As the torrid process of Trump’s impeachment trial comes to a head, few betted on any conviction anyway. Foreign Editor David Pratt explains why the biggest loser stands to be America itself
“There are two courts here: there is the United States Senate … and the court of public opinion.” These were the words of well-known US political analyst and Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh on Friday attempting to sum up the prevailing mood in America as Donald Trump’s impeachment trial reaches a crucial juncture.
International time differences are sometimes unkind to newspaper journalists, not least those in the UK with early deadlines following fast-moving stories in America – and Trump’s impeachment trial is one such instance.
As time of writing, the prosecutors, or House impeachment managers as they are dubbed, have already wrapped up their case against Trump. Defence lawyers representing him, meanwhile, have had their first chance to counter claims that the former president was responsible for inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol building in Washington on January 6.
If two things are a given regarding this trial, then the first is that it has turned into a quick turn-around proceeding, on track to be the fastest presidential impeachment trial in American history.
If each side declines to call witnesses in the case, the decision to convict or acquit Trump could be made by senators by the end of this weekend. The second given is that barring an unlikely change of mind on behalf of a substantial number of Republican senators, both sides know Trump’s acquittal is a fait accompli.
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Mary Anne Marsh’s assessment that two courts, the Senate and court of public opinion are playing out here, is pretty much on the mark.
She is right, too, in saying, as quoted in the Financial Times, that the decision by certain Republican senators to acquit Trump could very well “haunt” them in years to come.
For three weeks now, America and the world hasn’t heard a peep from Trump in public, but any bookie would give odds on that the former president’s silence will likely end should his acquittal be confirmed in the coming hours or days.
What Trump says or doesn’t could hold vital clues as to what, if any, his future direction of political travel might be. Both sides will be listening carefully but especially Republicans, many of whom will have one eye on their base among whose ranks the former president is viewed by many in a favourable light.
Confident of acquittal, Trump was spotted playing golf in Florida on Friday while his defence team prepared a shortened presentation to offer the court rather than take the full two days for arguments permitted by trial rules. It says a lot of Trump’s lingering presence, perhaps, that the only person to have remained almost as schtum as the former president over the impeachment trial is his successor Joe Biden, who made it clear from the outset that his priority is defeating the Covid-19 pandemic and reopening the US economy.
The president has said little on the Senate proceedings, focusing instead on moving Congress towards approving his $1.9 trillion relief package.
As Politico magazine summed up the White House response last week: “Impeachment? What impeachment?”. The magazine also quoted several sources close to the White House as saying the “Biden team sees no upside weighing in on impeachment” and that it “makes no sense” for the president to engage.
Trump’s misdemeanours – serious as they are – are clearly seen by Biden as not worth letting get in the way of the pressing job in hand his presidency faces.
“I’m focused on my job … to deal with the promises I made,” Biden was quoted extensively as saying last week. “And we all know we have to move on,” the president added.
That said, the idea of Trump avoiding conviction from this his second impeachment trial doesn’t sit easy with many other Democrats or, indeed, some Republicans.
“If you think this is not impeachable, what is? What would be?” Jamie Raskin, Democrat congressman from Maryland, asked senators who were acting as de facto jurors in the trial. “If you don’t find this a high crime and misdemeanour today, you have set a new, terrible standard for presidential misconduct in the United States of America.”
Some of the strongest denunciations of Trump’s actions came from the handful of House Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment.
“I cannot imagine how any senator can vote against removal,” Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois, tweeted during the showing of the videos at the trial on Wednesday of events on January 6.
Most Republican senators, however, remained in favour of Trump’s acquittal. While not outwardly defending Trump’s actions they were even more circumspect in explaining away their own reasons for making such a decision.
“What happened on January 6 – I said it the moment it started – was unpatriotic, un-American, treasonous, a crime, unacceptable,” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, was quoted by The New York Times as saying using reasoning typical of many from his party.
At least 17 Republicans would have to join the 50 Democratic senators to convict Trump and set a potential vote on barring him from future office.
“The fundamental question for me, and I don’t know about for everybody else, is whether an impeachment trial is appropriate for someone who is no longer in office. I don’t believe that it is,” added Rubio, taking the now familiar line of those Republicans who will vote for Trump’s acquittal.
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Certain Republicans have been more brazenly dismissive of the proceedings with reports in various news outlets describing how some were “inattentive”, spending their time doodling on blank paper, while others distracted themselves by reading books or their iPads.
Senator Josh Hawley was seen rifling through papers with his feet up in the Senate gallery while others left the room for extended periods of time.
Asked about such behaviour in an interview with CNN, Democratic Senator Jon Tester, like many others, was clearly unimpressed.
“I think we’ve got a solemn obligation to do what the Constitution says. And I think paying attention is a big part of it, whether it’s an impeachment trial or otherwise,” Tester said.
“I will make no judgments on those folks. But the truth is, this is a very sombre and important event, and we need to treat it as such.”
Many observers watching the trial proceedings say the biggest fear is that such an unprecedented attack on American Democracy as the assault on the Capitol will simply remain dangerously unfinished business from Trump’s disastrous presidency if a line is not drawn underneath it in court.
As journalist Rick Klein of ABC News pointed out online, “truths are less in question than consequences” in the trial and what the consequence of doing nothing might be.
His remarks came off the back of speeches by some of the Senators acting as impeachment managers.
“I’m afraid he’s going to run again and lose, because he can do this again,” warned Democrat Ted Lieu of California, in his presentation, while fellow Democrat Diana DeGette of Colorado insisted “impeachment is not to punish, but to prevent”.
But if impeachment meant Trump could no longer run again for office, might the more likely outcome of acquittal also ensure any future political ambitions he might have for the future are thwarted?
According to the online US political news platform The Hill, some Senate Republicans, including those who do not plan to vote to convict Trump, say the impeachment trial has effectively ended any chance of him becoming the GOP presidential nominee in 2024.
Quoting a number of GOP senators anonymously, The Hill cites one as suggesting that Democrats may ultimately help the GOP by sidelining Trump. “Unwittingly, they are doing us a favour. They’re making Donald Trump disqualified to run for president” even if he is acquitted, the senator said.
Others who spoke to the news site insisted it would be a good thing if the impeachment trial helps distance the party from Trump, who has thoroughly dominated GOP politics over the past five years.
“This reminded and confirmed and probably added deeper emotion to the view that the president’s involvement in the party, while it brought new people, it’s very damaging to who we are, what we believe and what we stand for – what we believe we stand for,” another GOP senator told The Hill.
While currently the US senate looks set to go down the acquittal route, the court of public opinion based on several recent polls suggest the American people are less clear-cut in their decision to convict or acquit.
One CBS News-YouGov poll released last Tuesday was unequivocal in its findings showing that 56 per cent supported convicting Trump, with 44% opposed. In December 2019, shortly before Trump’s first impeachment trial, a CBS News-YouGov poll found that only 42% of respondents supported conviction.
Another current poll by Ipsos, conducted for Reuters and released last Wednesday, found differently with just under half of Americans polled thinking Trump should be convicted with opinions split along party lines.
In the Ipsos poll, 47% of respondents said Trump should be convicted, including about seven in 10 of those who identified as Democrats and about two in 10 of those who identified as Republicans. Another 40%, including about seven in 10 Republicans and about two in 10 Democrats, said Trump should not be convicted, and 13% of respondents said they were “not sure” about conviction.
Last week, as prosecutors made a powerful case against Trump using newly-released video footage from inside the Capitol during the storming of the building, one could have been forgiven for thinking that the graphic and damning evidence presented would be enough to convict the former president.
“This is one of the most dynamic, convincing presentations I have ever seen,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Centre for Politics, speaking to the Financial Times. “If this were an impartial jury, we would all be betting on a conviction,” Sabato added.
But most impeachment watchers are all too aware that the jury is anything but impartial. Yet even such “solidarity” within the Republican ranks appears to have its limits. This weekend, as Americans waited on the ruling, there were signs of trouble within the Trump legal team.
Reports on Friday suggested that the former president was now pushing to sideline his chief defence lawyer Bruce L Castor Jr following what was widely recognised as a rambling, disastrous performance last week during opening arguments.
Other trouble came for Trump from one of his former closest allies, the one-time US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley. Turning on the former US leader her volte-face was a further indicator of the way some Republicans are watching how the impeachment trial plays out in terms of impacting on their own futures and careers.
Haley, while certainly aware that an acquittal is likely, appears to have taken the view that Trump is too toxic a brand to be associated with now.
“He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again,” insisted the former ambassador who is widely believed to have presidential ambitions of her own.
For many Americans faced with the ravages of the pandemic, joblessness and a badly reeling economy, the question of whether Trump is convicted or acquitted of impeachment is unlikely to figure high on their list of priorities.
Americans did, after all, vote by a huge majority for Joe Biden who likewise believes that there are other more pressing issues than holding Trump to account.
Many, both inside and outside the corridors of US power, will, of course, rue the missed opportunity of Trump’s reckoning should he be acquitted. Their fears, too, that his malign presence will continue to be felt on the political scene may also be well founded.
While in office Trump was unpredictable – out of office he equally remains so.
An acquittal would in theory leave the door open for him to return. Were that to happen and given the strength of feeling for and against him, it’s hard to imagine that his presence would prove positive.
More likely he would once again pose what one commentator described these past days as “a clear and present danger” to America’s body politic and any hopes of healing the nation’s still open wounds.