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The Democrats’ Airtight, Impotent Case for Impeaching Trump

In lieu of a spectacular indictment of a corrupt president, Democrats have built a delicately designed legal trap that will never be sprung.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Just over a year ago, hours after the new House Democratic majority was sworn in, incoming freshman Rashida Tlaib gave an impassioned speech to a crowd of revelers at an event sponsored by the progressive group MoveOn. It was a speech about identity as a motivational force for political action, one that referred not only to her own Palestinian heritage but the successes of other progressive minority candidates in the midterms, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the work of activists in her community.

“To all of my residents who have gone through the civil rights movement and who continue to fight for Black Lives Matter and for everything—don’t you ever, ever let anybody take away your roots, your culture, who you are,” she yelled in closing. “People love you, and you win. And when your son looks at you and says: ‘Momma, look, you won. Bullies don’t win.’ And I said, ‘Baby, they don’t.’ Because we’re going to go in there, and we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”

Few of the stories about Tlaib’s remarks that followed noted that her final line had been an act of rhetorical punctuation—one that framed impeachment not as a narrow political exercise but as an act of social justice. Although few beyond Tlaib, her House colleague Al Green, and a handful of progressives committed themselves to that idea, even those fully preoccupied with the case against Trump that many expected the Mueller report to offer envisioned impeachment as a clash of epic proportions, one that would force a meaningful reckoning with the Trump presidency as a whole. But Democratic moderates and party leaders, worried that voters would penalize the party for taking on impeachment, spent most of the year telling impeachment advocates to pipe down. Tlaib’s remarks, of course, were particularly concerning to many, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler. “I disagree with what she said,” Nadler told CNN after Tlaib’s remarks were reported. “It is too early to talk about that intelligently. We have to follow the facts.”

Of course, the facts arrayed against Trump by then pointed to a broad range of legal offenses, from possible violations of the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause to financial crimes in his hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels. When the Mueller report finally arrived, 10 potential counts of obstruction of justice were added to the tally. Now, with Trump’s Ukraine scheme having emerged, and as the Senate’s impeachment trial begins, all of that material and the political climate from which it surfaced is a distant memory. Tlaib’s remarks have faded so far from public conversation that even Republicans, given to citing comments from progressives as proof that Democrats always intended to impeach Trump, rarely directly refer to them anymore.

Two days into the Senate’s proceedings, the matter at the heart of the impeachment trial is not even the nature of the president’s interactions with Ukraine. Instead, the question of whether senators will have access to documents and witnesses that could potentially speak to those interactions in the first place has taken center stage. The trial, so far, is largely about the trial itself. Republicans have naturally refused requests for witnesses and additional evidence—if the Senate decides to bring them in at all, they say—the need for more materials should be decided upon after opening arguments are heard, in line with the precedent they see in the rules and procedures of Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

In his speech before the trial on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that House Democrats ought to have gathered the witnesses and materials they needed before sending articles to the Senate—even though the White House has done everything it can to block witness testimony and obstruct the House’s investigations. “The House was not facing any deadline,” he said. “They were free to run whatever investigation they wanted to run. If they wanted witnesses who would trigger legal battles over presidential privilege, they could have had those fights. But the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee decided not to. They decided their inquiry was finished and moved ahead. The House chose not to pursue the same witnesses they apparently would now like the Senate to pre-commit to pursuing ourselves.”

In his own remarks at the beginning of the day, Adam Schiff, House Intelligence Committee chair and lead impeachment manager for the Democrats, noted that the rules of the Clinton impeachment had, unlike McConnell’s rules, been mutually agreed to; that necessary witnesses had already been interviewed by the time the trial began, and that the Senate ultimately decided to hear from additional witnesses. But he spent most of his speech making a more basic argument: A fair trial would be conducted in a way familiar to Americans who understand our system of criminal justice, with witnesses and documents made available before arguments proceed. “Why should this trial be different from every other trial?” he asked. “The short answer is, it shouldn’t.”

“Right now,” he added later, “a great many—perhaps even most—Americans do not believe there will be a fair trial. They don’t believe the Senate will be impartial. They believe the result is pre-cooked. Let’s prove them wrong.”

But cynical Americans are entirely correct to doubt that additional materials will make any difference whatsoever to the likely outcome of the trial. The Republican majority, with its members either ambivalent about Trump’s wrongdoing or afraid of a Republican base entirely in thrall to him, will acquit him. The jury is compromised; a fair trial is impossible. Any lingering questions about the true nature of an impeachment trial—whether these proceedings ought to be considered a quasi-legal exercise or a political one—should have been answered by the speeches from the White House’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow and Pat Cipollone, who spent their allotted time during the day parroting false talking points already worn thin within conservative media: That House Democrats had barred Republicans from closed-door hearings. That the Mueller report had cleared Trump of wrongdoing. That the House, in undertaking impeachment, had violated the Constitution, not the White House.

Against this, the Democrats’ impeachment managers are trying to weaponize shame. At various points during the day, clips from Trump’s speeches were played for senators in the chamber, including his oft-repeated remarks that Article II of the Constitution allows him to do “whatever he wants” as president. As was no doubt expected, Republican senators sat impassively through them all. But the hope, one has to assume at this point, is less that Republicans will turn against Trump in a kind of collective moral epiphany, but that voters watching at home will understand that Republicans are uninterested in holding Trump accountable, especially given their opposition to the admission of new witnesses. Democrats are so committed to this idea that several Democratic senators, including Delaware’s Chris Coons, are considering offering the testimony of Hunter, or even Joe, Biden in exchange for testimony from former National Security Adviser John Bolton.

“If you want to give Joe Biden an opportunity to sit in the well of the Senate and answer the question, ‘Do you think the president acted appropriately?’ go right ahead,” Coons told The Washington Post. “I can’t imagine a person more comfortable in the well of the Senate than a man who spent 36 years here as a United States senator.”

This, in short, is a call for more theater, and theater is about all Democrats can hope to wring from the process given the impossibility of Trump’s conviction. But it should never be forgotten that the party could have chosen to put on a different show—that the hours spent tussling over evidentiary documents on Tuesday could have been spent laying the groundwork for a broader indictment of the Trump presidency and what it represents. The most vociferous backers of Andrew Johnson’s impeachment understood that an impeachment trial offered them a stage for grand moral drama and a way to formally repudiate Johnson for abetting the resurrection of white supremacy in the South.

Democrats like Tlaib and Green took a lonely stand in defense of a similar approach against Trump. But their colleagues, having decided that a narrower case against the president would be more difficult for the Republican Party to defend, rejected it. While this tactic might put the most vulnerable members of the Senate Republican caucus in an electoral bind, the rest of the party has greeted the opening of the trial with a yawn. Over the course of Tuesday, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered amendment after amendment aimed at slowing the trial and subpoenaing evidentiary materials, Republicans sat listlessly. Some passed notes to each other. Some ate candy. Some tapped their pens. One fell asleep. But there was at least one senator who seemed to genuinely enjoy the proceedings. At various points during the day’s speeches, Mitch McConnell could be seen smiling.