Democrats Should Put Republicans on Trial During Impeachment
The leading House Democrats responsible for impeachment, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, originally argued Congress should not proceed without bipartisan support for removing the president from office. Based on that proposition, some have mourned Democrats’ failure to “convince” Republican members of Congress to support the impeachment of Donald Trump. This criticism fails to account for the contemporary reality of the GOP’s absolute fealty to Trump. Because of Trump’s control of his party, impeachment simply cannot result in the removal of the president, regardless of the gravity of the evidence against Trump.
But if properly undertaken, the proceedings might well contribute to further delegitimizing the entire GOP, not just its leader. The means for achieving that goal is not “reasoning” with Republican senators during Trump’s trial. Rather, the House impeachment managers prosecuting the case, together with Democratic senators, should treat Republicans as the defendants, along with Trump, by relentlessly highlighting their commitment to defending his misconduct, wholly regardless of the evidence. In accomplishing this goal, Democrats will have a crucial ally: Donald Trump.
In recent weeks, as the depth of his recent criminality has become increasingly clear, Trump has responded by making ever more emphatic demands that Republican officeholders declare that his scheme to coerce the government of Ukraine to provide dirt on his political opponent was not only short of impeachable, but “perfect.”
The House GOP minority’s Ukraine report parroted Trump’s recent assertions that his corrupt conduct regarding Ukraine merely reflected his “concerns about corruption” in Kyiv. GOP officeholders have likewise taken to repeating Trump’s Kremlin-inspired fictional assertions that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. For example, Sen. John Kennedy initially said that Ukraine, not Russia, might have hacked the DNC, and has persisted in falsely asserting that Ukraine engaged in election interference on Hillary Clinton’s behalf. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr likewise said, “Every elected official in the Ukraine was for Hillary Clinton. Is that very different than the Russians being for Donald Trump?”
In addition, Trump has publicly warned Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, who will play a critical role in the upcoming trial, that he is counting on Graham to take the lead in proving up the conspiracy theories Trump advances as excuses for his impeachable conduct. After initial reluctance, Graham responded by announcing that he is going to commence an intensive “investigation” of the debunked Biden conspiracy theory that Trump coerced Ukraine to support.
Unlike Clinton, Trump is going to face the voters again.
The explanation for GOP officeholders’ virtually universal refusal to acknowledge Trump’s criminality is simple. Despite the president’s consistent unpopularity in the nation overall, he remains resiliently popular in the GOP. Also, Trump attacks any Republican who calls into question his conduct. The termination of the congressional careers of Sen. Bob Corker, Sen. Jeff Flake, and Rep. Mark Sanford must be foremost in the minds of those Republicans who wish to preserve their careers, such as Graham, who would almost certainly lose his upcoming reelection in South Carolina if Trump supported a primary adversary against him.
Trump has taken to declaring that the impeachment inquiry is an attack on the Republican Party, entirely equating the GOP with himself and his crimes. Trump’s insistence on pressuring Republicans to mimic his deeply absurd contentions makes a great deal of political sense, from his self-interested perspective. Bill Clinton gave Democratic legislators, and even his successor as party standard-bearer, Al Gore, license to decry his conduct, so long as they opposed his impeachment and removal. But, unlike Clinton, Trump is going to face the voters again. Therefore, if GOP officeholders were given free rein to declare themselves unhappy with Trump’s conduct, that could well open the door to the GOP distancing itself from the president should the tide turn against him.
By pressuring Republicans to serve not just as excusers, but indeed as affirmative endorsers, of the president’s criminal misconduct, Trump likely calculates, he will make them accessories after the fact, and render it all the more difficult for them to abandon him when things get desperate, as additional bad facts emerge. Already we’ve learned that Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, exchanged phone calls with a mysterious “-1” number at the White House while he and Trump were orchestrating the Ukraine plot.
As the impeachment trial approaches, Democrats have good reason to welcome the president’s demand that GOP senators tightly lash themselves to Trump and his abuses of power. Indeed, the Democrats should take each and every opportunity to induce Republican senators to defend and endorse Trump’s misconduct, just as Trump insists. Democrats can thereby demonstrate that Republicans’ votes to acquit Trump are actually votes in favor of Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme, as well as his obstruction of the current inquiry and the Mueller investigation before it.
As the evidence piles up against the president, the “perfection” defense he is advancing becomes more audaciously at odds with common sense and the growing weight of facts. At the outset of the Trump presidency, some questioned whether authoritarian disinformation strategies, which have been employed so successfully in post-communist nations like Hungary and Russia, could be successfully employed by Trump, despite the existence of a vibrant free press in the United States. Trump and his allies have since proven to be remarkably successful in causing a substantial minority of the nation to accept falsity as truth (or at least to disbelieve facts and treat them as another form of opinion or propaganda).
Nonetheless, it is an exaggeration to categorize the United States as a “post-truth” nation, and the very unpopularity of Trump (even in the midst of relative prosperity) demonstrates that his mendacity has imposed a major cost upon his legitimacy as a leader. While naysayers have taken to pointing to the purportedly consistent polls as evidence that Trump is “Teflon Don,” impervious to the consequences of the uncovering of his own wrongdoing, the evidence is to the contrary. Despite unprecedented gerrymandering, Democrats have achieved remarkable victories in the past two years’ recent sets of elections, including flipping the House. The reason for those results is as plain as the weave on Trump’s head: repugnance with the president, including by suburban voters who have been key to GOP victories for decades. The risk for Republicans is that impeachment will render them as repugnant as their leader to many independent voters, who are the key to winning elections.
Expecting that the Senate trial alone will immediately “win” the election in and of itself is just as unrealistic as it was to believe that the proceeding would result in Trump’s removal. But it is more than realistic to expect that the trial will result in what Leninists were wont to call a “heightening of the contradictions.” Trump is absolutely right to believe that forcing the Republican Party to endorse and affirmatively support his audacious abuses of power will make it extremely difficult for the GOP to distance itself from its criminal leader. Trump is inviting Democrats to place the Republicans on trial together with him, and they should accept the invitation.