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Are Democrats Getting the Trial They Want?

In the coming weeks, we’ll see how well they’ve strategized putting the GOP in such dire straits—and whether their strategy will be successful.
January 23, 2020
Are Democrats Getting the Trial They Want?
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leaves the Senate chamber during a brief recess during the impeachment trial proceedings at the U.S. Capitol on January 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. The Senate impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump resumes on Tuesday and is expected to last several weeks. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is barely underway and Capitol Hill Democrats are already irate—rightly—over the parameters set for it by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his GOP majority. Though McConnell was forced to backtrack a little on the trial’s first day, time limits on the opening (and possibly only) arguments remain shamefully compressed, attempts to subpoena important information have been blocked and Republicans, so far, have not agreed to allow key witnesses to testify. “This is not a process for a fair trial, this is the process for a rigged trial,” charged Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and one of the proceeding’s impeachment managers.

And yet, Democrats may be getting precisely the trial they want.

It’s a foregone conclusion that, at the end of the proceedings, Donald Trump will remain president of the United States. Even if Democrats were to introduce video of him delivering dollar-sign-stamped bags of taxpayer money to the Ukrainian government along with a Sharpie-written note saying “Thanks for the investigation hoax on Joe Biden!” the Senate will come nowhere close to the 67 votes needed to remove Trump from office. The Democrats know this full well.

But the 100 U.S. senators are not the trial’s only audience, and the Senate chamber is not the only place the case will be tried. As University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon recently wrote in the Washington Post, the more important audience is the voting public. If Democrats successfully reach them through the media and news cycle, they can nullify the Senate’s predetermined verdict by seizing both Congress and the White House in this November’s elections and maintain unified control of Washington in future elections.

Unlike in the Senate trial, Democrats are free to present further evidence to the public. They did so in a big way last week with the release of a devastating trove of communications revealing the extent to which the Trump White House and ardent Trump ally Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) coordinated with Rudy Giuliani associate Lev Parnas to carry out the Ukrainian affair. Additional witnesses (at quiet Democratic urging) can likewise appear before the public, which also happened last week when Parnas sat for interviews with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow (before a record-setting audience) and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. For good measure, Parnas’s attorney responded to Trump administration efforts to distance themselves from Parnas by releasing meme-generating pictures and video of Parnas with Trump and other members of the White House inner circle. It’s difficult to imagine Parnas making bigger headlines if he were to testify in the well of the Senate.

The question now is whether those are the only reveals the Democrats have, or if they are just the first round of a smartly gamed-out strategy of revelations that will become public in the coming days and weeks. As Kim Wehle has written in The Bulwark, in the month since the House of Representatives impeached President Trump, there has been a steady stream of incriminating evidence against him and his allies. What if the Democrats have more teed up, along with more witnesses for the prime-time shows? 

Public opinion shows strong support for calling witnesses in the Senate trial, including President Trump himself. If Democrats can pull off a series of revelations outside the Senate chamber, it will humiliate Republicans who, at the direction of President Trump, are trying to avoid witnesses and cut short the proceedings. 

Whether or not the Senate agrees to witnesses, the Sunday shows could be, for lack of a better term, bonkers. Just think of the incumbent Senators, Joe Biden and others seizing the news cycle to the dismay of President Trump. With telegenic earnestness, Biden, for example, could explain how his 2015 demand for Viktor Shokin’s removal as Ukraine’s prosecutor-general was part of international frustration over Shokin failing to investigate numerous allegations of corruption. Biden would note that, contrary to Republican claims that he did this for his son Hunter, who then sat on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma, his demand could have restarted a Shokin-stymied investigation of Burisma co-founder Mykola Zlochevsy. That would burnish Biden as a 2020 presidential candidate while Republicans would come off as Trump’s hapless dupes and sycophants. 

That is not the look of a political party that should be trusted with policymaking majorities. (One wonders why Republicans are so eager to give Biden a platform by calling him to testify in the impeachment trial. Don’t they know better, or are they playing Russian roulette?)

If this is the Democratic strategy and they effectively carry it out, it would better frame the 2020 election around whether Trump’s actions were corrupt and/or if he nonetheless had the right to ask Ukraine to investigate (or, more accurately, to say they were investigating) Biden? No doubt, the diehard MAGA folks would say the latter. But what about those voters who are best described as “Trump-tolerant” because they dislike the man but generally like his policies, or they simply dislike the Democrats more? These voters are closer on the political spectrum to the median voter, and more likely to swing elections.

As Tim Miller has explained in these pages, the conspiracy theory that Ukraine conspired with the Democratic Party to defeat Trump, enrich Hunter Biden, and falsely implicate Russia is the stuff of crackpots, nitwits, and outright hoaxers. If Democrats lay out their case to the public smartly, they’ll force these Trump-tolerants to have to decide which of Trump and his inner circle—Giuliani, Bob Barr, Mick Mulvaney, Mike Pompeo, and Mike Pence, along with their allies in Congress—are crackpots, which are nitwits, and which are hoaxers. That’s the sort of dilemma that pushes a political party away from the median voter, and into irrelevancy. 

Which is exactly where the Democratic Party wants the GOP to be. In the coming weeks, we’ll see how well they’ve strategized putting the GOP in such dire straits—and whether their strategy will be successful.

Thomas A. Firey

Thomas A. Firey is an occasional contributor to The Bulwark.