Impeachment trial throws curveball into 2020 race
The Senate impeachment trial is threatening to ground several White House hopefuls during a crucial stretch of the 2020 primary race.
With a Senate trial likely to start as early as January, it would put a proceeding in the immediate run-up to — and potentially in the middle of — the early voting states.
The dynamic has Democrats in a bind: Keeping several contenders largely stuck in Washington could be a boost to candidates who are not lawmakers, such as former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
But senators running for president will also get a front-row, albeit silent, seat to the biggest story in Washington.
“There’s not a lot they can do about it,” said Jim Manley, a longtime aide for former Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “For those in the Senate, it is what it is. They’re going to have to figure out how to deal with it.”
Of the 17 candidates currently battling for the party’s presidential nomination, six of the remaining ones are members of the Senate, meaning they’ll be expected to participate in any trial as a member of the jury.
The presidential candidates are already signaling they plan to return to Washington, pulling themselves off the campaign trail, if the effort to remove Trump from office advances to a Senate trial.
“I will fulfill my constitutional responsibility regardless of how Mitch McConnell decides to politicize and game this process,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said in a statement to The Hill.
Campaign aides for Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said their respective candidates would take part in a trial and “fulfill their constitutional duty,” while a spokesman for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) confirmed that he will “participate.”
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) have also publicly committed to taking part in a Senate impeachment trial.
“This is going to be a very serious matter, and, of course, the House has to vote first. But think there are a lot of senators on both sides of the aisle in the Senate that take their responsibility very seriously when it comes to our job,” Klobuchar said a Fox News interview on Thursday.
Warren similarly told reporters in New Hampshire, while in the state to formally register her name for the ballot, that she “will be there for the trial” if the House sends articles of impeachment over to the Senate.
The threat of a Senate trial was immediately felt at the Democratic debate in Atlanta this month, where the first questions were about impeachment.
It’s entirely possible one or more of the senators will no longer be in the race by the time impeachment rolls into the Senate.
While Warren and Sanders are viewed as top-tier candidates, Harris has slipped since a headline-making performance in the first debate. Bennet, who is routinely seen in the Capitol, hasn’t qualified for a primary debate since making it to the stage in July.
But if they remain in the race, an impeachment trial will mark a historic curveball in a presidential primary and effectively prevent them from the day-to-day, face-to-face glad-handing that dominates early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
The Senate’s impeachment rules, absent a broader agreement worked out by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), require the chamber to begin a trial the day after they receive articles of impeachment from the Senate unless that’s a Sunday.
A proceeding would also run every day but Sunday, from early afternoon until early evening, on the Senate floor, not to mention the frequent caucus meetings and strategy sessions that are all but guaranteed to pop up before and after the official actions.
House leaders haven’t committed to a specific timeline for an impeachment inquiry vote, though some rank-and-file Democrats as well as Senate Republicans view a floor vote on impeachment articles by Christmas as a likely scenario.
Under the Clinton impeachment timeline, the House voted on articles of impeachment in mid-December and a Senate trial formally began on Jan. 7. The trial then ran from Jan. 7 until Feb. 12, approximately five weeks.
Senate Republicans haven’t landed on a specific timeline for a trial, though McConnell has repeatedly stressed he expects there will be one.
The GOP leader is using the Clinton impeachment trial as a loose guidebook as he games out what a Trump proceeding would look like, though members of his caucus have thrown out everything from one or two weeks to up to two months.
Republicans are also aware of how the Senate trial could wreak havoc on Democrats’ 2020 field.
McConnell told reporters he hoped the Senate could wrap up after a “not too lengthy” process and took a direct shot at the impact it will have on White House hopefuls.
“A number of Democratic senators are running for president. I’m sure they’re gonna be excited to be here in their chairs not being able to say anything during the pendency of this trial. So hopefully we’ll work our way through it and finish it in not too lengthy a process,” he told reporters.
Senators view a trial as likely to start in early January. Under the Clinton impeachment timeline, a trial that started on Jan. 1 would run until days after the Iowa caucus, which is scheduled for Feb. 3.
Klobuchar has floated that she could use campaign surrogates, if necessary, in the early voting states. A Booker campaign aide, meanwhile, said they’re waiting to make any changes to his schedule because neither the House nor Senate has a firm timetable.
“We are waiting for that until we can decide what we will do,” the Booker aide added.
Their Democratic colleagues are signaling they will not try to cut short a trial in order to help the 2020 candidates, arguing the historic nature and constitutional implications of impeachment trump the election.
Democrats are starting to brush up on Clinton impeachment trial as they try to familiarize themselves with what a Trump proceeding could look like. Schumer, according to an aide, has also been in touch with each of the 2020 contenders, as well as the broader caucus, about a potential Senate trial.
“The bottom line is impeachment is one of the most solemn responsibilities that the Constitution gives the Senate,” Schumer told reporters when asked about the 2020 implications. “We’re not going to let scheduling requests get in the way of that solemn responsibility, period.”