The Memo: Democrats, GOP face dangers from Trump trial

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Former President Trump is returning to center-stage this week as the Senate conducts his impeachment trial — and the process brings political risks for both parties.

Republicans will be confronted with graphic scenes of violence during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and will not relish the idea of having to defend the inflammatory rhetoric from Trump that preceded it.

But Democrats also run the risk of distracting from President Biden’s agenda, just as momentum appears to be building behind his crucial COVID-19 relief package.

Adding to the frustration on both sides, the outcome of the trial is a foregone conclusion. The chances are essentially zero that at least 17 Republicans will vote to convict the former president, the threshold likely needed to secure a conviction.

When Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) put forth a measure seeking to have the trial declared unconstitutional, only five GOP senators defied him.

“I think both parties realize it is in their self-interest to put this behind them. It is a political calculation,” said Matt Gorman, a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“Democrats realize they have a very tight timetable on the COVID package and Republicans don’t want to spend weeks talking about Donald Trump and his involvement in Jan. 6,” Gorman added.

The White House seems to see things in a broadly similar way.

At a media briefing on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted that Biden would not “spend too much time watching” the Senate trial. At a later point in the briefing, Psaki emphasized that the trial would not be “a primary focus for him this week — or of his senior staff either.”

As questions on the topic persisted, Psaki eventually told reporters: “I’m just not going to have any more for you on weighing in on impeachment.”

Still, Biden has a careful line to walk. There are many in his party who believe there is a moral imperative to try to convict Trump. Lawmakers who felt their lives were in imminent danger during the insurrection are adding emotional heft to that argument.

Several Democratic lawmakers, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have made the argument that, if incitement of a mob that ransacked the Capitol does not amount to an impeachable offense, what would?

An Economist-YouGov poll conducted Jan. 31-Feb. 2 indicated the nation was almost evenly split on the question of whether Trump should be convicted, with 45 percent of adults saying he should be and 43 percent saying he should not.  

Eighty-five percent of Democrats believed he should be convicted; 84 percent of Republicans took the opposite tack. But self-described independents leaned against conviction, with 50 percent saying Trump should not be convicted compared to 41 percent saying he should.

Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf argued that Republicans’ staunch support for Trump could retain perhaps 40 percent of the national electorate — but also deepen the GOP’s trouble in reaching beyond that base.

Sheinkopf acknowledged that there were dangers for Democrats, in terms of expending time and effort on a process that has no real chance of succeeding.

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, outlined a related danger.

“Biden’s theme was unity and this absolutely steps on any concept of unity,” he said. “There is no way that an impeachment trial is going to bring any sense of stability or unity to the federal government.”

At the same time, Berkovitz noted, Republicans in Washington would for the most part prefer not to have to think or talk about Trump for some time.

“I would think that Republicans would have wanted to lock Trump in a basement at Mar-a-Lago,” he said. “Out of sight, out of mind would be the best thing for them.”

The problem for the GOP seems particularly acute since the party is already in the middle of internal fractures that have seen Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) push back an attempt to oust her from House leadership after she voted to impeach Trump. There have also been tensions over a Trump ally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a onetime QAnon supporter who has also expressed support for violence against Democrats, including Pelosi.

The hope on both sides appears to be that the impeachment trial will be a kind of kabuki theater, where each side plays its preordained role — and the matter ends swiftly.

“I think we spend too much time focusing on things that a small percentage of the people actually care about,” said Gorman, the GOP strategist. “It’s a very small portion of the country could actually tell you who Marjorie Taylor Greene is or could discuss Liz Cheney’s leadership role.”

“I’m not saying that a presidential impeachment is unimportant, it’s just that we lose perspective,” he added.

For Sheinkopf, the Democratic strategist, the only question that really matters is whether Biden can get a grip on COVID-19 and its attendant economic damage.

“If he performs, all is forgiven,” he said. “If people are back at work, no one is going to remember this.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Capitol breach Donald Trump Impeachment Jen Psaki Joe Biden Liz Cheney Nancy Pelosi Rand Paul

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