The Republicans face a tough path ahead – whatever happens to Trump at his impeachment trial

The situation would have been far rosier for the GOP if Trump, after a period of complaining, had just accepted the election results

Kim Sengupta
Wednesday 10 February 2021 16:26
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Trump impeachment trial: First day summary

The first impeachment of Donald Trump was a historic occasion, a crooked president – according to his many critics – who was being held up to justice: his attempts to push a foreign government to investigate Joe Biden an example of his flagrant abuse of power.

But the details of the proceedings were, for many, distant and dry with their focus on corruption and politics in Ukraine; the debate on the extent to which American diplomats should, or should not, follow the wishes of the head of state and the actions of Trump’s various advisors.

This second impeachment cannot be closer to home, with its basis being the storming of the heart of democracy in Washington by a mob whipped up, it is charged, by a president seeking stay in power after losing an election.

Instead of accounts of disputed phone calls and what happened in the corridors of power in Ukraine's capital, the proceedings began with a dramatic video of Trump encouraging his supporters to march to the capitol with ensuing shocking scenes of violence which remain fresh and vivid in minds. As the lead impeachment manager for the Democrats, James Raskin declared “That's a high crime and misdemeanour, if that is not an impeachable offence, then there is no such thing.”

But it seems highly likely that the Democrats will not get the required majority in the Senate to convict Trump. That is despite, and not because of, his defence. It will not be for the eloquence of his lawyers whose performance was pretty dismal, as even the Republicans acknowledged. Trump himself was reportedly screaming at the television set during his counsel Bruce Castor’s opening statement. A video that would certainly be worth watching.

Among the Republicans, the Louisiana senator Bill Cassidy, declared that Trump’s legal team was “disorganised”, “random” and “did everything they could but talk about the question in hand”, they overall did a “terrible job”. Susan Collins of Maine thought Castor “did not seem to make any arguments at all, which was an unusual approach to take”.

Senator John Cornyn, said: “The president’s lawyer just rambled on and on, I’ve seen a lot of lawyers and a lot of arguments, and that was not one of the finest I’ve seen.” Fellow Texan Ted Cruz accepted that the lawyers did not do “the most effective job”, while praising James Raskin as “impressive”.

Cassidy and Collins voted with the Democrats to go forward with the trial, among six Republicans to do so. Cruz and Cornyn voted to dismiss it, along with 42 other Republicans, including leader Mitch McConnell.

This effectively means that, at this stage, the 67 votes needed for conviction will not be there unless a number of Republicans change their mind in the course of the hearing. As Senator Collins said: “I think it is pretty obvious from the vote ... that it is extraordinarily unlikely that the president will be convicted. Just do the math.”

Some Republicans, including McConnell, who had voted against the proceeding – but have held they do not want to prejudge the result – may abstain: which would mean that there would be fewer votes needed to convict. If Trump is found guilty, then the Senate can hold a second vote to disqualify him from holding public office with a simple majority of 51 votes – which would be a formality.

The post-impeachment path for the Republicans has pitfalls. The situation would have been far rosier for them if Trump, after a period of complaining, had accepted the election results rather than instigating turbulence. The Republicans then could well have retained the Georgia seats, thus retaining control of the Senate and making life much harder for the Biden administration.

As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden knew only too well the obstacles that McConnell could throw up. Obama took over as president in 2009 after another economic meltdown. He wanted to go forward with a bipartisan approach to solving the pressing problems. However McConnell, then minority Senate leader, refused cooperation on a number of key issues – slowing down legislative action and hampering the recovery. This was deliberate strategy, as McConnell told the National Journal at the time: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. We are going to do everything – and I mean everything we can do – to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”

The opportunity for the Republicans to do that to the Biden administration has receded. They will try to take back control of the House and the Senate in the 2022 midterms. This, however, will mean not just retaining Trump’s right-wing base, but moderates, mostly in the suburbs, who turned away from the party over the excesses of Trump. Polls show that they back the impeachment process and a significant majority of them believe that the former president is guilty.

Then, of course, there is the question of what Trump will do next. Will he seek the Republican nomination for 2024?

His core support, even after the Capitol riots, appear to remain strong. Many believe his baseless claim that the election was stolen and the falsehood that the violence in Washington was instigated by Antifa and other leftists. As Clifford Young, the head of the opinion pollsters Ipsos said: “I don’t think what we’re seeing suggests he loses political relevance and resonance. Anyone who says that is kidding themselves. He still has a significant base.”

One of Trump’s lawyers at the hearing claimed that the impeachment proceedings were an attempt to stop him running in 2024. “Their ultimate hope is that this will be a shot across the bow of any other candidate for public office who would dare to take up a political message that is very different from their own political point of view,” said David Schoen, ignoring the fact that the trial was only taking place because Trump attempted to overturn a democratic election.

But Trump faces significant legal threats whatever happens at the Senate. His defence, supported by the Republicans who tried to stop the proceedings, is that he cannot be impeached because he is no longer president. But leaving the White House also makes him vulnerable to legal proceedings.

Trump is the subject of 15 inquiries, criminal and civil, by nine federal, state and district agencies into his business and personal finances, including his tax affairs, his campaign, his inaugural committee, and charities associated with him. His lawyers had, in the past, claimed on a number of instances that as a sitting president he cannot be indicted for any alleged crimes.

It remains to be seen as these cases unfold, with the possibility of convictions, if Trump continues to hold on to his support base. The Senate proceedings, meanwhile, will be a reminder of the extraordinary state of affairs in America during the time of Donald Trump.

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