For the past four weeks, I’ve been monitoring the evolving defenses put forth by President Trump’s allies. They began with flat-out denials of wrongdoing that didn’t survive casual brushes with scrutiny. Some of Trump’s defenders then tried to muddy the waters by normalizing corrupt quid pro quos and claiming that Trump and the Democrats alike had made missteps. The White House adopted a scorched-earth stance against the inquiry, refusing to cooperate in any capacity, but that has failed to stanch the daily revelations emanating from Capitol Hill as lawmakers hear from a parade of current and former Trump officials.
When the House voted on Thursday to formally authorize the impeachment inquiry, the Republican Party’s new strategy to defend Trump finally slid into focus. They implicitly seem to understand that they can’t defend him on the merits of his conduct. Nor can they make honest critiques of the impeachment process itself, now that House Democrats have adopted the procedural measures requested by the Republican Senate last week. So they’ve turned to comparing Democrats to communists, and accusing them of violating Trump’s rights, in the hopes that Americans are too ignorant about how impeachment works to know any better.
Republicans spent weeks demanding exactly what the House did on Thursday. A majority of senators signed on to a resolution last week urging their House colleagues to fix perceived flaws in the process. They first requested that members hold a formal vote to authorize the inquiry. The senators also urged their House colleagues to provide Trump and House Republicans with the same powers that past presidents and their allies received in the Clinton and Nixon impeachment sagas. Thursday’s resolution provides all of that, but with a crucial caveat: If Trump doesn’t provide the documents or witnesses they request, those privileges can be revoked.
Trumpworld wasn’t satisfied. “With today’s vote, Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats have done nothing more than enshrine unacceptable violations of due process into House rules,” the White House said in a statement. “Speaker Pelosi, Chairman Schiff, and the Democrats conducted secret, behind-closed-door meetings, blocked the Administration from participating, and have now voted to authorize a second round of hearings that still fails to provide any due process whatsoever to the Administration. The Democrats want to render a verdict without giving the Administration a chance to mount a defense. That is unfair, unconstitutional, and fundamentally un-American.”
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone had already made similar points in his letter to Pelosi last month. But it’s worth emphasizing that this entire line of attack hinges on falsely conflating the House’s inquiry with the Senate trial. As I’ve noted before—and as anyone with a passing familiarity of the impeachment process understands—the House’s role in the impeachment process is analogous to that of a grand jury. Grand juries generally operate in near-total secrecy. They question witnesses without their lawyers present. And they leave no public trace of their activities beyond an indictment.
The House Intelligence Committee operated behind closed doors, but allowed witnesses to have their lawyers present when being questioned. It even allowed lawmakers from the president’s party to be present and ask questions of their own. And now some of those witnesses will be questioned again in public hearings that the whole world can watch. The House even granted concessions that give Trump’s lawyers the ability to question witnesses themselves during those hearings. Hugh Hewitt, a prominent conservative pundit, said last week that House Democrats were operating a Star Chamber of sorts. I doubt Tudor and Stuart dissidents would agree.
Trump will have more than enough opportunities to defend himself in a Senate trial. His lawyers can call witnesses and enter their own evidence into the record. They can cross-examine whoever the House brings forward as a witness and challenge whatever evidence the floor managers hope to provide. And they will do so in a setting overseen by Chief Justice John Roberts and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It’s hard to imagine a more favorable environment for Trump to defend himself against allegations that he’s abused his power. But it’s still not enough for him and his supporters.
Last week, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz and a group of his House colleagues disrupted witness depositions last week to prevent further political damage to Trump. The top two House Republicans, Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, declare over and over again whenever he’s placed in front of a camera that Democrats are conducting a “Soviet-style” impeachment process. In the debate leading up to the House’s vote on Thursday, Scalise even brought a giant poster onto the House floor emblazoned with the words “37 DAYS OF SOVIET-STYLE IMPEACHMENT PROCEEDINGS” over a red background with the hammer-and-sickle symbol and St. Basil’s Cathedral.
The Soviets are better known for their highly publicized show trials than their closed-door depositions—but historical accuracy seems to be a lower priority than making Trump’s base mad and scared. “It’s not hard to defend Donald Trump because, in the process, we’re defending us,” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners on Thursday. “We’re defending ourselves. We’re defending everybody that voted for him because that’s who’s really under attack. Trump is a transient figure. He’s only going to be here, maximum, eight years. People that voted for him are gonna go on and on and on and hopefully grow and grow and grow. The attack on Donald Trump—he’s a surrogate for their hatred for us.”
Trumpworld isn’t trying to persuade Americans that the president did nothing wrong because they know they can’t. Multiple White House and State Department officials have already confirmed efforts to establish some sort of quid pro quo involving the White House and the Ukrainian government to target Trump’s political opponents. Tim Morrison, a top National Security Council aide, also largely affirmed U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor’s account of conversations in September with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. In those conversations, Sondland allegedly told Taylor that the president would not release congressionally allocated military aid for Ukraine unless the country publicly announced an investigation into the Bidens.
And focusing on the process only makes sense if the White House’s goal is for the Senate to dismiss the House’s articles of impeachment without holding a formal trial on them. The Constitution is vague on the impeachment process itself and does not explicitly authorize such a maneuver. But there is precedent for it: In 1999, the Senate considered a motion to dismiss the charges against Bill Clinton and rejected it in a 56-44 vote, then proceeded with a trail that led to his acquittal. Today, a dismissal of the charges might come as a relief to many Senate Republicans, to avoid the psychic contortions that might come with voting “not guilty.”
But that strategy also has risks. A few Republican senators, including Utah’s Mitt Romney, Maine’s Susan Collins, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, refused to join Lindsey Graham’s motion last week that criticized the House impeachment process. If they also reject the procedural argument and refuse to dismiss the charges against Trump ahead of the Senate trial, then that trial is all but guaranteed to take place. And then Republicans are right back where they began: deciding not just whether they can defend the indefensible, but whether they can acquit it of all charges as well.