Why you should care
Because, for once, we don't know how this will end.
For the lion’s share of the Trump presidency, the drama about whether Republicans would stick with him was as staged as a boardroom meeting on The Apprentice. Sure, there’s the anonymous grumbling, the on-record concerns, the occasional defenestration of a defector (RIP, Mark Sanford). But in the end, given Donald Trump’s ability to cultivate and stoke the Republican base, his party’s elected leaders have his back when he needs it most.
We are miles from the “You’re fired” stage of U.S. Senate Republicans’ relationship with the president. And Trump’s dramatic announcement Sunday that U.S. special forces had killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a major win that will help quell some Republican foreign-policy unease, at least in the short term. But for the first time, you’re starting to see real trepidation — on both sides — about where this is going.
It has a lot to do with U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, who last week provided detailed testimony behind closed doors in the House about how Trump held up security assistance in part because he wanted Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce on CNN that he was investigating Joe Biden. There is much more digging yet to do — expect former National Security Adviser John Bolton to be a star witness before long — but Taylor’s take produced gasps inside the room. Or at least that’s what we are told, as this all happened behind closed doors.
It remains a long way to get to 20 Republicans who would pitch him overboard for the required two-thirds vote for removal.
The “transparency” argument against impeachment is what Republicans are going with at the moment. It’s what prompted a bunch of House Republicans to storm a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) and order pizza last week, to make a point about how they should be allowed to take part in the hearings … even though Republicans who serve on the relevant committees are in on every one of the closed-door confabs. Democrats say the pseudo-secrecy — they all blab immediately to the press about what was said — is so witnesses can’t get their stories straight in advance. But televised hearings are coming soon, requiring Republicans to come up with a new process argument.
Down the hall in the more staid Senate, uncertainty reigns. Institutionalists bemoan how the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body has become more like the super-partisan, leadership-driven House, but they do still carry themselves differently in the land of six-year terms. And few of the Republicans have any real affinity to Trump.
Just take a look at what Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, had to say of impeachment last week: “The picture coming out of it, based on the reporting that we’ve seen, I would say is not a good one.” He then went on to complain about transparency, and he signed on to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s resolution that the House must stop impeachment proceedings until it votes to move forward and gives Trump “fundamental constitutional protections.” But three Senate Republicans wouldn’t even sign on to that mild language, and few are defending Trump on the merits of his approach to Kyiv.
And Trump is starting to feel the heat: A week earlier, he reversed himself on holding the G7 at his own golf resort — something pre-impeachment Trump never would have done — and word emerged Friday that the Trump Organization is considering selling its D.C. hotel, ground zero for foreign governments to line Trump’s pockets in possible violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution (or, in Trump’s words, “phony emoluments clause”).
The swift pace of testimony and leaks from the hearing room are playing well for Democrats so far. And Ukraine could well be the tip of the iceberg, with Trump openly saying China should investigate the Bidens and adviser Peter Navarro refusing to say whether the Bidens have come up in trade talks with the Chinese.
With Taylor’s testimony, it was the week impeachment solidified as a done deal in the House. So the question will fall to the Senate sometime near the end of the year or early next. It remains a long way to get to 20 Republicans who would pitch him overboard for the required two-thirds vote for removal. To do so would be tantamount to throwing the 2020 election, as the fractured party would be impossible to knit back together in time under Mike Pence or anyone else. But these Republicans might figure the damage has piled high enough that Democrats are bound to win anyway. And for these Republicans who never liked the dude in the first place, to purge Trump, and Trumpism, now might make things easier in the long run.
So think about the 10 Republicans who don’t have to face voters again until 2024, the four retiring this cycle (Johnny Isakson is leaving at year’s end, so he wouldn’t participate if the trial drags into January), the senators facing tough races in 2020 (Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, Martha McSally) and a few wild cards (Richard Burr isn’t running again in 2022, Ben Sasse has been a sometimes-critic) and one can imagine a critical mass forming … maybe. As one Senate GOP aide told me last week, of an impeachment trial and removal vote: “I have no idea what it looks like at any point.”
The most likely outcome by far: Republican consensus congeals around Trump’s actions being bad, but not bad enough to warrant removal, with voters about to decide that very question in a matter of months. And the wall holds. But that a sliver of doubt exists is a remarkable development.