At times the impeachment trial in the US Senate feels slightly surreal. It has many of the trappings and formality of a trial, but the outcome, the acquittal of Donald Trump, has never been in doubt. That has only become more apparent as the trial has passed into its second week. Even revelations from John Bolton’s new book, which largely confirm what the House of Representatives discovered in their impeachment inquiry, is unlikely to meaningfully change this. However, it is much less clear what the political impact of the trial will be. Supporters of President Trump believe that as voters see the sham or hoax that the Democrats are perpetrating they will gravitate more towards Trump. The Democrats believe, only slightly more plausibly, that by shining more light onto the corruption and misdoings of the Trump administration, they will move large numbers of voters away from Trump.
The impact of the impeachment trial will only have a marginal impact on Donald Trump’s chances for reelection, but that may not be true regarding the Senate itself. Three Republican senators in particular, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona will likely face tough races in the fall. They are all almost certainly going to vote to acquit Donald Trump, but, given how much support there is among the public for impeachment, it is imperative that the Republican leadership limit how much that vote will hurt them in November. That is why senate Republicans are so adamantly against having witnesses. They know it will not change the outcome of the trial to hear Mick Mulvaney, John Bolton or anybody else testify, but they also know that more witnesses means more information about just how badly Donald Trump behaved, and thus a higher political cost associated with voting to acquit.
Trump’s position is based on his political goals for impeachment, which are essentially the same as those for everything else-creating good television and exciting his base
This had, at times, created a minor conflict within the Republican Party as Trump had previously indicated a preference for a longer trial and a greater openness to witnesses, although some of those witnesses includes people like Hunter Biden which would make for good television but be peripheral to the impeachment charges and issues. Trump’s position is based on his political goals for impeachment, which are essentially the same as those for everything else-creating good television and exciting his base. These goals make sense for Trump, but are less helpful for Mitch McConnell and the Republican leadership in the senate.
Ultimately, the defense offered by Trump’s legal team felt like it was over before it even started. They used roughly half of the time they were allotted before resting their defense of the President on Tuesday afternoon, suggesting that when it came to this strategic question, Trump’s legal advisors hewed pretty closely to Mitch McConnell’s wishes.
Although there will continue to be some attention from a media and political professional class who still want to see deus ex machinas when none exist on the question of possibly bringing more witnesses to testify. This remains unlikely. It is far more probable that the general outline of the next few weeks will remain the same as Trump is speedily and, to the extent possible, discreetly, acquitted by senate Republicans. Collins, Gardner and others facing potentially tough challenges in November can then turn their attention to trying to thread the needle of trying to appear like rational, patriotic, moderate adults, while running interference for a kleptocratic president with little respect for democratic principles and an enduringly disturbing relationship with the Kremlin.
The fates of these Republican senators and the president who they seek to simultaneously protect and distance themselves from are closely related. For these senators distancing themselves from Trump will remain very difficult after the acquittal. If Trump spends the months following the acquittal doing political victory laps and gloating to his base, which is exactly what he will do, it will damage those Republican senators who would like nothing more than for voters to forget about their acquittal vote. That will only become more relevant as the post-acquittal Trump inevitably becomes more deeply involved in corruption, vulgarity and criminality.
If Trump spends the months following the acquittal doing political victory laps and gloating to his base, which is exactly what he will do, it will damage those Republican senators who would like nothing more than for voters to forget about their acquittal vote
The last few months should have shown Donald Trump just how dependent he is upon the Republican senators generally and Mitch McConnell specifically. Given the mountain of evidence against him in this impeachment trial-which has grown to be about much more than a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky -it is not an exaggeration to say the Trump remains in office at the pleasure of Mitch McConnell. Therefore, Trump should place as much emphasis on keeping the senate as on getting reelected. While other second term presidents have been legislatively hamstrung if they control neither House of Congress, for Trump the consequences would be much graver. The oversight of the last few years would be a Sunday school picnic compared to what he would face if Chuck Schumer, not Mitch McConnell were the Senate majority leader. However, to help the senate Trump must curb his need to rant to his adoring base while making the GOP brand even more toxic, but to expect Donald Trump to display even that modicum of restraint is unrealistic. The strategic dynamic between Trump and McConnell will frame the future of American democracy. They have managed to stay on the same page for the last three years, but the next 10 months will be even more critical.
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