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The Impeachment Trial Isn’t a Legal Process. It’s a Proxy War.

With acquittal a foregone conclusion, Trump's accusers and defenders strive to reach audiences beyond the Senate.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The impeachment trial of President Trump has been short on drama. The rules that govern the proceedings effectively preclude it—senators observing the trial sit testily, but quietly, through presentations from either side and submit their questions in writing directly to Chief Justice John Roberts. It’s been left to the two legal teams in the room—the House managers prosecuting the case against Trump and the president’s defenders—to craft those moments that might resonate with the public. Now and again, over the course of their arguments, they’ve delivered. In this way, the dueling attorneys don’t merely represent two sides in the impeachment debate—they’ve served as stand-ins for the two parties themselves.

The most viral moment of the trial thus far came at the end of last Thursday’s session, when House Intelligence Committee chair and impeachment manager Adam Schiff choked up in an earnest defense of constitutional order: “If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost. If the truth doesn’t matter, we’re lost. The Framers couldn’t protect us from ourselves if right and truth don’t matter. And you know that what he did was not right....

“Here right is supposed to matter. It’s what’s made us the greatest nation on earth. No Constitution can protect us if right doesn’t matter anymore. And you know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country.”

Figures ranging from Star Wars icon Mark Hamill to former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal offered Schiff rapturous praise for the speech on Twitter, where hashtags like “#AdamShiffROCKS [sic]” and “#AdamSchiffHasMyRespect” quickly took off. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell called Schiff “the greatest defender of the Constitution in the twenty-first century.” “Thank God,” The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin said, “I was alive to hear Schiff speak these past few days.”

The reception from liberals and Never Trumpers was reminiscent of special counsel Robert Mueller’s many months in the sun, prior to the release of his Russia report and his testimony before the House—although Schiff, to be fair, has yet to make a shirtless cameo appearance in a children’s book. All told, Mueller and Schiff are similar figures, who have filled the same thematic space. From the moment Trump took office, a particularly plugged-in segment of the Democratic electorate has been waiting for a Boy Scout with a law degree to take him down. The thirst for a legal fight stems not only from impeachment’s offer of a nonelectoral remedy for Trump but also from the way the legalism and rhetoric that surrounds any discussion about sustaining Constitutional norms offers a stark contrast to Trump’s style of politics. The knotty work of trying to best Trump methodically through a legal process feels, for some, inherently restorative.

But it’s worth remembering that a year ago, the rhetoric of legalism was being deployed to suppress calls for Trump’s impeachment in the first place. Those who advocated for Trump’s removal were told that hearings would have to wait indefinitely until Mueller’s deliberate and disciplined gathering of evidence and the House’s various legal battles with the administration reached their conclusions. Schiff himself was among those defending the party line. At the Center for American Progress’s Ideas Conference in June, for instance, Schiff alluded to the norms of the criminal justice system as he argued that the House should gather enough evidence to convince Republicans to convict Trump in an eventual trial. “How many of you are former prosecutors who indicted someone in the knowledge that you would be unsuccessful in trying to prove the case to a jury?” he asked. “Probably none of you.”

That, of course, is precisely what Schiff and the House’s managers are now doing, House leadership having decided that the revelation of Trump’s Ukraine scheme meant that impeachment could wait no longer.

As for Trump’s defenders, there has been clear separation between the attorneys responsible for sketching out a half-plausible legal defense for Trump—as best they can—and the lawyers tasked mostly with providing a steady stream of tangential obfuscation and misdirection. Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal lawyers and a fixture on Fox News, has clearly been in the latter camp, reviving familiar lines about a conspiracy against the president in the booming tones he’s honed on his radio show, Jay Sekulow Live.

In an initially befuddling moment on the first day of the trial, Sekulow pivoted into a harangue against the House managers for complaining about “lawyer lawsuits”—complaints they hadn’t actually made. It later emerged that Sekulow had simply misheard the phrase “FOIA lawsuits”—although the White House’s legislative affairs office insisted, naturally, that Sekulow had been correct. The salient point is that Sekulow powered through his remarks anyway, defending the principles embedded in the inherently redundant and nonsensical phrase he’d invented. “A dangerous moment for America when an impeachment of the president of the United States is being rushed through because of lawyer lawsuits,” he intoned. “The Constitution allows it; if necessary, the Constitution demands it if necessary.”

On Tuesday, Sekulow delivered one of the final speeches before the trial’s questioning phase. Most of it was dedicated to relitigating Mueller’s report, with a few declamations against an election year impeachment scattered throughout. But he also tried out, almost as an aside, one of the most absurd defenses for the president’s actions yet. Trump, he argued, couldn’t have been looking out for his own interests in his dealings with Ukraine because he’s proven himself genuinely interested enough in world affairs to seek peace in the Middle East: “The one that still troubles me—this idea that the president, it was said by several of the managers, is only doing things for himself. Understanding what’s going on in the world today as we’re here. They raised it, by the way. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. They raised it! This president is only doing things for himself, while the leaders of opposing parties, by the way, at the highest level, to obtain peace in the Middle East. To say you’re only doing that for yourself.”

This, putting it mildly, is not the kind of argument one makes in an earnest attempt at swaying jurors. Everyone participating in the trial knows full well that Trump’s acquittal is certain. The real task at hand is speaking to audiences beyond the chamber—including, at least as far as the defense is concerned, one particular viewer in the White House.

This goes some way toward explaining former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s involvement in the trial. She’s perhaps best known for her run-in with Anderson Cooper after the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, during which Cooper criticized her for professing support for the LGBT community after her efforts to block gay marriage in Florida. Three years earlier, Bondi, having announced an investigation into fraud allegations against Trump University, suddenly closed the investigation after a group affiliated with her reelection campaign received an illegal donation from Trump’s charitable foundation. After a stint as a lobbyist for Qatar, she’s back in Trump’s orbit, and she took up half an hour Monday airing the dirt on Hunter Biden that Trump had badgered the Ukrainians to promote in the first place. It would have been a slightly shorter speech had she not stumbled through the text laid in front of her so clumsily.

“When the House managers gave you their presentation—when they submitted their brief—they repeatedly referenced Hunter Biden and Burisma,” said Bondi. “They spoke to you for over 21 hours and they referenced Biden or Burisma over 400 times. And when they gave these presentations, they said there was nothing to see, it was a sham. This is fiction. In their trial memorandum, the House managers described this as baseless. Now, why did they say that? Why did they invoke Biden or Burisma over 400 times? The reason they needed to do that is because they’re here saying that the president must be impeached and removed from office for raising a concern. And that’s why we have to talk about this today. They say sham, they say baseless. Because—they say this—because if it’s OK for someone to say, ‘Hey, you know what, maybe there’s something here worth raising,’ then their case crumbles.”

The remarks as delivered don’t seem too far off from one of Trump’s digressive riffs. Like Trump, she managed to get at least the right nouns in circulation as red meat for a base less interested in the formal arguments being concocted by Trump’s team. By contrast, Schiff’s earnestness and reason is the corresponding cri de coeur for a meaningful proportion of Democratic voters, as well as—Democratic leaders hope—an affect that will reassure those voters who have remained on the fence about impeachment.