The Senate leaders have stated their positions clearly and constantly. Chuck Schumer, who leads the Democratic minority, is demanding that John Bolton testify.
Mitch McConnell, who leads the Republicans’ narrow majority, responds that the Senate already has enough evidence to vote. If more was needed, the House should have gotten it when it had the chance. Anyway, the House managers have repeatedly boasted they have ‘overwhelming evidence’. The president’s lawyers add that, if any witnesses are called, they want to call some, too.
They want to hear from former Vice President Biden, his son Hunter, the whistleblower whose complaint started the impeachment, and Rep. Schiff and his staff, who apparently worked with the whistleblower. That’s really a threat, meant to deter the Democrats in two ways. A parade of witnesses would prolong the trial. It would introduce new evidence that might damage the House managers’ case and perhaps to Schiff and Biden personally.
Those are the declared positions. What about the political calculations below the surface? Actually, neither side wants witnesses. The Republicans say so openly. The Democrats cannot. It’s not just that they have been clamoring to hear from John Bolton and other Trump aides. It’s not just because their base wants satisfaction. It’s because their best political move now is to blame Trump’s near-certain acquittal on a ‘Republican cover-up’.
The Democrats’ calculations begin with a simple point. Although Trump’s impeachment and removal won overwhelming support among party activists, it garnered no support among Republican voters and only a split verdict among Independents. The lack of bipartisan support from voters doomed it among their representatives on Capitol Hill. No House Republicans voted to impeach, and there is only a remote prospect any Senate Republican will vote to remove the president. It’s possible that two or three Senate Democrats might join the Republicans in voting for acquittal. The White House will then claim total vindication, hyperbolically argue that it had bipartisan support in this victory, and launch a sustained, high-intensity attack on the whole enterprise, beginning with an investigation into its still-secret origins with the whistleblower, Schiff’s staff, and the odd behavior of the intelligence community’s inspector general. The inspector general’s testimony to Schiff’s committee must be damaging since the Democrats still won’t release it.
For all their hue and cry, many Senate Democrats must secretly hate the thought of witnesses. Yes, their party would gain from John Bolton’s testimony, but they would pay a heavy price to seek it. First, the president would assert executive privilege over Bolton’s testimony and documents, which would drag out the proceedings until the Supreme Court decided the issue. While these appeals dragged on, Senators running for president would be stuck in Washington, off the campaign trail. Then, too, there is no way a Republican-majority Senate is going to permit Democrats to call Bolton unless they can call witnesses of their own. Remember, the House Democrats called 17 witnesses in their investigation and refused to allow the Republicans to call even one. The Senate will demand basic fairness, and they will get it.
As the fight over testimony from Bolton and other White House aides drags on in the courts, Democrats will find it nearly impossible to press their advantage with voters on issues such as health care, which helped them win in 2018. Instead, the Democrats would be held responsible for prolonging the impeachment trial, which would serve as a giant campaign poster for the president’s attack on the ‘Do Nothing Democrats’.
The Democrats would be paying all these political costs to extend a trial whose outcome is virtually certain. Trump will be acquitted.
So, what’s the best achievable outcome for Senate Democrats? Actually, it is a successful, party-line Republican vote to forego witnesses and end the trial now. The Democrats cannot vote for that, but a loss would allow them to say ‘we wanted to know more but Trump and the Republicans wanted to keep us in the dark. It’s a massive cover-up by a criminal president in cahoots with a spineless Republican party.’ Those reliable barometers of Democratic party opinion, CNN and MSNBC, are already saying that. If the Senate ends the trial without witnesses, all Democrats will be saying it.
After the acquittal, Adam Schiff will return to his starring role as the relentless, monomaniacal inspector Javert investigating Trump. Against all odds, he will claim some kind of moral victory and say he would have won if only Trump’s aides had been allowed to testify. Bolton’s book may give him a boost when it eventually appears, followed by a spate of TV interviews, all directed against the president. Senate Republicans, led by Chuck Grassley, Ron Johnson, and Lindsay Graham, will probe the murky origins of the whistleblower complaint and Schiff’s investigation, which launched this impeachment. Trump and his backers will take a victory lap — and use it to damn Democrats until the election. They can say the Democrats, the Deep State, and their media allies wanted to deny Americans a chance to choose their own president. That argument will be a lot stronger if US Attorney John Durham indicts senior members of the Obama administration. But mainly President Trump will stress how well the economy is performing and how much it is benefiting average workers. His message: don’t kill the goose that keeps laying golden eggs. Finally, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet can escape the Senate chamber and head back to the campaign trail.
As this battle recedes in the rear-view mirror, I suspect the American public will remember it much as they do Bill Clinton’s impeachment. A serious mistake. The looming question is whether they will punish those who made it.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security.