Since the end result is almost assuredly a foregone conclusion, the real question may be whether this looks like an impeachment trial—or just a rushed show trial that was always rigged from the beginning.
Republicans, anxious to please their president and move on, seem hell-bent on proving the latter.
On Tuesday, every single Republican senator voted to block documents such as emails and memos that are related to impeachment but that the White House has refused to turn over.
It’s hard to imagine why, if the goal is really to get to the bottom of the question of innocence or guilt, they would do this (with the usual caveats about relevance and not revealing national security secrets).
The obvious conclusion here is that Senate Republicans aren’t concerned about checks and balances, separation of powers, or even (gasp!) discovering the truth.
Although Mitch McConnell’s original proposal was revised at the last minute, we are still left with a framework that is understandably rigged toward the majority party. For example, only after both sides present their opening arguments and take questions will there be a vote on whether to even allow witnesses and documents.
Absent any witnesses or documents, one could imagine a scenario where Republicans simply conclude that it’s easier and more politically expedient to simply call no witnesses and end the “trial.”
Of course (and I realize this sounds naive), it’s still possible that at least four Republicans will decide to make this—OK, maybe not a real trial, but at least, a bit more interesting theater. If that happens, the trial will be longer and more serious. And, ironically, more helpful to Trump when the Senate predictably votes not to convict, because at least then the trial won’t have been a complete sham.
This brings us to one of those weird situations where winning may be losing and losing may be winning.
If Democrats are permitted to call witnesses, then Democrats will have also legitimized this trial. Conversely, if Republicans rush this and don’t allow witnesses, the narrative shifts from “Mean Democrats and their witch hunt!” to “Republicans railroaded them.” Assuming it’s impossible to get 20 Republicans to convict, which scenario is more helpful to Democrats in the long run?
Keep in mind, there’s no guarantee that witnesses will help. Anyone paying attention already knows that Donald Trump is guilty. Would hearing John Bolton say he thinks what Trump did was “bad” (but possibly not impeachable) make a huge difference? I’m not so sure.
Who knows? Maybe under oath, Bolton would reveal some smoking gun evidence that would persuade Republicans to finally turn on Trump. But by virtue of the games Bolton has played so far, it seems just as likely that he would be, at best, an unreliable witness. After all, he has a career as a Fox News conservative to take care of. He has a PAC to raise money for. There are wars to be started… books to be sold!
And what if Democrats have to trade a Hunter Biden appearance to get John Bolton? Although it has no relevance to Trump’s impeachment, it’s impossible to predict how that might play out. You might end up sinking the guy who has the best chance of defeating Trump in November.
With the odds of removing Trump very low, it may well be that the next most important thing to come out of this trial is the moral high ground, perception of victimhood, and momentum heading into the 2020 elections.
And here, I’m not just talking about the presidential election.
Vulnerable Republican Senators like Martha McSally of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Susan Collins of Maine are probably in a lose-lose scenario, either way. Alienate Trump voters, and they risk a Trump tweet that would boost a primary challenger or simply depress base turnout in November. Hug Trump too hard, and risk alienating swing voters and suburban soccer moms.
Based on procedural votes taken on Tuesday, they have already given their Democratic opponents the ability to plausibly run a TV ad saying they voted against allowing key documents to be introduced into the trial. That won’t necessarily disappear even if they later vote to allow witnesses (although doing so would serve to also anger their base).
The point here is that Democrats might be better off looking at this as a long-term battle—which probably means accepting the fact that this short-term game is rigged.
When you’re outgunned, instead of playing by the other side’s rules, you play a different game. It’s asymmetric warfare. If Democrats are destined to lose this Senate trial by a party-line vote, anyway, maybe they can win by losing?
Indeed, their best bet might be to simply quit playing along in an unfair process they can’t win, and call a sham a sham. Democrats don’t need to win the election in January, they need to win the one in November. If they can make it clear that this process was rigged from the beginning, they can lose this battle but still win the war.