The vision that Senate Republican leaders have for the impeachment trial of President Trump, which is set to begin on Tuesday, is simple: a sprint that briskly checks the required procedural boxes before arriving, business-like, at the end result—an acquittal of the president.
The vision that Trump himself has for the impeachment trial of President Trump, however, may be different. He has approached the trial that will decide the fate of his presidency as a scorched-earth battle to vindicate himself and a zero-sum loyalty test for congressional Republicans.
His trial team, announced last week, reflects that combative mindset. Between Kenneth Starr—the architect of President Clinton’s impeachment 20 years ago—and Alan Dershowitz, the celebrity attorney and former Clinton backer turned Trump defender, what is effectively a Fox News panel will be guiding Trump’s defense in a trial before 100 U.S. senators and the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The tension between a group of Republican lawmakers who publicly make clear they want no “circus” and a president with a penchant for creating them will be just one factor that will make Trump’s impeachment trial unlike the other two trials in U.S. history—or any other event in U.S. history, for that matter.
Another unique factor: the steady flow of fresh facts and revelations directly related to the charges laid out in articles of impeachment. Last Thursday, as senators were sworn in as jurors, they were struggling to keep up with incendiary, breaking allegations about Trumpworld’s conduct on Ukraine from Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. On top of that, a federal government watchdog had just found that the White House violated the law in withholding appropriated funds from Ukraine.
Taken together, it all seems a recipe for mayhem—a sign that anything could happen as the trial unfolds over the next several weeks. But underneath all the drama, the fundamental political reality has remained static since the beginning: When it’s over and the votes are tallied, Trump will almost certainly not be removed from office.
A flat “no” was Sen. Ted Cruz’s answer when asked last Thursday if anything at all had changed over the last few months about whether or not Trump’s conduct on Ukraine justifies his removal from office.
“We will respect due process, both sides will be allowed to present their case,” said the Texas Republican, a reliable Senate ally of the president. “And then we will decide the matter pursuant to the law and the Constitution, and I am confident at the end of this proceeding the result will be an acquittal. ”
Most Democrats know that the prospect of 20 GOP senators joining with all Democratic senators to ensure Trump’s removal is, as it stands, not remotely likely. Publicly, though, Democrats are holding out hope that the ultimate bank shot—getting just four Republicans to side with them on a vote to call additional witnesses like former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who might offer new and damning evidence of Trump’s misconduct—could alter the cold political reality they’re facing.
“In a trial, you never know what will happen if you have witnesses and documents,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told The Daily Beast. “It can change the dynamic of the trial. As to whether it’ll change the ultimate outcome, that’s for senators to decide after hearing all the witnesses.”
On Monday night, McConnell unveiled his proposed rules to govern the trial. They reflect a desire to storm through the proceeding; this week, the House Democratic prosecutors and the president’s defense team will each get a 24 hour block of time for presenting their argument—but two days in which to do it. After that, senators will get several hours to pose questions to each side’s representatives.
After that point, per the proposed rules, senators will vote on whether or not to consider additional witnesses and evidence. If a fourth Republican does not vote yes on that, it’s possible Trump’s acquittal could come less than two weeks before the formal opening of the trial.
The Senate Democratic leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, slammed the rules package on Monday night, saying it was proof that Senate Republicans were complicit in a “cover up.” He and other Democrats noted that the rules do not admit the evidence collected by the House’s impeachment inquiry at the outset, instead punting that question to a vote later on.
“Any senator that votes for the McConnell resolution will be voting to hide information and evidence from the American people,” said Schumer. Previously, the Democratic leader had aggressively pushed McConnell to vote on additional witnesses from the get-go, and he said that he will use the limited procedural power he has to force those votes anyway on Tuesday.
The provision allowing for a vote on whether or not to call new witnesses is the result of a pressure campaign initiated by a small group of centrist, Trump-critical and/or retiring GOP senators, who pushed McConnell to craft the rules to guarantee a vote on calling additional witnesses when trial arguments conclude. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah, for example, have openly advocated for that vote, and both have said they are leaning toward casting it in favor of new witnesses.
Other Republicans, meanwhile, are trying to turn Democrats’ witness calls against them by claiming the GOP should get to call figures like Hunter Biden, who is not relevant to the articles of impeachment but is useful for suggesting the vice president and his son were connected to corrupt activity in Ukraine. Cruz, for example, has floated a witness “reciprocity” idea in which Biden would be called by the White House if senators voted to call someone like Bolton.
On that subject, most Senate Republicans’ desire for a smooth, minimally dramatic affair could clash with Trumpworld’s appetite for total war. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, for instance, has threatened to force multiple votes to call Biden if Democrats continue to push for their own witnesses. Many, however, are wary of creating a “circus-like” atmosphere—something that top Republicans like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas have explicitly warned against.
Also possible to derail a quick, ho-hum trial is a continued drip of new information—possible or even likely even if no new witnesses are called—about Trump’s Ukraine push. The factual record on the saga that sparked Trump’s impeachment is still growing as each side’s advocates begin exploring the timeline inside and out over the course of many hours of oral arguments. That is another point of stark difference between Clinton’s trial—in which there was a similar push for new witnesses but no similar, steady drumbeat of new information—and Trump’s.
In particular, the disclosure of evidence from Parnas, who was at the center of the Ukraine pressure campaign, suggests that the highest echelons of the administration knew and approved of the effort and its aim to subject Biden to political pain.
Amid it all, some of the jurors admitted a struggle to keep up. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted on Thursday “how surreal it is” to start the trial “on a day when major news continues to break.” And nearly all Democrats pointed to the disclosures as more reason to include additional witnesses during the trial.
Many Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have settled on a strategy of slamming new evidence—like that revealed by Parnas’ disclosures—as illegitimate because it was not collected in the course of the House’s impeachment inquiry. Gathering of new evidence, said Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), is outside the scope of the trial.
“This is not a fact finding search to go see if we can find something to be able to prove him innocent or guilty,” said Lankford.
If the ultimate judgment of the trial may not be in doubt, the way it will be rendered carries significant implications for which party controls the Senate after the 2020 election. Questions of process, like calling witnesses, are likely to fuel attack ads against vulnerable senators on both sides for months and months.
“I think a lot of this is more a focus on putting the incumbent Republicans who are on the ballot in 2020—making sure that they have some hard votes to cast that can be used against them in the campaign,” said Cornyn of Democrats’ efforts. “Because we know how the story ends, especially with the 67-vote threshold.”
And that final vote Cornyn is referencing—to acquit or convict—may define the political fates of a set of vulnerable senators on both sides up for reelection in November. Less certain is how it will define the fate of the person at the center of it all.
Already, however, one truth is clear: the trial will not go away as quickly as Trump wants it to, and it will be taken more seriously than he wants it to.
On the other hand, McConnell’s control has its limits. The president’s Twitter feed, for example, falls far outside his jurisdiction—and can, as it has before, scramble the Senate GOP’s careful plans at any moment.
The day after the trial formally began with all 100 senators’ solemn oaths—which was sobering enough to members on both sides that many declined to speak on their way out of the Capitol—the president approvingly tweeted a comment from Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, who said, “entertaining this Impeachment is a joke. This whole thing should be dismissed.”