As the Senate wrapped up its long, loud squabbling about the rules of the impending impeachment trial in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, it was obvious that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had successfully lured Democrats into yet another procedural trap. The louder the partisan shouting gets, the more McConnell has succeeded in making the president's crimes seem like just another day in a D.C. that is widely loathed by voters. Now in full control of the trial proceedings, and hence the president's fate, McConnell will hold his attenuated trial, the president will huff and puff about total exoneration, and Democrats, still scared of their own shadows and neurotically obsessing over losing a single white voter who can walk to a cornfield, will have kicked away yet another opportunity to properly leverage their power.
It didn't have to be this way.
When leading Democrats rushed to impeach the president this past fall over the unfolding Ukraine scandal, they were unwittingly playing into the hands of the president and McConnell. While I have always thought the political case for removing Trump was underrated for Republicans, there was probably never any significant chance that McConnell's senate would vote to convict the president. For some Democrats, that meant that impeachment itself was a dangerous waste of time that would inevitably result in a very public victory for President Trump.
Others wanted to stand on principle, outcome be damned. But Democrats should always have considered doing what McConnell himself would have done if he had been in Pelosi's shoes — keep the inquiry open as long as possible, strategically deploy leaks and hearings at critical moments like the GOP's summer nominating convention, investigate every possible avenue of the president's wrongdoing in committee after committee, and then sit on it until the upper hand is yours. Maybe you impeach the president close to the election so the Senate has no time to convict. Or maybe you prepare two dozen articles of impeachment and hold onto them in case the president is re-elected. Then impeach him on Inauguration Day. The point is to recognize that the current Senate is an immovable object, and to figure out a way around it rather than plowing directly into it at 65 miles per hour.
Pelosi herself seemed to belatedly realize the fundamental dynamic at play here when she refused for several weeks to turn over the articles of impeachment to the Senate. It's hard to believe that she or anyone else in the Democratic caucus thought that McConnell would conduct a fair trial. So what did they think was going to happen, exactly? I can't blame them for hoping for a sharper turn in public opinion against the president, but that ship had sailed long before the full House voted on the articles on December 18.
The case for slow-rolling impeachment in the House was threefold. From a substantive standpoint, the White House's hyper-aggressive stonewalling meant that critical witnesses like former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and the Logorrhea-stricken ringleader Rudy Giuliani would not be heard from. The only person in the actual cabal who Americans got to see testify was EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland. Democrats feared their subpoenas would get tied up in court for too long, perhaps past the election, or that the rulings would not go their way. But it's not clear how that's not preferable to what is transpiring now.
Would Trump's cronies have melted down under the pressure and admitted to everything under oath in some kind of Colonel Jessup moment? Probably not. But they would have had to perjure themselves and spend the rest of their lives worried about the emergence of new evidence, like witness-protected ex-mafiosos who sleep with a gun under the pillow in fear that they've been found. And they almost certainly would have slipped at some point and accidentally told the truth about something, a la Mick Mulvaney's "we do that all the time" press conference. The thing about a lot of these people is that they are both corrupt and stupid. They wouldn't hold up forever.
The second reason was that there were obviously more shoes to drop. Yes, the basic outline of the president's wretched Ukraine caper have been clear since September: Giuliani spearheaded a campaign to blackmail the new Ukrainian president into announcing investigations into Hunter Biden's time on the board of the energy firm Burisma as well as the LSD-spiked fever dream that Kyiv, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Critical military aid was held up, and a White House visit conditioned on the announcements. The twin goals were sabotaging the 2020 election and undermining the findings of the Mueller investigation.
The Giuliani end of this scheme always promised more revelations. And sure enough, over the past few weeks we've learned potentially explosive new details from Giuliani bagman Lev Parnas, including that former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was under surveillance and that her life may have been threatened by some collection of Giuliani's goons. And the more we learn about these efforts, the more questions we have about why and when the influence operation started and who in the Trump administration was involved. Ukrainian officials seem to agree, and have opened a criminal inquiry into the Yovanovitch affair. Does any Democrat in the House really think they've heard the last bombshell?
The third reason brings us to McConnell. The moment they passed the articles of impeachment, Democrats were handing control of the impeachment process over to McConnell, the master manipulator who has outfoxed and wrong-footed Democrats at nearly every juncture over the past decade. The Senate floor defeat of his Obamacare repeal effort should be thought of more like Yankees closer Mariano Rivera blowing Game 7 of the 2001 World Series — a rare stumble that only highlighted how dominant he was the rest of the time. And like Rivera, who threw the same pitch over and over and over again, McConnell runs the same play every time, and Democrats still can't make anything more than weak contact.
That play is very simple. If something will benefit Republicans and screw over Democrats, it will be done, as long as it doesn't explicitly violate the Constitution. The majority leader relentlessly uses the Democrats' instinctive protectiveness of good government, procedural fairness and professionalism against them, with a kind of weaponized cynicism that somehow still surprises people. He'll negotiate, only to capitulate to his hardliners. He'll sucker Democrats into compromise, only to then violate either the spirit or the letter of it, often both. He'll let his "moderates" make ambiguous remarks that give Democrats hope, only to whip them into line when it really matters.
Democrats should have played keep-away from McConnell for as long as possible. Instead, they let Nate Cohn's Midwest polls and the Sunday show geniuses get into their heads and convince them that impeachment was some kind of grenade they had just enough time to pull the pin on and run away.
That's what they did. And it did some damage. Fifty-one percent of Americans believe the president should be removed from office, according to one recent CNN poll, with 58 percent saying he abused the powers of his office. The president has spent months mewling about the unfairness of it all instead of making an affirmative case for his re-election. Every day he looks tinier.
But now Democrats are realizing that they left the door open for McConnell to come in and sweep the shards under the rug. It's what he does best, and when he wraps this thing up before the Iowa caucuses and the public moves on, Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves.
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