly wrangled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has voted to block new witnesses and documents in Trump’s trial.
The House impeachment managers maximized their time to make their case last week, attempting to parry questions as to why they were repeating the same talking points over and over. The president’s legal team, meanwhile, offered a rather abridged defense that framed the impeachment process as a personal attack on a president who merely exercised his authority to set foreign policy. During senators’ question-and-answer period this week, Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz made an extraordinary — and quickly viral — claim that a president pressuring a foreign country to act in a way that benefits his own re-election is not an impeachable offense if the president believes his re-election is in the nation’s best interest. Lead impeachment manger Adam Schiff, a congressman from California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, drolly called Dershowitz’s theory “very odd.”
If this all sounds a little circuitous, it’s because it is. At the end of the day, one thing is clear: Almost no one really disputes whether Trump used nearly $400 million in aid money to Ukraine as leverage to get that country to open investigations into prominent Democrats and a debunked conspiracy theory. There is little question the aid money was delayed somehow, by someone in the Trump administration; even many Republicans acknowledge it was done on Trump’s order, and Ukraine knew it was happening. Some even call the exact actions ascribed to Trump impeachable. But, they say, they just don’t think it’s enough to remove the man from office nine months away from an election.
Republicans have been conspicuously precious about election-year etiquette recently. Remember McConnell’s insistence that President Barack Obama should not be allowed to fill an empty seat on the Supreme Court in an election year, but that Trump should of course be granted that authority should the situation arise? It now appears that a president should also be allowed to attempt to bribe foreign countries to interfere in American elections on his behalf — as long as it’s an election year, and, of course, as long as they’re Republicans.
Perhaps the most obliquely damning statement that arose Friday, and McConnell was closing ranks and the witness vote whip count was being solidified, came from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Often referred to as one of the moderate GOP lawmakers who can sway one vote or another, Murkowski announced she would vote against calling more witnesses in the Senate trial — not because she deemed them unnecessary, but because she “[had] come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate. I don’t believe the continuation of this process will change anything.”
The Washington Post wrote how at the end of the day, the endangered Republican senators whom Democrats hoped might be moved to pursue a fair trial instead chose to bearhug Trump and his strong economy. The calculation for GOP lawmakers is also that the Democrats will nominate a flawed presidential candidate after a bruising primary, per the Post, so sticking by Trump will pay down-ballot dividends.
All this time, by the way, more evidence has been emerging. John Bolton, the long-sought witness whose testimony will now only be available via his forthcoming book, has been inserting himself into the process from afar. Leaks from his yet unpublished manuscript have alleged that Trump sought to pressure Ukraine months before was initially known, and that lead defense lawyer Pat Cippolone was in the room when the president made the demand. Bolton also reportedly asserts in the book that Trump explicitly tied Ukraine’s aid to the investigations he sought.
Coming from the man who was the national security adviser at the time, these are big revelations, yes. But Bolton isn’t necessarily an unbiased party acting solely on principle — and in any case, as we’ve said, some of these facts are no longer in doubt. They’re just not enough to break the GOP firewall.
The trial is likely to end next week. Whether it happens before Trump’s Tuesday address or after is still unknown, but there’s almost no way this all stretches into the second week of February. With the Iowa caucuses taking place Monday, too, it seems like next week will be the true beginning of the 2020 presidential election — the only alternate method to remove Trump now dispensed with.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the precedent Trump’s surefire acquittal will set. Mark Joseph Stern wrote at Slate that no president in the future will ever be removed from office after this, while at The Atlantic Todd S. Purdum declared that the Senate, in the eyes of many, has “unequivocally failed.”
These things may be true. But no president was ever convicted and removed from office via impeachment before, it’s worth noting. And more pressingly: We always knew it would happen this way.
WEEK OF JAN. 20
Well, it’s finally happened. Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, has been impeached. The Trump impeachment is the product of months of investigation by House Democrats, after a whistleblower revealed that Trump had tried to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into publicly announcing investigations into prominent Democrats — namely Vice President Joe Biden, a possible 2020 rival — using congressionally appropriated military aid and a White House meeting as leverage.
Impeachment is a long, legalistic process that requires many steps to reach the point where a president might actually be removed from office. But in a way, this has all felt a little inevitable. As you bear witness to the third impeachment trial in American history, we’re here to help it all make sense.
THIS WEEK’S BIGGEST TAKEAWAY
What: Over three days of speeches on the Senate floor, the Democratic impeachment managers made their case against Trump. They addressed both articles of impeachment against the president: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Who: Mostly California Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He’s been the preeminent face of the Democrats’ impeachment effort since the impeachment inquiry started in the fall. But his fellow impeachment managers — Reps. Val Demings (Fla.), Jason Crow (Colo.), Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Sylvia Garcia (Texas), and Jerry Nadler (N.Y.) — have also taken the floor to expand on individual parts of the case against Trump.
What it means: If you’ve read even one piece of political news this week, you’ve undoubtedly read the phrase “in earnest,” as in, “The Senate trial has begun in earnest.” Well, it has! While things got underway procedurally last Thursday, when Chief Justice John Roberts assumed his role as presiding officer over the trial and administered the oath of impartiality to the senator-jurors, Tuesday was the first real day of the trial as the American public envisions it. White House counsel Pat Cipollone gave an opening statement, as did Schiff, whose theatrics this week have drawn attention from observers.
How it affects the trial: In the rules-setting votes that began Tuesday — most in a party-line count of 53-47 — efforts by Democrats to compel new witness testimony and subpoena the White House for documents were denied. The rules debate and votes lingered well into Wednesday morning, with The New York Times reporting that Chief Justice John Roberts left Capitol Hill at nearly 2 a.m. and reported to his day job at the Supreme Court at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Wednesday marked the first day of opening arguments for the impeachment managers. Schiff spoke first, and at length, with the Democratic team seeking to build a clear chronology of Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine. As Vox explains, they traced from the dalliances of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, in the country in June to Trump’s now-infamous July phone call with Zelensky to a U.S. ambassador telling a top Zelensky aide that nearly $400 million in military aid was contingent upon Ukraine opening the investigations Trump wanted.
Schiff has spoken the most in the three days of opening arguments from the Democrats, though his fellow House managers have been strategically deployed to speak to certain aspects of the case. For example, Crow, a military veteran, was tasked with presenting how Trump’s withholding of the military aid to Ukraine jeopardized lives in that country, given its ongoing attempts to resist Russian incursion. Lofgren, who has worked on Capitol Hill during all three modern impeachment efforts, has drawn comparisons between Trump’s conduct and that of President Richard Nixon. Jeffries, the Democratic caucus chair, has injected the proceedings with some lighter moments, quoting Biggie Smalls and questioning the validity of votes for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But it is Schiff whose words have made the most rounds this week. His concluding argument late Thursday was “an appeal to the Constitution itself,” HuffPost wrote. “No constitution can protect us if right doesn’t matter anymore. And you know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country,” Schiff said. He also spoke directly to the question of whether Trump — even for senators who may believe he’s guilty of the allegations he’s being accused of — really must be removed from office in an impeachment, given there’s an election barely eight months away. “This is why he needs to be removed,” Schiff said: “Can you have the least bit of confidence that Donald Trump will stand up to [foreign actors] and protect our national interest over his own personal interest? You know you can’t. Which makes him dangerous to this country.”
Even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), a staunch defender of the president, acknowledged that Schiff is a stirring prosecutor, telling him he was “well spoken” after the first day of arguments. Republican Sen. John Kennedy (La.) also praised Schiff’s oratory skills. But the GOP sentiment on the whole has been that it’s “not a very deep case” that the Democrats are presenting, with some lawmakers saying that they’re merely hearing the same hour-long argument being presented over nearly 24 hours. Schiff tried to address some of that criticism, saying the repetition was intended to methodically build a case.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR NEXT WEEK
- How will Trump’s defense team respond? The House managers’ opening arguments will conclude Friday, with the White House defense team taking over starting Saturday and likely spilling over into Monday and Tuesday. Like the House impeachment managers this week, the White House defense team will have 24 hours to make their case for the president’s acquittal. But there are hints that Trump’s lawyers will take much less time than they’ve been granted; reporters on Thursday were notified that the defense will speak for only about two hours Saturday. The Times’s Maggie Haberman noted that the short session is partly because Trump’s team doesn’t expect a big trial audience on a Saturday, while her colleague James Poniewozik noted that, “In a regular trial, if you feel you have the jury (spoiler alert, they do), you might want to do-no-harm and say as little as possible. So how important is it to them to try to persuade anyone in the home audience?” The White House had been considering entering a motion to dismiss the charges outright on Tuesday, but ultimately declined to pursue that route out of concern that it would be voted down even with a Republican majority, so in the end the defense will have to present its argument for acquittal. CNN said Cipollone in particular has spent "weeks" preparing for the trial, and he will be the one to deliver the defense's opening argument, while Jay Sekulow, one of Trump's personal lawyers, will present an overview of the entire affair.
- Will enough Republicans want to see more evidence? Per McConnell’s plan for the trial, the last shot for senators to hear from new witnesses or seek additional documents will come after both the impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team make their opening arguments and go through questioning, for which 16 hours is allotted. The soonest that vote could come is likely to be Feb. 1 (more on that below). A few moderate Republicans have indicated an interest in hearing from more witnesses, but all of them voted to table that possibility until arguments and questioning were completed. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pointed out that for all the Republicans criticizing the Democratic argument for not presenting “anything new,” it was Republicans who voted 11 times to not allow any new evidence at this point. Whether they’re satisfied after arguments and questioning and vote for a quick acquittal, or whether the itch for new information prevails, is a central question of this case. Trump himself has long wanted a vigorous, public defense of him, including by calling new witnesses, but McConnell has steadfastly sought a quick trial.
- How long is this all going to last? In its daily impeachment newsletter, the Times included a great breakdown of key dates to watch out for as the trial trudges forward. (They also wrote a longer explanation of when things will happen, and why, that you can read here.) But the gist is this: If the Senate does not vote to allow new witnesses, the bulk of the impeachment trial will end by next week. The Democrats will finish their opening arguments this Friday, with the White House taking over starting Saturday. They’d have through Tuesday to make their case, though it’s expected they won’t use their full 24 hours. Then senators have 16 hours to submit written questions, which will likely take place by mid-week. A debate over witnesses will follow; if none are called, it could all be over before Trump gives his State of the Union address on Feb. 4, the day after the Iowa caucuses. If witnesses are allowed, however, that could add weeks to the timeline and stretch the proceedings through February.
WEEK OF JAN. 13
THIS WEEK’S BIGGEST TAKEAWAY
What: The articles of impeachment have been officially sent to the Senate, and the Democrats who will be making the case against Trump have been named. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s portion of this is done, now that she finally held the vote to release the articles to the Senate. We’re in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s territory now.
Who: The Democrats’ seven impeachment managers, plus McConnell, who’s now the lawmaker in charge.
What it means: The impeachment of Donald Trump has officially begun, now that the articles have been transmitted to the Senate. At the outset of what turned out to be a weeks-long delay orchestrated by Pelosi, some of Trump’s defenders tried to argue that because the House hadn’t voted to send the articles over to the Senate, Trump hadn’t really been impeached. That defense won’t hold water now — and it seems Pelosi knows it.
Pelosi’s trumpeting of the fact that Trump’s impeachment “cannot be erased” could be the work of a gloating opponent rubbing salt in the wound of a famously egotistical president. But it also might be the mark of someone talking themselves into their own correctness. It’s highly unlikely Trump will be removed from office after all, which could leave some to wonder what the point of the Democrats’ impeachment effort was in the first place. Some might argue patriotism, and the principle of country before party; others might point to the fact that Trump appeared to endanger American national security. It’s worth wondering whether Pelosi is blunting the blow of an almost surefire acquittal by pointing out that Trump the president will always have been impeached — and whether she’s hoping that messaging might stick in this fall’s election.
Procedurally, though, the transmission of the articles is mostly symbolic. There was a ceremonial delivering of the articles from the House to the Senate, which paved the way for the official beginning of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. In a way, we always knew this would happen.
How it affects the trial: At last, the Senate trial has technically begun. On Thursday, Chief Justice John Roberts was sworn in to preside over the proceedings by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Senate president pro tempore, on Thursday. Roberts then administered the oath of impartiality to the senators, who will act as the jurors in Trump’s trial — a procedural point some have noted felt a little farcical given that many senators have openly discussed already whether they believe Trump to be innocent or guilty. (More on Roberts’s role during impeachment can be found here, courtesy of SCOTUSBlog.)
Most of what happened this week is ceremonial; you can see more images from the pomp here, courtesy of The New York Times’s Impeachment briefing. The trial will begin in earnest on Tuesday, when opening statements will be delivered by the impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team. On Friday, the defense added two notable names to its roster: Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr. Dershowitz, the former Harvard Law professor who served on O.J. Simpson’s defense team and counted Jeffrey Epstein as a client, issued a statement Friday about his role in the case. While he would “present oral arguments at the Senate trial to address the constitutional arguments against impeachment and removal,” he wrote, he is not necessarily a full-throated defender of this president.
In an interview with Mediaite, Dershowitz explained further that he sees his duties as constitutional more than political. “I think it overstates it to say I’m a member of the Trump team,” he said. On Twitter, Dershowitz noted that he opposed the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Starr, meanwhile, famously headed up the independent investigation that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1999. His appointed evoked few notable responses, with conservative pundit Bill Kristol tweeting a video of Starr arguing against the blanket invocation of executive privilege to deny testimony during the Clinton trial — an apparent jab at the fact that Starr’s client in Trump has arguably overused the privilege himself. There was additionally some disbelief from other figures who had had a front seat to Starr’s work:
Meanwhile, what we know about the Democrats that Pelosi chose to make the case for Trump’s removal is that she prioritized legal experience. Because McConnell hasn’t laid out the official rules of the trial yet, it’s still unclear whether witnesses will be called (more on that below). Pelosi had wanted to appoint managers after knowing the rules — there’s a difference between being skilled in making compelling oral arguments and being a cutting cross-examiner — but she was unable to have that luxury. We’ll see how her strategy plays out starting Tuesday.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR NEXT WEEK
- How will the trial actually unfold? How McConnell would choose to run the Senate trial has been the subject of debate for weeks; it’s why Pelosi held on to the articles of impeachment for so long before giving up the game this week. All McConnell has said publicly is that he’ll run things in lockstep with the White House defense team, which hasn’t exactly been heartening for those hoping for a fair trial of Trump’s misdeeds, and he’s insisted that if Democrats wanted more information to be gathered they should have done so during their investigation in the House. There appears to be a sliver of hope though for those jonesing for more information: It was reported this week that McConnell will include a provision in the Senate’s rules of the trial that allows for a vote on subpoenaing more witnesses or documents. (The resolution outlining the trial’s rules hasn’t been publicized yet by McConnell, but several news outlets cited GOP lawmakers who said they’d viewed a draft of the plan.) But the vote may come only after opening arguments and questioning have been completed by both sides. Furthermore, the math is tricky: Democrats would need four Republicans to side with them in calling witnesses. Prognosticators think the GOP members most likely to defect are Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Susan Collins (Maine), and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), though none but Romney has explicitly said more witnesses should definitely be called. Nothing is set in stone yet, and some other Republican senators, including Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), are launching pressure campaigns against their own members to get them to vote against calling more witnesses. We won’t know exactly what form the trial will take until next week.
- What more evidence may emerge? Even if no more witnesses testify, there’s still the possibility that we’ll learn more about what went down between the Trump administration and Ukraine. Take, for example, the truly ludicrous texts that were publicized this week by House Democrats, thanks to documents they’d received from Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani’s. The messages suggested that men associated with Trump were tailing Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, before she was abruptly recalled from her post by Trump last spring. Yovanovitch’s lawyer called the messages “disturbing,” and Ukraine has opened an investigation into whether the alleged surveillance broke its laws and/or international law. Democrats have used the release to make the case that more information should be sought in the Senate trial, while some Republicans have tried to hold the line that if Democrats didn’t think they’d made the full case against Trump yet, they should’ve waited to impeach him. Meanwhile, Parnas himself has been making the media rounds in a way that is exceedingly bad for the president: He told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that Trump was fully aware of what he was up to in Ukraine, discounting the possible defense that the Ukraine machinations were Giuliani gone berserk. Perhaps most damningly of all, he implicated other high-level Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Bill Barr, who Parnas said “was basically on the team.”
- How will media coverage of a media-heavy presidency handle impeachment? There are certain rules that govern Capitol Hill processes during impeachment, which the Founders envisioned as the most solemn of political times. But it appears that those restrictions might be extended to the press, setting up a somewhat ironic situation where the most dramatic circumstance in a made-for-TV presidency may actually be one of its less-covered developments. Roll Call reported Tuesday that “the Senate sergeant-at-arms and Capitol Police are launching an unprecedented crackdown on the Capitol press corps” during the impeachment trial, with reporters, photographers, and videographers being barred from certain rooms and at certain times. On Friday, NPR detailed some of the new rules, including a provision that a reporter cannot follow a senator into a hallway even during a walking interview — and even if the senator is willingly talking to the reporter. Typically, credentialed media members are granted sweeping access on Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers and collect photo and video footage. But the new rules for impeachment, which were negotiated partly with Senate Republican leadership, are “unusually strict,” NPR said, with journalists’ associations questioning how they contribute to safety rather than simply limit press access — and thus public knowledge — of the trial.
WEEK OF JAN. 6
THIS WEEK’S BIGGEST TAKEAWAY
What: The articles of impeachment are, finally, about to make their way to the Senate. But we still don’t know who the impeachment managers might be.
Who: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler and the rest of the Democratic caucus.
What it means: On Friday, Pelosi informed her colleagues that she expected to transmit the articles of impeachment against Trump to the Senate next week. The move will bring an end to a weeks-long delay in the impeachment process; the House voted on Dec. 18 to impeach the president, but Pelosi led an unprecedented strategy to delay sending the articles to the Senate so Trump’s trial could begin, saying that she would withhold doing so until she received more information about the “arena” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would be presiding over.
With the news that Pelosi plans to jumpstart the impeachment process by having the House Judiciary Committee send the articles next week, it’s worth asking whether her gambit really worked. She delayed the process by weeks and invited criticism for just as long that the Democrats had engaged in a political attack disguised as a somber constitutional power-check. If impeaching Trump was so urgently necessary because of the threat he posed to the Constitution, critics said, then how could Pelosi now unilaterally delay the process by weeks?
We wrote before (see last week’s rundown) about how voters too are somewhat unconvinced that Trump deserves to be removed from office — even if they believe he committed impeachable offenses and that there is sufficient evidence of those offenses to warrant removal. Stalling the process to elicit some compromise on how the trial would be run, only to reverse and send over the articles even though no compromise was won, might not be the righteous, winning play the Democrats were hoping for when this all began.
How it affects the trial: The hold-up centered around Democrats’ insistence that more witnesses be called to testify in the Senate trial. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had tried to broker an agreement with his Republican counterpart, McConnell, but McConnell repeatedly dismissed the idea out of hand, arguing that if Democrats wanted more fact-finding to be done then they should have done a more thorough investigation in the House.
But it’s McConnell’s repeated insistence that he’ll be working hand-in-glove with the White House, to conduct the trial in his chamber that has raised alarms. It’s hard to see how a trial that is conducted in “lockstep” with the defendant’s legal team is a fair one, and experts agree that impeachment itself is a fair tool to use, but it’s up to the senators to wield it rightly.
McConnell likely forced Pelosi’s hand this week when he announced that he had sufficient votes to establish rules for the impeachment trial without any Democratic support. He also signed onto a resolution that gave the Senate the right to dismiss any articles that weren’t sent over from the House in a timely fashion, which The Wall Street Journal notes Pelosi cited as a reason for her change of heart.
“A dismissal is a cover-up and deprives the American people of the truth,” Pelosi wrote her Friday announcement. “Leader McConnell’s tactics are a clear indication of the fear that he and President Trump have regarding the facts of the president’s violations for which he was impeached.” The WSJ said McConnell’s response to Pelosi’s letter was: “About time.”
So, after all that, we probably won’t get any new testimony in the impeachment trial, even if there are possibly some useful witnesses to be called for both sides. Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) is working with a “fairly small group” of GOP senators to try to have witnesses in the Senate’s trial, the Bangor Daily News reported Friday, but it doesn’t appear likely that she’ll be successful. “We should be completely open to calling witnesses,” Collins said, echoing similar language from fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).
The great white whale of impeachment testimony John Bolton dipped his toes in the trial waters this week, saying he’d testify if subpoenaed, which makes things a little more interesting — but Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that he’d likely invoke executive privilege if Bolton were to try to take the stand.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR NEXT WEEK
- Who will be tasked with prosecuting the House’s case? The New York Times notes that Pelosi relented a bit when it came to demanding McConnell outline the rules for his Senate trial. While she’d initially positioned her holdout as a way to demand a fair set of standards for the trial, she said Thursday that she wanted McConnell to go public with his plans so that she could name the appropriate impeachment managers, who are the congressmen tasked with prosecuting the House’s case before the Senate. “It doesn’t mean we have to agree to the rules or we have to like the rules,” Pelosi said, per the Times, “we just want to know what they are.” McConnell’s response to that was flat, the newspaper reported: “No, we’re not going to do that.” The impeachment managers will be the public face of the Democrats’ case against Trump, taking on a dual responsibility to both attempt to make the case to a supermajority of senators — and to a polarized public in a consequential election year.
- Will the pending trial affect the senators running for president? McConnell warned his caucus to prepare for a trial starting as soon as next week, cautioning them to not expect to leave Washington, D.C., after business Thursday as senators usually do. “Don't expect to be home next weekend was the basic message [from McConnell]," Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer (N.D.) told The Hill after a closed-door GOP lunch Thursday. With just over three weeks to go until the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3, an impeachment trial could spell political trouble for the Democratic senators running for president, as it would keep them in the nation’s capital when they’d likely rather be doing some last-minute campaigning in the consequential first-in-the-nation states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. “Of course [in-person campaigning] matters,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Politico. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter to do face to face.” Warren, along with Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Michael Bennet (Co.), will be jurors in the impeachment trial, while two of the preeminent 2020 candidates in Joe Biden, the former vice president, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, will be free to continue their campaigns apace.
- What will Trump do next? Some reports out of Washington indicate that Trump’s seminal decision to order the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was in part a response to the pressure of an impending impeachment trial. WSJ reported Thursday that Trump, “after the strike, told associates he was under pressure to deal with [Soleimani] from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate.” As New York magazine notes, that nugget of information echoes a revelation Tuesday from the Times that the president “pointed out to one person who spoke to him on the phone last week that he had been pressured to take a harder line on Iran by some Republican senators whose support he needs now more than ever amid an impeachment battle.” The notion has gained steam: Warren, while campaigning in New Hampshire, asked Friday whether Trump’s decision to kill the top Iranian military commander “[has] anything to do with the fact that Donald Trump is right on the eve of an impeachment hearing?” We’ve asked before whether the squeeze of impeachment would provoke a historically uninhibited president into doing drastic things; while it’s unclear how much truth there is in these reports about the Soleimani killing being influenced by domestic politics, it’s clear that there will be no reassurance for a jumpy American public.
WEEK OF DEC. 30
THIS WEEK’S BIGGEST TAKEAWAY
What: The polls reveal that some Americans have surprisingly nuanced feelings about impeachment — which isn’t great news for Democrats. While some voters may think the evidence pointed to an impeachable offense, and they may think Trump shouldn’t be in office, they’re not quite so convinced that he should be removed as the result of an impeachment process. And, of course, it’s all heavily contingent upon party affiliation.
Who: American voters, as polled by Ipsos and FiveThirtyEight.
What it means: FiveThirtyEight published an article Thursday that laid out Democrats’ central conundrum: Americans think Trump did impeachable stuff, and some even think there’s enough evidence to remove him from office. But there’s a “small but notable number of Americans who think there is enough evidence for removal, but also believe the upcoming presidential election — and not Congress — should determine whether Trump remains in office,” FiveThirtyEight explains.
Of course, the results vary dramatically along party lines. A majority of respondents — 57% — think Trump committed an impeachable offense, and 52% think there’s enough evidence between his conduct with Ukraine and his stonewalling of Democrats’ impeachment investigation to have him removed from office. But when you break it down between Democrats and Republicans, you’ll see that while about 80% of Democrats think ill of Trump’s behavior, just roughly 20% of Republicans feel the same.
Then there’s the faction of people whose feelings align somewhat with the Republican talking point that Democrats are simply trying to relitigate the 2016 election by impeaching Trump. Per FiveThirtyEight, 15% of Americans think that while the evidence is sufficient to remove Trump from office, “his fate should be decided by voters in the 2020 election, not Congress.”
That’s an illuminating view, given that Democrats themselves have confronted the decision to impeach Trump before the election. Some have hinted that impeachment felt like a bulwark against a second Trump term, but the overarching consideration in launching the impeachment inquiry in the first place was how it would affect the 2020 race — both at the top of the ticket and on down.
How it affects the trial: Congress is still on break for the holiday recess, but the new session will begin Tuesday. Considering Capitol Hill has been quiet for the last two weeks in the name of holiday cheer, though, there’s not much more developing on the trial front for now. We’re still at the place we were before, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is all-but-promising a sham trial and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is threatening to take her ball and go home (except, not really, because that’s not quite how all this works).
THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR NEXT WEEK
- McConnell vs. Pelosi: Who blinks first? The only way we’re going to have any movement in the impeachment proceedings if it one of these lawmakers — both known for being political masterminds — backs down from their respective gambits. Pelosi has said that she won’t send the articles of impeachment to the Senate unless McConnell reveals fair terms by which he’ll conduct his trial. McConnell has said that the House’s turn to dictate the rules of impeachment is over, and has pledged openly to work in total coordination with the White House on Trump’s trial. The president, meanwhile, has flirted with a talking point that he hasn’t really been impeached, because even though articles of impeachment were approved by the House, they haven’t been transferred to the Senate, nor have impeachment managers been named. The reality is that Pelosi will likely send the articles to the upper chamber as soon as next week — but McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer traded floor speeches Friday about hashing out the rules of the trial, and it seems the two sides are hardly closer to compromise on how the whole thing will play out.
- Will the Senate call any new witnesses? FiveThirtyEight’s polling also took stock of whether voters believe the Senate should call more witnesses in the impeachment trial. A solid 57% said they’d prefer if the Senate invited the testimony of witnesses who did not appear before the House during its investigation — and tellingly, that includes 48% of Republicans. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats, 65%, also supported calling new witnesses in the Senate trial. Calling new witnesses is somewhat of a sticking point in the trial, as Schumer has proposed it even as McConnell has struck down the idea out of hand. Seeing bipartisan support for the move is an interesting development — though of course, as FiveThirtyEight notes, Democrats and Republicans might have different witnesses in mind when answering the question.
- What will Trump do as a stalemate drags on? With Congress adjourned for the holidays and impeachment stalled for now, Trump authorized the assassination of Iran’s top military leader. Several pundits noted how Trump had talked repeatedly before the 2012 election of how he was certain President Barack Obama would spark war with Iran to guarantee his re-election, and pointed out the similar circumstances now that Trump is inside of a year away from a re-election fight of his own. But others noted how the move was, on its face, a marvelous way to distract from impeachment proceedings. The fear of an unbridled Trump has arisen before, and the prospect of him continuing to commit impeachable offenses is likely to hang over his entire (first?) impeachment trial. In the meantime, he is still president — and as a known mercurial leader whose temperament can depend on the news of the day, it’s worth asking how an impeachment fight that’s rife with drama before the trial even gets going may affect his strategic calculations in an election year.
WEEK OF DEC. 23
THIS WEEK’S BIGGEST TAKEAWAY
What: The Trump impeachment firewall just got its first crack.
Who: Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, two prominent Republicans.
What it means: Republicans have been in lockstep, ready to exonerate the president before the trial in the Senate even starts. But Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski — a bit of a wild card within Republican ranks — has come forward to cast doubt on how the Republicans are going about their business when it comes to impeachment. In an interview with her local Alaskan affiliate KTUU, the senator said she was “disturbed” by how McConnell is approaching the trial and essentially taking his marching orders from the president. “We have to take that step back from being hand-in-glove with the defense,” Murkowski said. “I heard what leader McConnell had said. I happen to think that that has further confused the process.” Murkowski’s willingness to express trepidation at how the Republican leadership is handling impeachment is the first evidence that there isn’t universal support within the party for clearing Trump of all charges.
How it affects the trial: Up until this point, it seemed as though the articles of impeachment would be dead on arrival as soon as they made their way to the Senate. McConnell has been pledging that there will be "total coordination" with the White House throughout the impeachment trial. Given that there is with a Republican majority in the Senate, it seemed all but pre-determined that the president would get his way and escape the impeachment proceedings unscathed. Some Republicans have even suggested that the trial will move especially quickly, with no witnesses being called. McConnell hasn’t actively backed that idea, but has said that it will basically be up to what White House counsel advises. If they want witnesses, they’ll get witnesses — if not, then no witnesses will be called. The whole process will be tilted in the president’s favor, but Murkowski is one of the first to express real concerns about that setup.
It is possible that Murkowski's decision to come forward and question how her party is going about impeachment opens the door for other Republicans to do the same. Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine have been identified as two moderate Republicans who have diverged from the party in the past, though neither one of them has been willing to make waves thus far on the impeachment proceedings. That could change with Murkowski's doubts now on the record. Other Republicans in purple or blue states — Cory Gardner of Colorado, for example — could also start to feel the heat from their constituents and will have to at least posture like they are pushing for a fair trial, rather than the expedited vote that the Republicans currently want. Getting an actual conviction in the Senate, which requires a two-thirds supermajority, is still a long way off, but if enough Senators express frustration with the process, they can perhaps push for a fair trial. And that might flip a few more Republican votes along the way.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR NEXT WEEK
1. Could Trump still get impeached again? While the House of Representatives has already introduced two articles of impeachment and a trial in the Senate hasn’t even started yet, it’s possible that Trump may face other impeachment charges. According to a filing submitted by legal counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, it is possible that a second impeachment could be necessary if new evidence of criminal behavior or improper conduct comes out during testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn. There has been an ongoing fight between Trump’s Department of Justice and the House Judiciary Committee over McGahn’s testimony, with the DOJ attempting to keep the former Trump lawyer from speaking. A federal judge rejected the DOJ’s request earlier this month, but that ruling has been appealed. A hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 3, at which point McGahn may be ordered to comply with the House Judiciary Committee — and could potentially provide evidence that would lead to additional articles of impeachment against the president.
2. Trump readies a new talking point: He hasn’t actually been impeached. Trump regularly tests new talking points and refrains that will stick in the craw of his supporters until he can get them to repeat it verbatim to him during rallies. The latest idea that he has started workshopping: he hasn’t actually been impeached. While speaking at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit last weekend, the President gave this talking point its first test. “You had no crime. Even their people said there was no crime,” he told the audience of conservative student activists. “In fact, there’s no impeachment. There’s no — their own lawyers said there’s no impeachment.” The president received applause from the friendly crowd. That means we can expect the argument to start making its way into rotation as Trump mounts his defense. Expect to hear it at rallies and see it on Twitter. Just keep in mind that it is nonsense. Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University, testified against Trump’s impeachment but went out of his way to shoot down Trump’s nonsensical talking point in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “One thing is clear: Trump was impeached,” he wrote.
3. Trump’s fury takes aim at Nancy Pelosi. With a trial in the Senate expected but the articles of impeachment still being held by the House of Representatives, Trump has turned his ire toward Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. She was at the center of a Christmas Day tweetstorm from the president, during which he called her “crazy” and “desperate" and suggested that she was abusing her “slight majority” by impeaching him. He has since suggested that her district in California leads the nation in “both the number of homeless people, and the percentage increase in the homeless population” and said it was the “worst anywhere in the U.S.” when it comes to crime and homelessness. (Pelosi represents San Francisco, which does have one of the largest homeless populations in the United States, but does not lead the nation in number of homeless — New York City does, according to data published by Trump’s own Council of Economic Advisers earlier this year. While California as a state has experienced the largest increase in homeless population over the last year, data published by the New York Times found that cities like San Jose and Oakland had significantly larger percentage increase in homeless population over the last year than Pelosi’s San Francisco did.) He’s suggested that she might be primaried by Democrats in California and lose her seat, which is incredibly unlikely. It’s clear that until the articles of impeachment are passed along to the Senate and the trial begins — something that won’t happen until Pelosi feels comfortable in knowing Republicans will put on a fair trial — it seems like she will continue to be Trump’s focus for the foreseeable future. Expect it to only get uglier the longer it goes on.
WEEK OF DEC. 16
THIS WEEK’S BIGGEST TAKEAWAY
What: The House voted to approve two articles of impeachment against Trump: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Who: Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker and leader of the Democrats’ impeachment process in the lower chamber, along with the rest of her caucus.
The breakdown: The affirmative vote on articles of impeachment typically means the president has formally been impeached. Everything before this point was part of the ongoing impeachment inquiry, as an investigation into his conduct with the end goal of determining whether he’d committed impeachable offenses. Now, it’s real: Trump is the third president in American history to be impeached.
The articles passed almost entirely along party lines, and focus solely on the House’s investigation into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and the White House’s lack of cooperation with the probe thereafter. There had been talk of adding an article of impeachment based on the previous special counsel investigation into Russian election interference — it would have been obstruction of justice, in that case — but in the end, Democrats decided to make the narrowest case possible against the president.
How it affects the trial: Shortly after the House approved the articles, Pelosi signaled that she would not send them immediately to the Senate for consideration. Instead, she said, she’d wait to see the Senate’s plan for the impeachment trial before handing things over. The move rankled Republicans, who argued that it undermined Pelosi’s claim that the impeachment process had been a somber decision to protect the Constitution rather than a partisan attack on a president that Democrats don’t like.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in particular ripped the move, saying that Pelosi’s gambit proved that House Democrats had failed to make a sufficient case for Trump’s impeachment, let alone his removal. “This particular House of Representatives has let its partisan rage at this particular president create a toxic new precedent that will echo well into the future,” he said Thursday, adding, “Looks like the prosecutors are getting cold feet.”
THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR NEXT WEEK
1. When will Pelosi send the articles of impeachment for Senate consideration? Congress has adjourned for the holidays and won’t be back in session until January. Democrats seem to be gambling that holding off on sending the articles could force McConnell to budge a bit on how he plans to run the trial — which is to say, not necessarily impartially, but more on that below — but the whole thing does risk undermining Democrats’ claim that they take no joy, and certainly no partisan glee, from impeaching this president. It could also tank their case to the public.
2. So, how will McConnell decide to run things? McConnell’s strategy for the impeachment trial has been clear from the start: quick, decisive, pro-Trump. The Senate leader has spent the last two weeks telling a variety of media sources that he plans to work in lockstep with the White House and the president’s lawyers in conducting this trial. He rejected a proposal from his Democratic counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in which Schumer proposed calling additional witnesses and subpoenaing the White House for documents it has refused to release.
But beyond that, we don’t know many details about McConnell’s plan. And it seems like that information might be crucial to get the whole thing started in the first place, if Pelosi has her way.
3. Who will Pelosi name as the impeachment managers for the Senate trial? The one thing Pelosi does get to control about the Senate trial is which Democratic congressmen she will appoint to be the “impeachment managers” for the process. The managers are the House lawmakers charged with making the lower chamber’s case to Senate; they are essentially the prosecutors of the impeachment trial. During President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999, 13 Republican lawmakers served as impeachment managers.
The managers are generally the people who formally notify the Senate of the pending impeachment. But Pelosi has yet to name the lawmakers “because we don't know the arena that we are in,” she said. Without managers, the trial can’t officially begin — not to mention the fact that the chosen lawmakers will be the faces of the impeachment case against Trump, a position that could be a political boon or albatross depending on their priorities.
On Friday, Pelosi invited Trump to give the annual State of the Union address on Feb. 4, 2020. Will he do so under the specter of an ongoing Senate trial?