Column: High politics and low will be on display in impeachment drama
The fix is in. The jury is anything but impartial. The verdict is pretty much foreordained.
But that isn’t what this trial will be about.
The Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, expected to begin in earnest next week, is formally about a weighty constitutional question: Has Trump abused the powers of his office?
But it’s also about politics, of course.
To borrow from Clausewitz, impeachment is the continuation of politics — including election-year politics — by other means.
That’s not a scandal. It’s an inevitable part of the way impeachment, the Constitution’s only method of sanctioning a president for misconduct, works.
An impeachment trial may look like a legal proceeding, but it isn’t. It’s not in a court; it’s in the Senate, a body populated by 100 politicians. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. will preside, but he’ll act only as a referee, not a judge.
The senators will swear an oath to render “impartial justice” in the weeks ahead.
But most are already committed to the president’s defense or his downfall. A two-thirds vote for conviction would require at least 20 of the 53 Republicans to vote against him, and that’s not going to happen.
Still, the proceedings will be a pitched battle between two political parties trying to make cases to the public en route to the preordained conclusion.
That doesn’t make the process trivial or tawdry.
Republicans will say it’s only politics. That’s not true.
Democrats will say it’s not about politics. That’s not true, either.
Two kinds of politics are at play, high politics and low.
The high politics are about the defense of the Constitution against a president who has claimed, erroneously, that Article II gives him “the right to do whatever I want.”
The high politics is what impelled House Democrats from conservative districts, like Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, to push for impeachment even though it might harm their prospects for reelection.
It’s what prompted a handful of Republicans, including Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, to condemn Trump’s actions in asking Ukraine and China to investigate Joe Biden, a potential rival in the 2020 election.
The low politics — plain old election-year politics — will be easier to see.
Impeachment has given Democrats a way to expose Trump’s conduct to public scrutiny. It’s been, in effect, a months-long infomercial — and it’s worked.
A narrow majority of Americans believe Trump abused his power, acted improperly in his dealings with Ukraine, although not all believe he should be removed from office as a result, according to polls.
Democrats want to call witnesses in the Senate trial — especially John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, and Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff — to keep the infomercial going.
Senate politics are in play as well.
A Senate trial that looks like a sham will discredit the president and his party in the eyes of many voters — or so Democrats argue.
An anti-Trump group has already released a television commercial deriding Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, one of the Senate’s most endangered Republicans.
“Just another Trump servant: weak, frightened, impotent,” the commercial says. “He’ll do anything Trump orders.”
Trump has treated impeachment like a political contest as well. He’s praised his defenders and condemned his accusers, especially Republicans who threaten to break ranks. After Romney criticized his actions on Ukraine, the president called him “a pompous ‘ass’ who has been fighting me from the beginning.”
He sees the process, accurately, as a danger to his legacy — and possibly to his reelection chances.
“Why should I have the stigma of Impeachment attached to my name when I did NOTHING wrong?” he tweeted on Sunday.
I suspect little of this would have surprised the Founding Fathers; they knew the process they designed would be political.
Impeachment will often “agitate the passions of the whole community and … divide it into parties,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers in 1788. “In such cases, there will always be the greatest danger, that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”
But there will be high politics at work, too — the politics of principles and ethics and preserving the constitution.
Romney is free to follow his conscience without qualms; he’s 72 and won’t be up for reelection until 2024.
Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Pat Roberts of Kansas and Mike Enzi of Wyoming are retiring, and equally free. Their choices could be the stuff of high drama.
So, yes, there’s politics involved. And, yes, both sides think they know what the verdict will be. What matters — in both high politics and low — is how they get there.
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