Our weekly review of congressional impeachment machinations often seeks to clarify and explain the historic events by asking, “So, what exactly happened?”
In a whipsaw week of political theater that saw Democrats unveil and approve articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, paving the way for an expected floor vote Wednesday, perhaps the simpler deductive question would be “So, what exactly didn’t happen?”
Notably, Democrats didn’t take up a Mueller-focused article. Lawmakers didn’t change their partisan stances on impeaching the president. And aside from an unexpected delay in the Judicial panel vote, the timeline of the impeachment process seemingly didn’t change.
But just why was that exactly? Our team of reporters covering impeachment breaks it all down.
Who do you think won this week in the impeachment messaging war?
Darren Samuelsohn, White House reporter: The Democrats, by a hair. The headline out of the last few days is that President Trump is on his way to being the third impeached president in the United States history. That’s a stain on the Trump legacy, which of course is a long way from being settled, but nonetheless represents a pretty monumental mile marker. I say “by a hair” because the Republicans have mounted a pretty forceful defense that Democrats are rushing this process through the House without any sign of bipartisan support, and by keeping in lockstep at the Judiciary Committee they’ve made their point. I also get the sense that large swaths of America are largely tuned out to these developments. Consider only CNN among the major networks carried the proceedings gavel to gavel.
Anita Kumar, White House reporter: The Democrats. No president wants to be impeached — and this week it became almost certain that will happen. There will forever be an asterisk next to Trump’s name if he becomes the third president to be impeached. I’m not saying there haven’t been benefits for Republicans (impeachment has motivated Trump’s base and brought his campaign money) but privately Trump told friends that impeachment will be a stain on his legacy and it’s been difficult on his family. One sidenote: Some Trump allies I spoke to this week mocked Democrats for only pushing forward with two articles of impeachment, both about the Ukraine scandal. They accused Democrats of caving on their longstanding allegations he obstructed justice in the Russia investigation.
Kyle Cheney, Congress reporter: Republicans have harped overwhelmingly on process and presented very limited pushback on the facts of the Democratic findings on Ukraine. It’s true that they’ve tried, but the predominant focus has been about how the impeachment hearings have been handled, a clear comfort zone for some of the Republicans leading the effort. That leaves Democrats as the messaging winners by default but not because their week was flawless but because they were the only ones making a concerted case on the merits.
What’s your take on the Democrats’ decision to just do two articles of impeachment that make only a couple glancing references to Mueller?
Nahal Toosi, foreign affairs reporter: Even with just two articles, the committee hearing Thursday lasted more than 12 hours, with both sides wrangling over just about everything. Imagine what bringing in Mueller’s findings more directly would have led to, especially given that the special counsel cleared Trump’s campaign of conspiracy. And while Democrats’ calculation that it’s better to keep things narrow may be primarily a messaging tactic, it also could keep the process more efficient.
Darren: It seems like a missed opportunity. Democrats had plenty more material to work from, including the examples of obstruction of justice that the special counsel report described dealing with the president’s attempts to fire Mueller or thwart his efforts by reassigning him to just look at 2020 election security. Sure, some moderate Democrats may have balked at voting on the floor for a Mueller-focused article, possibly even sending it to defeat. But it’s also not unprecedented for that to happen and for a president to nonetheless still be impeached (see Clinton, Bill). If the Democrats when this is all said and done are looking to send a message it’d seem you’d send the loudest possible message and that would have included the topic that dominated the first, second and now third year of the Trump administration.
Kyle: Democratic leaders believe that a case focusing on the Ukraine scandal is the easiest to explain to Americans and one that unites their caucus without the messiness and complexity of the Mueller report. But Republicans did manage to use this smaller case to point out one fact: Democrats allege no statutory crime against Trump, and while that’s not required in impeachment, the GOP believes it’ll be an important point in the Senate trial that could resonate.
Andrew Desiderio, Congress reporter: In the run-up to this week’s unveiling of articles, Democrats left their options open. They gave every indication that they were strongly considering addressing, head-on, volume two of the Mueller report — whether it would come in the form of a separate article on obstruction of justice, or just a few passing references to the allegations. Progressives wanted to go big, charging Trump not only with obstruction of justice but also emoluments violations. In the end, Democratic leaders took the safer path. All summer, Democrats failed to sustain momentum from the Mueller report, and a large chunk of the caucus was still resisting impeachment proceedings. The Ukraine scandal is what got nearly everyone on board with an inquiry, uniting a fractious caucus that was not ready to impeach the president. So it would have been an uphill climb for Democratic leaders to whip enough support for an obstruction of justice article — especially as moderate and swing-district lawmakers were urging against a “kitchen-sink” approach.
Anita: There are many government observers (and some lawmakers) who think the articles should have been broadened to include other allegations, including whether Trump illegally used his office to make money and paid to silence women who had sexual encounters with him. Common Cause, for example, recommended the House pass nine articles. “Not including expanded articles … gives a green light for future presidents that these abuses can go unpunished,” Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs at Common Cause recently told me. But moderate Democrats were uncomfortable with an impeachment effort that went beyond Ukraine. In the end, Democratic leaders made a strategic decision to do what they needed to do to get the votes they needed for impeachment.
How many crossover votes do you expect on the House floor — Democrats voting no and Republicans voting yes?
Andrew: I try not to be in the predicting business, but since you asked… There are two House Democrats who are almost certain to vote against the articles: Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey. As my colleagues Sarah Ferris and John Bresnahan reported, Democratic leaders expect no more than six members of their caucus to defect. Others who could vote “no” include freshmen whose districts Trump won by double digits: Anthony Brindisi of New York, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, and Jared Golden of Maine. As for House Republicans, I think the safest bet is that they will be united in opposition to the articles. But there are two lawmakers to keep an eye on: Francis Rooney of Florida and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. Rooney is retiring and has criticized Trump’s posture toward Ukraine’s president; while Fitzpatrick is a centrist who has voted alongside Democrats on major legislation this year and is believed to be a get-able vote.
Darren: Very few. I’m expecting a pretty much party-line House vote with just the two Democrats who have signaled opposition sticking by their position: Peterson and Van Drew. The Republicans appear to be standing behind the president across all ranks, including Rep. William Hurd’s recent statement saying he, too, opposed impeachment. Bonus piece of trivia: Assuming Peterson votes no and the same goes for New York GOP Rep. Peter King they’d be the only two House members in U.S. history to vote against two presidential impeachments.
Kyle: There will probably be a few more Democratic defectors than Peterson and Van Drew, but not many — anyone who voted to open the inquiry is already on the hook politically so there’s not much to be gained from reversing course. The conventional wisdom is that no Republicans will buck their leaders or the president, but there are a few notable holdouts for whom the decision isn’t as simple as going with the pack.
What’s been most remarkable about how President Trump has handled the impeachment effort so far?
Nahal: He comes across as fixated and frustrated, but that’s not entirely surprising. One thing that has raised my eyebrows is that Trump still gives no indication of personally changing his view that Russia is more friend than foe. This week, he welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to the Oval Office. I asked Lavrov afterward if he believes Trump is a reliable partner for the Kremlin. He said, “We don’t doubt that President Trump was sincere and that he realizes that normal relations with Russia are beneficial for the U.S.”
Darren: It’s definitely worth contemplating his total distaste for the process and how he’s flaunting the charges Democrats are impeaching him for by touting the work his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been doing dredging up dirt on his political opponents while in the Ukraine at the same time he’s being impeached over the same kinds of things. Trump’s entire political career has been about going after his opponents through pretty sharp gut punches – bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers to the St. Louis 2016 debate; slamming NFL players who are protesting the national anthem; insert any other pseudo-scandal his Twitter feed has created – and it does make sense that he’d keep on daring the Democrats here in the middle of impeachment by adding more evidence to the fire.
Kyle: Trump is fighting impeachment on Twitter, but he’s already operating as though he knows he’s about to be acquitted. It’s the only way to explain his brazen behavior toward Ukraine, and his invitation for Rudy Giuliani to the White House on the day the Judiciary Committee voted articles of impeachment based in part on his relationship with Giuliani. Trump is operating like a president with no political constraints, and he’s doing it now after Democrats have already brandished their most potent constitutional weapon against him.
Anita: I know I’ve said this before but as each week goes by I continue to be struck that Trump just doesn’t care what people think. He continues to take actions that other people criticize him for and doesn’t seem to mind. He insists his call with the Ukraine president was “perfect” even though it doesn’t seem like anyone else does. He doesn’t cut ties with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani even though many believe he’s the one who got him in this mess in the first place. And he keeps pushing for dirt on the Bidens. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that when Giuliani returned from a fact-finding mission to Ukraine last week, Trump called him as his plane was still taxiing down the runway and asked him: “‘What did you get?’”
What’s your current prediction for the Senate trial?
Nahal: It will be quick, and Trump will avoid conviction, with all Republicans lining up to support him.
Darren: So glad you’ve asked. We here at POLITICO have been keeping tabs on exactly this question, and this handy chart that remains very much a live-action document reflects my latest calculation on how the conviction vote will go. So, with that caveat, I’ll predict if the vote were held today the Senate would vote 45-55 – a break along just less than a straight party line: Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema joining all the Republicans against conviction. So, for now I’m going to say when it’s said and done Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney decide that there’s not enough evidence in the Democratic charging documents to remove the president.
Anita: It won’t go on for very long. Trump wants a trial with dramatic made-for-TV moments in which Joe Biden and the whistleblower and others are called to testify. But that’s very unlikely to happen. Trump will likely let Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s take the lead – as he tends to do on Senate matters (though not always!). Just look at what McConnell told Sean Hannity on Fox News Thursday: “If you know you have the votes, you’ve listened to the arguments on both sides, and you believe the case is so slim, so weak that you have the votes to end it, that might be what the president’s lawyers would prefer, and you can certainly make a case for making it shorter rather than longer since it’s such a weak case.”
Kyle: Though it seems like smart money is on a quick, witness-free trial to minimize the chance for unforced errors, the temptation Trump is going to face to exact vengeance on the people he accuses of starting this process could complicate the matter quickly. Trump keeps saying he wants to hear from the whistleblower, and his more hardline allies say the trial should be a forum to go after his political enemies and put them on the stand. The question is which of the competing forces will prevail in the mind of Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.