House Democrats Pass High-Water Mark in Fights Against Trump

December 24, 2019by Billy House and Steven T. Dennis
(Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Democrats scored a series of damaging revelations about Donald Trump when they launched their impeachment investigation, but now they’ll begin a crucial election year with the challenge that the most dramatic moments are likely behind them.

Even by the time Nancy Pelosi banged her speaker’s gavel on Trump’s impeachment — once for abuse of power, again for obstruction of Congress — the House chamber was full of history but devoid of excitement. Now the process has settled further into a languor that lawmakers attribute to the inevitability of the outcome.

“I guess it was anti-climatic,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, adding that the response he has heard in his solidly Democratic Illinois district has been positive. “At some point in time, people just came to expect this.”

That means Democrats will head into 2020 as Trump has the last say in the impeachment process on the friendly turf of the Republican-led Senate. Months before he runs for re-election, and with the facts of the case already shrugged off by his supporters, Trump could conceivably enter the House chamber to deliver the State of the Union address on Feb. 4 with Republicans celebrating his rapid acquittal by the Senate.

Pelosi, who shrewdly calculated two years of Trump investigations and their political impact, suddenly appeared to be winging it Dec. 18 when she said she wouldn’t immediately send the impeachment articles to the Senate to start the trial. Some of her Democratic colleagues argued that she should cling to the last bit of leverage in the House’s final procedural steps to pressure Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a fair trial.

Lawmakers left town for the holidays last week with McConnell scoffing at Pelosi’s hesitation to send over what he described as an “unfair, unfinished product.” Leading up to the vote, Pelosi stressed the need to act quickly to curb Trump’s attempts to influence the 2020 elections, and she hasn’t fully explained why she will wait until January to name the impeachment managers who will present the House’s case in the Senate.

After the 1998 impeachment of Democratic President Bill Clinton, the then-Republican House named 13 House managers to prosecute the case in the Senate, including now-Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. Pelosi is expected to name fewer managers, according to those familiar with her thinking, and has said she needs to know more about the structure of the Senate trial before picking names.

Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff will likely be included as impeachment managers.

McConnell last week dismissed the House’s impeachment inquiry as sloppy and rushed to meet a Democratic political timetable, but he’s refused to entertain demands from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to call four current or former administration officials to testify in the Senate trail.

The rules of the trial, over which U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts will preside, will ultimately be determined by a simple majority of 51 senators. That leaves the slight chance that four Republicans could join all Senate Democrats on some procedural demands.

According to the Constitution, a two-thirds majority is needed to remove Trump from office, which would require at least 20 Republican senators to join the Democrats. McConnell already said that is “inconceivable.”

Barring unforeseen new developments, last week’s “IMPEACHED” headlines in newspapers across the country will early next year turn to say “ACQUITTED,” an outcome sure to be trumpeted by the president.

That leaves voters to decide Trump’s fate, in November. The political realities aren’t lost on Schumer, who’s already painting Republicans as part of Trump’s cover-up if they refuse to seek documents and testimony the president blocked from the House investigation.

Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said Sunday on CNN that Americans “are looking for a fair trial, not a fake trial.”

The potential for political fallout is real, but it’s far from clear which party will pay a price, with voters closely divided, and highly dug in, on the question of impeachment.

Assuming Pelosi eventually sends the articles of impeachment to the Senate, the impeachment managers will have a solemn and grand stage on which to prosecute their case. But unlike in the House, where chairmen could and did gavel down GOP requests, Republicans control the Senate floor. McConnell has made clear he has no intention of being impartial, despite an impeachment oath that has traditionally required senators to deliver “impartial justice.”

If McConnell can keep his party united — and keep Trump from taking risks with a robust defense — the trial could last as little as two weeks. That would leave House Democrats simply reciting facts and assertions already aired in House proceedings. A dull and dour event with a swift conclusion would suit McConnell fine.

Public interest in impeachment peaked after Pelosi announced a formal inquiry to investigate allegations, first reported by an intelligence community whistleblower, that Trump sought politically motivated investigations from Ukraine in exchange for security aid that Congress had already approved.

The rapid parade of House witnesses in October and November filled out details that were shocking, compelling and sometimes expletive-laden. But those revelations are now in the past, and the Senate trial promises less new information.

There are risks for senators of both parties. One Democrat — Doug Jones of Alabama — is seeking reelection in one of Trump’s best states. He said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that he was looking beyond a “pure and political argument.”

Two GOP senators — Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado — are running for reelection in states that voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Several other Republicans in battleground states are being targeted by Democrats who hope to net at least three seats to wrest back control of the chamber.

A vote to acquit the president will tie Republicans to Trump’s presidency more than ever, while a vote by any Republicans to convict could mark the end of their political career.

Some Republicans have already been telegraphing a third option: criticizing the president’s conduct as inappropriate but not worthy of undoing his election and tossing him from office. Polls have shown very few Republican voters want Trump tossed, but nearly half think he did something wrong.

The trial will also be complicated for the five Senate Democrats running for president. They’ll miss valuable time on the campaign trail as the first voters prepare to caucus in Iowa in early February. But the 2020 hopefuls will also be in the center of the biggest story in Washington with the opportunity to create a viral moment or two.

Trump, meanwhile, won’t face an end to investigations, even after impeachment is over. Democrats continue to wage court fights for his financial records and testimony regarding his administration and business dealings.

“There are land mines laid out the next 14 months for this president, in terms of cases coming due and other information,” said Quigley, the Illinois Democrat.

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, also predicted that Democrats will continue to uncover misconduct by Trump, regardless of the impeachment process moving into the Senate.

“We will be building on this high-water mark,” Grijalva said, looking ahead to the 2020 election. “And we’re going to need to.”


©2019 Bloomberg News

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