It won’t be long before the noise of the impeachment proceedings grows tedious. But there were parts of the first day of action that were compelling, if only due to the change of venue.
The action moved from House committee rooms to the Senate floor, buzzing with 100 percent attendance, the electricity of anticipation and the robed Chief Justice John Roberts at the helm. Before any actual arguments begin, the schedule called for a debate on the procedural roadmap the proceedings will follow. Both sides took the opportunity to wrap their arguments in generous imagery that they will be deploying in further detail later. Democrats complained that any process that does not allow them unfettered witness and document access is a “cover-up." Republicans lamented the very prospect of having to defend President Trump against charges so thin.
Freed from his committee chairman’s throne, Adam Schiff brought a conversational style to his House manager role that evaded him during the weeks of lopsided hearings. I obviously found his content wanting, but he was less annoying than when he held the gavel.
For the Trump team’s part, lead attorney Pat Cipollone’s opening remarks were brief and halting. His skill and comfort with the written word did not translate immediately to television; the ensuing remarks from Jay Sekulow, delivered with the talk show skills he wields alongside his law career, made me wonder who needed to walk the point in the days ahead.
But Cipollone soon found his pace, weaving a story of Democrats bent on subverting the 2016 election results while simultaneously attempting to remove Trump from the ballot this year. “They’re not here to steal one election, they’re here to steal two elections,” he argued. “It’s outrageous and the American people are not going to stand for it.”
Both sides are banking on a wave of public reaction as the days pass. The Trump team wants viewers to join them in asking why the nation must be put through this. The House managers want them to wonder what the president is afraid of in opposing fresh witnesses.
It is the witness question that will determine how long the trial lasts. The 24 accusatory hours will now play out over three days instead of two. The Trump response is afforded 24 of its own hours and surely will not claim all of them.
Then we will get 16 hours of senators asking questions, which should wake us up. Republicans will ask about long-standing Democratic impeachment obsessions and the foot-dragging that followed their claims of pressing urgency. Democrats will ask Trump attorneys about their claim that the president “did nothing wrong,” despite the GAO report suggesting that the withholding of Ukraine aid money was in fact illegal. I trust one of them will be able to explain that the GAO is entitled to its opinion, but it is not dispositive.
We now move to a few days of predictability. Who doesn’t know the gist of what both sides will say? In fact, watching the gravity of today’s events, I wondered: Will all this time and money change one mind? The final vote will not come close to presidential removal, but could there be Republican defections? Today’s votes fell along party lines. The issue of witnesses may see discordant votes from Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, if not others. But I don’t believe there is one Republican senator who wants to explain to GOP constituents about a vote to remove president nearly all of them surely voted for and intend to vote for again.
But are there Democrats who face a similar prospect? Joe Manchin of West Virginia represents a state Trump won by more than 40 points, sweeping every county. In Alabama, Doug Jones would like to hang on to his temporarily Democratic seat in a state Trump dominated by nearly 30 points. He won Arizona by only four, but some eyes are on Kyrsten Sinema, especially if other Democrats telegraph a willingness to vote to acquit.
That culminating vote could come next week without witnesses; with them, it may take us beyond next month.
In the speculative game of who is benefited in each case, I’m settling on the notion that a protracted trial is not good for anyone. Democrats run the risk of angering voters who will blame them for the arduous exercise; Republicans have to remember that each day of coverage is a chorus of bullhorns dominated by a media culture that despises Trump, and will find ways to spin every development against him.