Impeachment Trial Timing Puts Democrats in a Bind

Impeachment Trial Timing Puts Democrats in a Bind
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Impeachment Trial Timing Puts Democrats in a Bind
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Sen. Lindsey Graham, a central player in the likely impeachment trial headed for the Senate, hit on the tension surrounding timing as he laid out a tentative game plan.

“I just think the best thing for the country is to get this done quickly, but it’s got to be done in a way that’s acceptable to the body,” he told RealClearPolitics in an interview late last week.

Therein lies the rub.

Graham, who as Judiciary Committee chairman will negotiate with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the parameters of the impeachment trial process, has repeatedly pointed to the Clinton impeachment model of a five-week trial as a guide. 

Such a trial, even with that limited duration for the monumental prospect of ousting a president, would likely begin in January and extend to mid-February, serving as both a blessing and a curse for Senate Democrats in the presidential primary race.

It would put Trump’s impeachment process squarely in the media spotlight in the run-up to the early voting states but also would ground several key 2020 contenders in Washington even though their presence as jurors will have little to no impact on the outcome. All signs right now point to the GOP-dominant Senate acquitting President Trump.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who faces his own reelection fight this year, is practically licking his chops at the thought of Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, along with independent Bernie Sanders, sidelined from the campaign trail in the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is already leading the pack in Iowa, and he and Joe Biden and are nipping at Warren’s heels in New Hampshire.

Democrats, Cornyn told reporters late last week, are already “squandering” their opportunity to focus on the issues voters care about most with their march toward impeachment.

“I like the thought of several of [the Democratic candidates for president] grounding themselves in Washington” early next year, he told reporters last week, with a smile.

The Senate trial also will inevitably bloody up Biden just as the Democratic nominating process begins. For Republicans, the trial will not be just of President Trump’s actions in holding up U.S. aid for Ukraine, but also focus on Joe and Hunter Biden and what the latter did on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma to deserve his lucrative payouts.

The former vice president is already feeling the heat and has blasted Graham over his decision to launch a probe into the Bidens’ Ukrainian connections. (The two were good friends from their decades serving together in the Senate.)

Biden late last week said he is angered and “embarrassed by” what Graham plans to do, arguing that he is yielding to Trump’s demands and will “go down in a way” he’ll “regret his whole life.”

Trump, who has said he’d like a chance to defend himself in an impeachment trial, also has named several people he wants to join him on the hot seat, starting with Hunter Biden and Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is running the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry and starred in televised hearings the past two weeks.

Graham and other Republicans have said they won’t accept hearsay witnesses, eliminating several State Department and White House aides who testified before the House committee.

“I would argue that the House has run into a problem — most people aren’t tried based on hearsay,” Graham told reporters last week. “What I think we have going on in the House is deficient due process.”

But that doesn’t mean Democrats won’t try to expand their witness wish list. A Senate trial offers them a chance to obtain testimony from witnesses who refused to cooperate in the House investigation, including White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Republicans won’t be able to vote against those witnesses’ testimony if Democrats successfully execute a plan to have Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts weigh in on the witness subpoenas. Last week, Talking Points Memo ran a story suggesting that Democrats will rely on a Senate impeachment rule — Rule VII — stipulating that any ruling on whether testimony is irrelevant or covered by executive privilege is usually made by the presiding officer, which would be the high court’s chief justice, unless he refers the decision to the full Senate. Senate Republicans could overturn the chief justice’s ruling, but it would be difficult politically to do so.

Schiff confirmed the plan in an interview with CNN Sunday

“We may get a quicker ruling from a chief justice in a Senate trial … than we would get by going months and months on end litigating the matter,” he said.

Still, the more witnesses the Democrats call, the longer the trial will play out – an inevitable source of friction for that cadre of Senate jurors who would much rather be hitting the hustings in key primary states.

Some Democrats last week expressed confidence that impeaching a sitting president just months before an election won’t hurt their presidential candidates’ efforts to best him at the ballot box. Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, cited Democrats’ clear victory in Virginia three weeks ago when the party gained two seats in the Senate and six seats in the House. Along with its hold on the governor’s mansion, the outcome gives the party a complete trifecta of control in Richmond.

“The only evidence I have is: What was the impeachment inquiry’s effect on the Virginia elections -- and Election Day was about six weeks after [Nancy Pelosi] started the inquiry?” he told RCP. “It certainly was not a bad thing for Democrats.”

Some recent polling, however, may undermine that confidence. None other than Vanity Fair last week issued a dire warning about the latest public opinion research on the electorate’s reaction to impeachment.

“It is hard to read this as anything but a warning. New polling suggests Democrats’ impeachment push could alienate key voters,” its headline blared.

The opinion survey was conducted after the first week of televised impeachment hearings, so it’s hardly the final word on voter reaction to the impeachment push. Still, it and other polls with similar results weren’t great news for Democrats as independents opposed Trump’s impeachment and removal by 46% to 39%, figures close to the averages that predated the hearings, despite the mainstream media characterizing the supposed hearing bombshells as a bonanza for Democrats.

The same Politico/Morning Consult data found that the electorate believes the impeachment inquiry focuses on the priorities of politicians and the media – not of ordinary voters, who are “confused and dispirited by the nonstop parade of Washington scandals,” as Vanity Fair put it.

If sustained by new surveys with similar results this week, Democrats will be in a bind: It’s the Republican majority in the Senate that controls the impeachment trial process and length. If Democrats extend it too long in order to hear from additional witnesses, they risk undermining some of their most competitive presidential contenders and alienating swing voters in the process.

McConnell wasn’t subtle last week when he suggested Republicans would have every incentive to keep the 2020 Democrats glued to their Senate seats in an impeachment trial.

The GOP leader appeared purposefully vague when asked how long such a trial would last.

“A number of Democratic senators are running for president. I’m sure they’re gonna be excited to be here in their chairs, not being able to say anything during the pendency of this trial. So hopefully we’ll work our way through it and finish in not too lengthy a process,” he said.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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