WASHINGTON – An impeachment trial is both a legal proceeding and a political event, and the upcoming prosecution of former President Donald Trump has spawned a complex set of political challenges for Republicans and Democrats, as well as the defiant defendant.
Republicans are already fighting about whether to move past Trump by convicting him – and blocking him from seeking office again – or keep faith with the former president and his large base of voters ahead of elections in 2022 and 2024.
The Democrats and new President Joe Biden, meanwhile, run the risk of distracting themselves in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic by conducting the trial of a politician who is already out of office.
With opening arguments set for Feb. 9, the trial “will make it difficult for Joe Biden to unify the country,” pollster Frank Luntz said. “It will be very difficult for the Republicans to unify their party. It will be difficult for the Democrats to push their agenda because everybody will be talking about impeachment.”
“In short,” Luntz said, “it’s pretty bad for everyone.”
At the center of it all: Trump and his hold on the Republican Party.
Trump in exile but plotting his strategy
If the Senate convicts Trump – which remains a long shot with 17 Republicans needed to join all 50 Democrats – it could then vote on whether to bar him from public office, potentially crippling plans for another Trump presidential run in 2024.
Trump has been unusually quiet since leaving the White House last week, mainly because Twitter de-platformed him shortly after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
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That attack triggered the Democratic-led House to impeach Trump on Jan. 13. The impeachment article accuses him of inciting the insurrection by making false claims of election fraud behind Biden’s victory, and pressuring state and federal officials to reverse the result.
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Many doubt there are enough Republican votes for conviction. On Tuesday, a total of 45 GOP senators – more than enough for acquittal – voted in support of a motion that would have dismissed the trial by declaring it unconstitutional.
Secluded in his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump has made clear he expects Senate Republicans to defend him and vote for acquittal, said two aides who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Trump is also threatening vengeance on those who oppose him by threatening to back primary challengers against them, aides said, just as he did the ten House Republicans who voted for impeachment.
President Donald Trump tours a section of the U.S.-Mexican border wall Jan. 12 in Alamo, Texas.
The former president is planning to back 2022 primary challengers against Republicans who refused to help him overturn the election, aides said. That list ranges from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
Trump has already gotten involved in one 2022 race. He endorsed his former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, shortly after she announced she is running for governor of Arkansas.
The potency of Trump’s political appeal could be affected by events at his impeachment trial.
House prosecutors said they will provide evidence of how Trump tried to get state and federal officials to break the law for him, and how his lies fueled the rage of supporters who attacked the Capitol, all in an effort to stay in power.
Trump has retained South Carolina lawyer Butch Bowers, and is preparing a defense that argues he acted within his rights, and that he did not instruct voters to commit violence.
If the Senate does wind up voting to convict Trump, and bar him from future office, he has discussed forming a third political party. Aides have discounted the possibility, at least so far.
In a carefully worded written statement, Trump political adviser Jason Miller said that “the President has made clear his goal is to win back the House and Senate for Republicans in 2022.”
“There’s nothing that’s actively being planned regarding an effort outside of that,” Miller said regarding creation of a so-called Patriot Party. “But it’s completely up to Republican Senators if this is something that becomes more serious.”
Republicans remain divided: Move forward with or without Trump?
As House impeachment prosecutors prepare to turn the Senate chamber into a courtroom, the internal Republican battle over support for Trump is already on public display.
As the House voted to impeach, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky let it be known he didn’t mind if Trump face charges. McConnell also said he hasn’t made up his own mind on whether to vote to convict Trump. He was one of the 45 Republicans who voted Tuesday against holding the trial.
In a floor speech, McConnell said Trump “provoked” rioters who had been “fed lies” about the elections – comments interpreted as a signal to other Republicans that it would be OK to vote to convict Trump.
Pro-Trump Republicans pushed back at McConnell. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News that McConnell was “wrong” in his analysis.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., center, flanked by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., left, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., right, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
While praising McConnell as a leader, Graham told Fox News that the Kentuckian was “giving some legitimacy to this impeachment process that I think is wrong.”
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Graham and other Republicans have said that convicting Trump and barring him from office would alienate his base of working-class voters, dooming Republicans to minority-party status for years.
Other Republicans argue Trump is the one dragging down the party. Many blamed him for the loss of two GOP Senate seats in Georgia runoff elections this month, calling those defeats signs of things to come if the party maintains fealty to Trump.
“You have a divided party right now,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and Governors Editor at The Cook Political Report.
Some Senate Republicans said they would be vocal in defending Trump and opposing the very idea of trying an ex-office holder.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said the impeachment could backfire on the Democrats who now run the Senate.
“A lot of Americans are going to think it’s strange that the Senate is spending its time trying to convict and remove from office a man who left office a week ago,” he tweeted.
The Democrats move forward – for better or worse
Democrats said Trump needs to be held accountable for the insurrection that will resonate in American politics for years.
Responding to Republican complaints, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said “the theory that the Senate can’t try former officials would amount to a constitutional get-out-of-jail-free card for any president who commits an impeachable offense.”
There are risks for Democrats, however. They are pushing the impeachment trial at the same time members are negotiating with Republicans on Biden proposals to fight COVID-19 and stimulate the economy.
Biden has said it is the Senate’s decision to hold a Trump trial, but he hopes the leadership will find ways “to deal with their constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of the nation.” White House Press Jen Psaki said Biden “still continues to feel that way.”
Conviction may be a hard vote for Democratic senators in closely divided swing states. Two new Democratic senators – Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Mark Kelly of Arizona – won elections to unexpired terms. They both have to run again in 2022 in states that have elected many Republicans in recent years.
Democrats, meanwhile, have explicitly said that one of their goals is to bar Trump from future public office – a development that would have unknowable effects on congressional and presidential races over the next two political cycles.
Luntz, the pollster, said he might advise Trump to attend the trial and testify.
If Trump wins an acquittal, Luntz said, he can claim vindication and campaign again as the “victim” of political chicanery. “Donald Trump loves to be the victim,” Luntz said.
And if he’s convicted? “Then he’s done,” Luntz said.
Taylor, of The Cook Political Report, noted that predicting what Trump might do is a “futile” exercise.
“He will clearly do what he wants to do,” Taylor said. “He’s not going to stick to a script.”