Barring a huge surprise, Donald Trump will soon join Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson in the club of presidents impeached, but acquitted.
The announcement Thursday night by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) that he would vote against calling witnesses to testify in the Senate put the chamber on track to end Trump’s trial probably sometime late Friday or Saturday, as Sarah Wire, Molly O’Toole, Noah Bierman and Erin Logan reported. With that, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, will have achieved his goal of getting to an acquittal before Trump delivers the State of the Union speech, scheduled for Tuesday night.
Johnson’s acquittal in May 1868 turned quickly to ashes: He ended his tenure less than 11 months later, reviled and rejected by much of the country. Clinton had a happier, but still mixed, fate: He remained personally popular, but the ethical cloud that remained over him after the Feb. 12, 1999, acquittal vote helped cause the defeat of Vice President Al Gore, who lost one of the closest presidential elections in history less than two years later.
What, then, of Trump?
The latest news, analysis and insights from our bureau chiefs in Sacramento and D.C.
“Not whether the president did it”
The president will surely greet Senate acquittal as exoneration from the “witch hunt” he says the “radical Democrats” have inflicted on him. Tuesday’s State of Union speech could become the first of many efforts by Trump to rally his followers with that claim. No question it will help mobilize them.
But Trump’s backers are just one of three parts of the electorate that will be affected by the impeachment.
As I wrote last week, a key group of voters to watch are those who say that Trump did something wrong — perhaps even something criminal — but not something for which he should be removed from office.
About one in five Republicans and a smattering of others fit into that category, according to polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Institute. Another 12% of Republicans thought Trump should be removed from office by the Senate, Pew found.
Alexander now provides the face for those Republicans in the “unethical, but not impeachable” camp.
“There is no need for more evidence to prove that the president asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter,” Alexander wrote. “There is no need for more evidence to conclude that the president withheld United States aid, at least in part, to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; the House managers have proved this ....
“It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation. When elected officials inappropriately interfere with such investigations, it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law. But the Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate.
“The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did,” Alexander concluded. “I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday.”
Like Alexander, most of the “unethical, but not impeachable” voters are lifelong Republicans. Most won’t vote for a Democratic presidential nominee, whoever it is. But for a president like Trump, who won election by tiny margins in key states, even small defections could carry large consequences.
Trump’s two-week Senate trial, coming after three months of investigations and hearings in the House, has forcefully reminded those voters of much that they find distasteful about the president. That’s a memory many of them will carry with them into the voting booth in November.
‘We wuz robbed’
The final group to watch will be Democrats. The party’s impeachment leaders, led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, went into the Senate proceedings knowing that the chance of winning a conviction — requiring the votes of 20 Senate Republicans — was vanishingly small.
Their goal was to portray the Senate proceedings as fundamentally unfair and thus to render any exoneration of Trump illegitimate in the eyes of their voters. For that reason, they focused from the beginning on a fight over McConnell’s refusal to have witness testimony in the Senate.
Schiff and his colleagues relentlessly pounded away at that theme, beginning in December when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delayed transmitting the impeachment resolutions to the Senate to focus attention on the Senate’s rules.
Their efforts got a boost early this week when the New York Times disclosed that John Bolton, the former national security advisor, had written a book manuscript which reports that Trump personally told him that he wanted to withhold aid from Ukraine until the country’s leaders agreed to announce an investigation of the Bidens.
During the course of the week, McConnell managed to reassert control of his caucus, with only Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine publicly calling for Bolton to testify, as Jennifer Haberkorn, Wire, Phillips and Logan reported.
But that effort to enforce unity came at considerable cost. Even before the Senate trial got fully underway, 84% of Democrats — and 56% of the public at large — said they did not believe Senate Republicans would act fairly, Pew’s polling showed. And numerous polls have shown 70% or more of Americans believed the Senate should call witnesses to testify.
Widespread sentiment that the Senate acted unfairly matters not only because it limits Trump’s ability to claim victory, but because it gives his opponents a powerful grievance to use against him and Republican senators in swing states. Over the next several months, that sense of grievance could grow as Bolton’s full account becomes public or if the White House carries through on efforts to block publication of his book by arguing that much of it involves classified information.
The belief that your side has lost a rigged contest has provided powerful fuel for U.S. political campaigns going back at least as far as 1828, when Andrew Jackson used the “corrupt bargain” by which he lost four years earlier as the grievance to rally his supporters to victory.
Few politicians have exploited grievance as skillfully as Trump, but in winning a speedy victory in the Senate trial, he and McConnell may have handed a powerful one to his Democratic opponent.
The impeachment trial has heavily overshadowed the race to decide who that opponent will be. Several of the leading candidates have been sequestered in the Senate, unable to spend much time campaigning. And news coverage of the campaign has had to compete with the trial.
In Iowa, however, the campaign has raged at full volume. Voters can barely turn on their televisions or look at their phones without discovering another message from a candidate, as Matt Pearce reports.
Iowa’s caucuses often stump forecasters. Turnout is small compared to a standard primary, let alone a general election, and no foolproof method exists to figure out which voters will show up. Add to that the rules, which allow voters to switch to another candidate if their first choice falls short of 15% in their neighborhood caucus meeting, as Seema Mehta explains, and you have a recipe for unpredictability.
Some parts of the picture are clear. Sen. Bernie Sanders has clearly moved up in the Iowa standings in the last several weeks, as numerous polls have shown. Our Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies poll of California voters showed a similar upward movement for Sanders in the Golden State. Sanders has a clear lead in California at this point, with the state’s March 3 primary just over a month away.
But where Sanders has ended up is less certain. Some polls show him leading, others show Joe Biden.
The former vice president continues to lead the race nationally, as Janet Hook wrote, detailing the results of our latest USC-Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. African American voters and voters who put top priority on finding the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump continue to buoy Biden’s candidacy, the poll showed.
In Iowa, a key difference among the polls involves their estimate of who is likely to show up for the caucus meetings. Sanders does best among people with a history of past caucuses — a group that leans toward liberal partisans. Biden does best among the considerably broader group of people with a history of voting in the state’s primaries for Senate and governor’s races.
Iowa Democratic officials predict a big turnout this year, maybe surpassing the record set in 2008. They’ve also taken steps to make the caucuses easier — voters don’t have to stay for hours after they’ve registered their choice. If that makes the caucus more like a primary, Biden might benefit.
It’s also possible that Sanders may have peaked too early. His rise in polls has caused rivals to begin to focus more fire on him, warning that he’s too far to the left to beat Trump in November, as Hook and Mark Barabak wrote.
Meantime, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., have all devoted considerable resources to Iowa and can’t be counted out. For Klobuchar, in particular, Iowa offers a do-or-die proposition.
This year, to a far greater degree than in the past, voters are intensely focused on electability. But it’s an elusive concept. Barabak and several others of our colleagues talked to voters about what they mean by electable.
The man who isn’t there
While the rest of the Democrats pound each other in Iowa and New Hampshire, Michael R. Bloomberg has blithely ignored the first four states and focused on the baker’s dozen that vote on Super Tuesday, March 3.
As Evan Halper reported, Bloomberg’s vast wealth has allowed him to advertise heavily in California, Texas, Virginia and other Super Tuesday states — $263 million worth as of Jan. 24. He has also rapidly built out a field staff in places where the other candidates have not yet begun to organize campaigns.
He’s also tried to redress some of his key weaknesses, especially lack of support among minority voters.
Even with all his money, the odds are Bloomberg would need Biden to collapse to provide a true opening for his campaign. And if another candidate — Sanders, for example — were strong enough to derail Biden, it’s not at all clear that Bloomberg could rally the backing to stop him. But at minimum, he adds another big unknown to a wildly unpredictable year.
Every four years, Iowa’s prominent role in the nation’s politics focuses attention on this heavily white, largely rural state. It’s a place with a complex history, including some deeply ingrained racism. In Dubuque — a largely blue-collar city in northeastern Iowa — hospitals in the early 1960s wouldn’t allow black women to give birth: They had to drive across the Mississippi River to Wisconsin.
Dubuque has continued to struggle with racism as it has tried to attract more nonwhite residents. Tyrone Beason carefully examined the city’s past and its present. It’s a story that goes far beyond Iowa’s caucus results and is well worth a read.