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The trial of Donald Trump will feed into the Democratic primaries, the election, and beyond

Lesley Russell 19 January 2020 1667 words

Making history: Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts (centre) being escorted to the Senate chamber on Thursday by (from left) senators Lindsey Graham, Roy Blunt, Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

For the next few weeks Washington and much of the world will be caught up in the political drama of a presidential impeachment. Regardless of the outcome, the Senate trial will reach into every corner of American politics, and especially this year’s race for the presidency.

As the process has progressed over the past week, the media has captured the divide in American politics in 2020 as a series of stark contrasts.

While House speaker Nancy Pelosi was formally signing the articles of impeachment to send to the Senate, and Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts and senators were being sworn in for his trial, Trump was madly tweeting his capitalised rage: “I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!” and “PROMISES MADE, PROMISES KEPT.”

While Democrat presidential candidates were debating serious issues of war and foreign policy in Iowa, Trump (who will countenance no competition in the Republican primaries) was at a rally in Milwaukee ranting about the failures of modern dishwashers and toilets.

While the Republican-controlled Senate was sitting on a pile of bills passed by the Democrats in the House, Trump was touting a face-saving trade deal with China and diverting another US$7.2 billion from the military budget to build his wall on the Mexican border.

Also consuming the media was the release of a huge number of incriminating documents from Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas, and the nasty, gossipy revelations of yet another book about machinations inside the Trump White House. As the other member of my household, political commentator Bruce Wolpe, recently put it, this is the “split-screen presidency.” Expect to see much more of it in the weeks ahead.

Despite his bravado, Trump is described by insiders as unnerved and obsessed by the coming trial. To offset the almost continuous newsfeeds from the Senate, we can expect a series of carefully staged Oval Office events highlighting how an undistracted president is working for Americans even as the Democrats are working against him. At rallies with the party faithful, meanwhile, he will abandon scripted remarks to rail against his persecution, denigrate those he deems responsible, and highlight his efforts to make America great again.

Impeachment appears to be helping Trump’s fundraising: his re-election campaign recently announced that it raised US$46 million in the final quarter of 2019, far more than any of the quarterly totals announced so far by Democratic candidates. Individual donors can now contribute up to US$580,600 to his campaign.

Increasingly, the evidence suggests the president is looking to create a made-for-TV drama out of the trial. His newly announced legal defence team is a prime exhibit: in addition to White House attorney Pat Cipollone and Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow, the team now includes Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, the duo who helped Jeffrey Epstein evade prison time with their infamous plea deal with Palm Beach prosecutors back in 2007.

Dershowitz, a regular on cable news shows, has represented O.J. Simpson, Patty Hearst and other controversial celebrities. Starr, who led the impeachment prosecution against President Bill Clinton, is a more surprising inclusion; Trump has called him a “lunatic,” “wacko” and “off his rocker.” Interestingly, the team doesn’t include Trump stalwart Rudy Giuliani. It’s possible he’s too brazen even for the president, or perhaps he is afraid Giuliani will be called as a witness.

Dershowitz and Starr may have been brought on board because Trump, always attuned to these issues, is worried that Cipollone is not TV savvy. But this attempt at scripting could easily be derailed by Senate leader Mitch McConnell or, less likely, by the chief justice, both of whom might also see themselves as stage managers. McConnell has already placed restrictions on media coverage; as a counter, expect a long line-up of Trump allies giving their version of the trial and its meaning on Fox News and other cable television programs.

The politics of this impeachment trial will extend to the Democrats’ presidential campaigns. Three of the top contenders — senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar — must return to Washington for as long as the trial lasts and need to be seen to act with decorum and perspicacity in their role as jurors. With senators able to probe prosecutors, Trump’s legal team and any witnesses only by submitting written questions to the chief justice, the format of the trial won’t give any of them the chance to shine. Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg will no doubt relish the three senators’ absence from the hustings as the first important primaries, in Iowa and New Hampshire, loom.

The RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls puts Biden (21 per cent), Sanders (20 per cent), Buttigieg (17 per cent) and Warren (16 per cent) within five points of each other — essentially a dead heat. In New Hampshire, Sanders (23 per cent) and Biden (21 per cent) are ahead of Warren (16 per cent) and Buttigieg (15 per cent). The most recent average of the national polls has Biden (27 per cent) leading Sanders (19 per cent) and Warren (16 per cent), with Buttigieg (7 per cent) and Klobuchar (3 per cent) trailing. Early wins are important, especially in a crowded field like this, because they ensure media prominence and increase fundraising capacity.

It isn’t yet clear how the trial in the Senate will proceed, or for how long. Whether witnesses will be called, and whether the White House would allow someone like former national security advisor John Bolton to appear, is yet to be resolved. The votes may be there, but if negotiations turn on a quid pro quo — with Republicans allowing witnesses only if they can call Joe Biden or his son Hunter — the Democrats may forgo the option. Complicating the situation is the fact that Trump’s views on this and overall strategy change by the day.

White House and Republican actions to dismiss, diminish or delegitimise the trial will mean that Trump can never validly claim exoneration. Indeed, he could face these charges again after the election. But it does seem unlikely that the votes will be there to find Trump guilty of the charges outlined in the House impeachment document.

Along with the new material from the Ukraine investigation made public last week, the Government Accountability Office’s finding that Trump broke the law in withholding military aid to Ukraine adds weight to the Democrats’ charges. But this new information is dismissed by Republicans and slides off Trump like water off a duck’s back. Regardless of the findings, he will strive to make the outcome both a victory and proof of persecution with which to galvanise his followers.

Although Trump is expected to run in November, the electoral implications of the trial and its outcome are unclear. Never before has an impeached president — a recipient of “the scarlet letter of impeachment marked with indelible ink on his page in the history books,” as the New York Times describes it — stood for re-election.

In November, FiveThirtyEight looked in detail at how impeachment could shape the election. No substantial new data has emerged since then to support or dismiss any of its scenarios.

Undoubtedly impeachment and Trump’s presidential behaviour will bring out voters on both sides. Anger against Trump and concern at the precedents being created by him and his enablers (people like McConnell, attorney-general William Barr and secretary of state Mike Pompeo) are likely to unite Democrats in their support of whoever wins in the primary, regardless of his or her popularity.

Trump will be damaged in the eyes of many of these voters, but his standing will be enhanced for others. Overall, current polling shows that 49.9 per cent of voters support impeaching Trump, with 45.9 per cent against. Not surprisingly, this breaks down primarily along party lines: 86.3 per cent of Democrats support impeachment and 84 per cent support Trump’s removal from office, but just 12.6 per cent of Republicans support impeachment and 8 per cent support his removal. Of key independent voters, 47.7 per cent support impeachment and 43 per cent support Trump’s removal.

While only the brave would risk predictions based on the current polling, indications suggest that Trump began 2020 as the underdog. The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls puts him several points behind Biden and Sanders in a match-up, equal with Warren and Buttigieg and just pipped by mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Bloomberg’s unusual approach to the primaries and multimillion-dollar advertising spend appears to be working.) The betting markets currently have odds on Biden winning the Democrat nomination and Trump losing the popular vote (again) but winning the presidency.

Impeachment will do nothing to boost the standing of politicians and could further erode record-low public trust in the political process. Trump and the Republicans will work hard to blame the Democrats for inaction on the issues that voters care about — the cost of prescription drugs, for instance — and the Democrats may take a hit in the polls if the strategy is successful. Voters care most about candidates’ positions on healthcare, national security and gun control.

And, of course, it is impossible to predict what unanticipated international and domestic events will influence voters’ decisions in November. Less than a fortnight ago, the United States seemed to be teetering on the brink of war with Iran, and the conflict between the two countries is still far from resolved. Then there’s Afghanistan, North Korea and Syria — and what is Putin planning as he sets himself up to be president for life? The ongoing trade wars could affect voters’ purchasing capacity, and Americans daily fear another major gun massacre. Frighteningly, it is well within Trump’s capacity to engineer a crisis to distract from his own problems.

There is wide agreement that the decisions about whether the president deserves to be removed from office should be made not by impeachment but at the ballot box. But the current process serves a critical function that anchors the United States as a democracy: it asserts the supremacy of law and convention in a political system imperilled by a leader who believes himself to be exempt from both. •

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