How to botch an impeachment

Dec 18, 2019 at 1:00 am
These guys are probably going to be disappointed. Democrats are rushing for no good reason.
These guys are probably going to be disappointed. Democrats are rushing for no good reason. Phil Pasquini /

This week, for the third time in its 230-year history, the U.S. House of Representatives will impeach a president of the United States for abusing his office and obstructing Congress, narrow charges that avoid myriad corrupt acts.

It will vote to do so almost entirely along party lines.

One side will come armed with hundreds of pages of reports detailing Donald Trump's efforts to extort a foreign government to announce an investigation into his rival. The other side will pound the table and regurgitate the talking points and conspiracy theories that originate in the air pocket between Sean Hannity's ears. (The New York Times will run a story about how both sides are living in "different impeachment realities," never bothering to point out that one of those realities should come with padded walls. Journalism!)

This will happen a week before Christmas. Then Congress will adjourn, and Trump will have several unchallenged weeks to rage-tweet and call in to servile Fox News programs to whine about the WITCH HUNT! and WHERE'S THE WHISTLEBLOWER? and signal-boost whatever fart noises Rudy Giuliani makes when he opens his mouth about the Real Ukrainian Corruption.

Then, in January, the Senate trial will take one of two tracks, both of which end at the same preordained destination, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has admitted.

Track 1, which McConnell prefers, is a quick, pointless trial, without witnesses or documents, just a summary from the House, followed by a rebuttal from the White House, followed by a pro forma vote. Wham-bam-thank-you, ma'am, an acquittal.

But it only takes four Republicans to break with McConnell to get Track 2, which is what Trump apparently (thinks he) wants. On Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked McConnell to hold, well, an actual trial, under the same rules as the Clinton trial two decades ago, with witnesses and subpoenas and evidence. For McConnell (and Trump's lawyers), the danger lies not in Trump's removal but in both giving Democrats another audience to make their case — this time with additional witnesses such as John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney — and in allowing Trump's die-hards to chase wackadoodle conspiracies about Joe Biden and the DNC server on a national stage.

Still, Track 2 could present Democrats with a headache. The five-week trial Schumer proposes will sideline Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (as well as Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker) ahead of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, while giving Republicans a platform to level corruption allegations at Joe Biden that, even if baseless, could leave a mark.

I suspect McConnell prefers Track 1 because it would make impeachment look petty, inconsequential, and thoroughly partisan. House Democrats spent the last week feeding that narrative. An hour after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House Judiciary Committee would move ahead on impeachment, she held a second press conference to announce that Democrats had reached an agreement with the White House on the United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement, a marginal rewrite of NAFTA that the White House has nonetheless heralded as — I shit you not — the greatest trade agreement ever crafted.

Democrats then gave a man they say "blatantly abused his office and endangered our national security" a $738 billion military budget, including the farcical Space Force. And Democrats are about to pass a budget that preserves the status quo on the idiotic border wall, Trump's inhumane migrant policies, and all of the other shameful things the administration is doing. Rather than fight the man they're calling a clear and present danger, Democrats are forfeiting their leverage to prove to "swing voters" that they can work with the president despite their differences. Bipartisanship! Or something. I'm sure whatever consultant told them that rolling over made for a good strategy had a convincing PowerPoint.

And now they'll send his impeachment to the Senate for a show trial, after which Trump will claim vindication.

If they're so inclined, Democrats seem to have a few options. For starters, they don't have to present the articles of impeachment to the Senate right away. They could hang onto them until they've negotiated a fair trial process, or until the Democratic primary has worked itself out, or, as former Nixon White House counsel John Dean has suggested, indefinitely — letting the impeachment hang over Trump's head while the House continues to investigate.

There's a lot of ground left uncovered: obstruction of justice from the Mueller investigation, the illicit payment to Stormy Daniels, and God-knows-what in the financial records the president is so desperate to hide.

There's value in grinding it out, even though there's also some indication that the impeachment fight has marginally helped Trump's numbers. Trump is still a historically unpopular president, and the public is on the Democrats' side: A Fox News poll found that 54 percent of registered voters support impeaching him (and 50 percent support removing him, too). There's really no reason to give Trump's cronies control of the narrative when they've admitted their complicity — and when Trump's inevitable acquittal will only embolden him ahead of the 2020 election. The better alternative would have been to plug away while Trump dangled on the line, burning with the impotent fury of a septuagenarian man-baby.

Would have been.

Slamming the brakes now, after first refusing to impeach Trump following the Mueller report and then rushing ahead over the Ukraine affair, will only look like weakness. The only play now is to hold off until McConnell agrees to hold a legitimate trial, then lose in the most respectable way possible, hoping the American public sees the Republican Party for the soulless, amoral cult of personality it's become.

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