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The Cost of Presidential Impeachment

Democrats have a lot riding on Trump’s impeachment trial, even if the final result seems all but assured

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Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, which begins in earnest on Tuesday and will consider two charges against the president regarding his efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to intervene in the 2020 presidential election: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Members of the Senate, comprised of 53 Republicans and 45 Democrats (including two Independents who caucus with Democrats), have hardly proved to be “impartial” in their public statements about Trump as spelled out in the oath they swore last Thursday. Republicans dominate the Senate, and they’ve shown no signs of wavering in their loyalty to the president, so Trump’s impeachment will almost certainly culminate with his acquittal.

For more than two years, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi muted her party’s desperate calls for Trump’s impeachment, even after Democrats regained control of the House after the 2018 midterm elections. “Republicans would love for us to make our campaigns about the impeachment of Trump,” Pelosi once warned, underscoring impeachment as an occasion to “divide us,” as a nation and as a legislature, “not bring us together.” The speaker stood firm on pragmatic grounds: The required threshold of two-thirds majority vote in the Senate made a conviction unlikely, and Pelosi didn’t want to invigorate Trump’s supporters, who would grow only more defensive about the president during the process, in a general election year. Plus, Pelosi worried, Trump’s impeachment would endanger congressional Democrats seeking reelection in districts that otherwise favor Trump. By this calculation, Trump’s misconduct and unpopularity with the broader voting public are marginal shortcomings compared to the president’s most passionate, implacable supporters, who intimidate Democrats nearly as much as they terrify Republicans.

The House speaker relented in her reluctance to pursue impeachment once a federal whistleblower revealed that Trump urged President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to humor his baseless theories about a Ukrainian web server hiding the Democratic National Committee’s secrets about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. More importantly, Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden’s son Hunter for his work on the corporate board of a Ukraine-based energy company. The distinctions between Trump’s major scandals are simultaneously trivial in their redundancy and crucial in their constitutional offense. It’s all one long, engrossing scandal which, despite so many witnesses and indictments, resists any righteous resolution. Russiagate was the long and convoluted investigation into Trump’s pre-presidential mischief—a scandal about defunct competing presidential campaigns. The Trump-Ukraine affair amounted to an altogether different political substance: presidential misconduct. Months before Pelosi called for Trump’s impeachment in a September 2019 press conference, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including so many senators, came to support Trump’s impeachment despite self-serving warnings from Republicans that the process would ensure Trump’s reelection by reinvigorating his political base. Senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar would speak about Trump’s impeachment in the televised debates as a noble, if fateful, burden undertaken if only to prove Democrats haven’t vanished from the government altogether. Klobuchar cited James Madison’s fears about the president “betray[ing] his trust to foreign powers.” Pelosi said Trump “gave us no choice.” Through impeachment, Pelosi hopes to renew some confidence in Congress even as her party and its presidential candidates seem to have sidelined their efforts to forge a new majority in the Senate anytime soon. For Democrats, Trump’s impeachment has become the highest legislative priority since the 2018 midterm elections.

There’s so little “job approval” invested in Congress, which ranks lower than Trump—lower than any other U.S. political institution—in national polling. Congress pleases no one, and, unfortunately for Congress, Trump thrives by the dissatisfaction, demoralization, and distrust, which poisons all three branches of government. On trial in the Senate—and under investigation throughout his presidency—Trump synthesizes Andrew Johnson’s belligerence, Richard Nixon’s paranoia, and Bill Clinton’s self-deception: Trump doesn’t rant about the perpetual “witch hunt” against him as a way to articulate his innocence so much as he means to offload his own exasperation onto the general public. Do you really need to know who Marie Yovanovitch is? Lev Parnas? We’re really doing this again? Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani’s, Trump’s personal lawyer, is presented as a “key figure” who now intends to testify against Trump. His introduction to the proceedings less than a week before it commences shows how difficult it is to keep count of the bit players who populate Trump’s schemes. Amusingly, Republicans now criticize congressional Democrats for “rushing” Trump to trial before discovering still more witnesses and still more crimes to prosecute.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leads these proceedings with startling indifference to the reputation of everyone involved. Last spring, The New Republic’s Alex Pareene described the Senate Republican leader as a nihilistic figure: “He’s not trying to cap off his career with a legislative masterstroke, because he doesn’t care about legislation,” Pareene writes. “He already won. He’s the Senate majority leader, his parliamentary prowess is regularly feted, and he has already left his legacy indelibly inscribed on the highest court in the land.” While Trump mounts his bombastic defense, McConnell hopes to make quick, obscured work of the third presidential impeachment in U.S. history. The Senate may acquit Trump before the Democrats caucus in Iowa next month. The presidential candidates will compete to draw the starkest contrasts with Trump’s political agenda as well as his temperament. Meanwhile, Congress will struggle to redeem its reputation and restore the trust of so many U.S. citizens who hold it in such low regard. Trump’s impeachment won’t renew anyone’s confidence in Congress. But Pelosi’s inaction wouldn’t have won respect from the executive branch, Republicans, MAGA enthusiasts, or anyone else. Better for Congress to contend with the public’s lagging faith in institutions than to lose the little confidence which remains.