WASHINGTON – You talking to me?
The obvious audience in the impeachment trial now heading into its second week is the one sitting in the Senate, of course, the 100 senators under orders to listen silently at their desks without the diversion of cellphones or snacks. The House impeachment managers and President Donald Trump’s attorneys have directed their arguments to the jurors who will decide whether the president should be removed from office.
But they’re not speaking only to them.
The prosecution and the defense, the president and the House speaker, the Democratic presidential hopefuls stuck in the Senate and those out on the campaign trail, the advocacy groups and the others in the galaxy that is impeachment have various audiences in mind. That helps explain why they often seem to be talking past each other and, occasionally, living on different planets.
It also makes calculations about winners and losers more complicated than simply whether the president is convicted, an unlikely prospect. Trump’s trial could have other important consequences, potentially affecting the opening Democratic caucuses in Iowa and crucial Senate contests in Maine, Colorado, Arizona and elsewhere. The ultimate verdict may arrive in November, when voters decide whether to give Trump a second term in the White House, or to boot him.
The audiences being targeted don’t form a Russian nesting doll, with one fitting neatly in the next. It’s more like a Venn diagram, with some audiences overlapping with others and some in a world of their own.
Start with the audience of one: Trump.
He’s been watching.
An hour before Saturday’s session began, Trump began tweeting from the White House, urging everyone to tune in to what is, in some ways, the ultimate reality-TV show: “Our case against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam “Shifty” Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nervous Nancy Pelosi, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrat Party, starts today at 10:00 A.M. on @FoxNews, @OANN or Fake News @CNN or Fake News MSDNC!”
When White House counsel Pat Cipollone opened the defense, his language was more lawyerly and his tone lower-key, but his message was an echo of his client’s. He argued that House Democrats had twisted the facts and ignored exonerating evidence. “You’ll find that the president did absolutely nothing wrong,” he declared, calling the investigators guilty of trying to tamper with the will of the American people. “For all their talk about election interference,” he said, “they’re here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history.”
In a two-hour presentation, he and two other Trump attorneys touched on themes the president often hammers, from the unsubstantiated allegation that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to suggestions of political bias by the whistleblower whose report sparked the impeachment hearings.
Trump’s team wasn’t alone in speaking with the president in mind. If Cipollone wanted to please his boss, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was trying to needle him. Pelosi, who has demonstrated a rare ability to get under Trump’s skin, made a point of preemptively dismissing an argument he is expected to trumpet, assuming he’s acquitted – that he has been vindicated.
“He’s been impeached forever,” Pelosi said when she announced she was ready to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate, calling it a permanent stain on his legacy. “They can never erase that.”
Then all 100 senators.
The Constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes, to remove a president from office. If all 47 senators in the Democratic caucus vote to convict the president, they would still need the support of 20 of their Republican colleagues to reach that threshold. So far, not one of the 53 GOP senators has signaled that he or she is seriously considering doing that.
Impeachment timetable:What happens now in the Senate trial
That’s one reason the secondary audiences loom as so important: The odds of disrupting the partisan divide in that first audience are low.
And the four who matter most.
Four Republican senators – Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah – have expressed a willingness to consider supporting Democrats’ demand to subpoena witnesses and documents. That would extend the trial and could give investigators the opportunity to question such central figures as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton.
Both prosecution and defense have done what they can to be solicitous of the four. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a rare concession in the rules last week after Collins and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman objected to the fairness of requiring Democrats to cram their 24 hours of presentation into two marathon days. The change to three days was made so belatedly that it was scratched in by hand on the resolution.
Schiff’s closing remarks late Friday were tailored for the quartet. The California Democrat cited the historic legacy of those who had been willing to buck their party, quoting Robert Kennedy as saying “moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle.” But he may have made a misstep when he then cited a CBS News report that key Senate Republicans had been warned that their “head will be on a pike” if they voted against the president.
Collins could be seen shaking her head in the Senate chamber, without uttering a word opening a flood of speculation, and Murkowski later made her annoyance clear at the suggestion they were being bullied. “I thought he was doing fine with ‘moral courage’ until he got to the ‘head on a pike,'” she told reporters afterward. “That’s where he lost me.”
After Saturday’s session, Romney told reporters it was “very likely I’ll be in favor of witnesses,” although he said he hadn’t made a final decision.
Meanwhile, there’s Iowa.
The presidential season opens in just a week, on Monday, Feb. 3, when the Iowa caucuses convene. Even though the Democratic field has narrowed, it is still the biggest in history, and competitive. Four or even five of the contenders have some shot at winning the caucuses and reaping the momentum that follows into New Hampshire and beyond.
But in the final days of this campaign, when they typically would be living in Iowa, four of them have been stuck in the Senate. They include Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has led some recent Iowa polls, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who won the coveted endorsement of The Des Moines Registeron Sunday. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is the dark horse in the race who is counting most on making the personal connections that come with being there.
The fourth Senate contender, Michael Bennet of Colorado, has yet to break through.
“No one has ever run in a major race like this, that’s this close, when you have to be back in the Senate the whole time,” Klobuchar said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “But I figure the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are going to understand that I have a constitutional duty to fulfill. And the fact that I have this real job and that I’m in the arena and that I’m actually taking on the Trump administration and all of their shenanigans and behavior, I think that’s actually a good thing.”
She and the others have tried to make a virtue out of necessity. During truncated weekend trips and satellite interviews before the trial day begins and after it ends, they note that they are on the job, fulfilling a grave obligation and holding to account a president Democratic voters in Iowa and elsewhere want to oust.
But especially in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, there’s nothing like being there, a presence voters have come to expect. The absence of some of their rivals has been a boon to former Vice President Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. They have been able to make their closing arguments in person.
There is a potential complication for Biden, though. While he rarely mentions the impeachment trial, the impeachment trial sometimes mentions him. At the center of the charges are Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to announce a corruption investigation into Biden and his son Hunter. Trump’s team has promised a full-throated attack on Biden when the trial resumes Monday. “Believe me, you’ll hear about that issue,” Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer, told reporters.
Joe Biden said he did nothing wrong when, as vice president, he pressured Ukraine to address corruption. Trump’s allegation that Biden acted improperly has been debunked by independent fact-checkers. But the former vice president has struggled to effectively explain his son’s lucrative contract with a Ukrainian gas company at the time, which raised at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Biden’s most fundamental campaign argument is that he’s the Democratic candidate best able to defeat Trump. Will reminding voters about the controversy, fairly or not, raise questions among them about whether that’s true?
Finally, you, the voters.
Trump is in uncharted territory. He is the first president to be impeached and running for reelection. At the moment, it’s unclear what the impact will be in November, or even whether there will be much impact. Polls have shown little change in Trump’s standing or hypothetical match-ups against Democrats in key states since the hearings began in the House.
Republicans say the impeachment trial has galvanized the president’s political base and boosted their fundraising. “BREAKING: The Senate began their bogus Impeachment trial to look into my PERFECT PHONE CALL,” the welcome screen on Trump’s campaign website shouts. “Please contribute ANY AMOUNT in the NEXT 24 HOURS to help CRUSH our $2 MILLION goal.”
Meanwhile, Michael Bloomberg, now seeking the Democratic nomination against Trump, last week began airing a TV ad in 27 states pegged to the impeachment trial. “It’s time for the Senate to act and remove Trump for office,” the former New York City mayor declares. “And if they won’t do their job, this November you and I will.”