Democrats are as furious about the Senate’s proposed trial rules as Republicans were about the House’s “investigation.” In both cases, party leaders simply used their power to set rules that pushed an outcome their party’s voters demanded. For the Democratic House, it was a rushed vetting of witnesses heavily tilted in Democrats’ favor with daily leaks from supposedly closed-door depositions fed to a ferociously anti-Trump media. For the Republican Senate, it’s a rushed trial schedule that forces House managers and the president’s defense team to make their arguments over two calendar days each, ensuring that the hearings go late into the evening and beyond the ability of many Americans to watch live. To borrow from Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum on war: Impeachment is simply the continuation of political warfare by other means.
Those who say the Senate’s rules keep House managers from making their case to the American people clearly live on a different planet. House Democrats have been in control of the media agenda for more than four months. In this time, popular opinion regarding whether to remove Trump from office has barely budged. In fact, opposition to removal is slightly higher today than it was before House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) began his televised star chamber — I mean, committee — hearings. News flash: Trump supporters have heard Schiff’s case and don’t find it persuasive.
If anything, the rushed trial schedule hurts Trump. While he has tweeted in increasingly angry terms about the House Democrats’ case, his legal team has never had the opportunity to fully lay out its case in public. The Senate trial gives them their first opportunity to do that, but the schedule means their presentations will be rushed and forced to late-night time slots, just like the Democrats’ presentations. White House counsel Pat Cipollone and his team will barely be able to dominate a news cycle with that time, much less set a new narrative in motion.
The row over whether to call new witnesses will come to define the first week’s arguments, and partisan fury will be on full display. Democrats insist that only witnesses who meet their standard of relevancy be called, contending that the Senate should only debate questions regarding what the president did and when he did it. But the presidents’ lawyers note that the question of why he did what he did is also a relevant question, as he cannot be removed from office for pursuing a proper public issue. Through his lawyers, the president argues that investigating Hunter Biden and Joe Biden’s behavior in Ukraine is a legitimate public purpose because of the appearance of public corruption. That makes both men’s activities and testimony highly relevant to the inquiry, regardless of what Democrats want to be true — unless the president should be prevented from presenting his defense on his own terms.
From a Republican point of view, it appears that’s exactly what the Democrats want to do. They seem to want to define the crime, set up the process and predetermine the outcome to their suiting. That approach is a major reason the admittedly serious evidence that has emerged has fallen on deaf GOP ears. Applying university-level standards of political correctness to silence contrary viewpoints is not a good way to get adversaries to change their minds.
But there is a silver lining. The Kabuki theater-like nature of this process means it has been simply absorbed into voters’ preexisting viewpoints. Just like the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett M. Kavanaugh, Democrats see blue while Republicans see red, and no one seriously tries to do anything other than mobilize their partisans. This ongoing inflammation of the body politic is extremely bad for our political health, but the impeachment process and the inevitable Senate acquittal will do nothing further to irrevocably break our constitutional norms.
Karmic humor would have the Senate vote for acquittal close to Feb. 2, Groundhog Day. That’s because the sorry spectacle of a great people tearing itself apart will not end then. We are instead condemned, like Bill Murray in the movie, to keep repeating our mistakes until someone finally makes amends and moves the country toward healing. I’m afraid America has many more than six weeks of winter ahead.