Democrats worry impeachment acquittal will embolden Trump

Senate Democrats are bracing for President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump orders US troops back to active duty for coronavirus response Trump asserts power to decide info inspector general for stimulus gives Congress Fighting a virus with the wrong tools MORE to seize on the outcome of the upcoming impeachment trial as a source of momentum for his reelection bid.

With 67 votes needed to convict and remove Trump from office, the trial’s outcome is largely pre-baked since Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the chamber. Democrats are worried that an acquittal will only embolden the president, and they feel powerless to prevent it. 

“No matter what we do, the president is going to say he did nothing wrong,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyLawmakers, labor leaders ramp up calls to use Defense Production Act Senate rejects GOP attempt to change unemployment benefits in coronavirus stimulus bill Last-minute complaints threaten T Senate coronavirus emergency aid MORE (D-Conn.).

ADVERTISEMENT

“We all know the president,” said Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinLegal immigrants at risk of losing status during coronavirus pandemic Senate rejects GOP attempt to change unemployment benefits in coronavirus stimulus bill Senators pen op-ed calling for remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “If there are not 67 votes to convict in the Senate, he’ll claim that it was a witch hunt and that he was exonerated.” 

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSenate on cusp of coronavirus stimulus deal after agreements in key areas Some Democrats growing antsy as Senate talks drag on Who should be the Democratic vice presidential candidate? MORE (D-Va.), when asked about the potential fallout from an acquittal, added: “I am worried about that, but I think this president feels unconstrained by anything already.” 

Trump became only the third U.S. president to be impeached after the House passed two articles, largely along party lines, on Dec. 18. The first charged him with abuse of power in his dealings with Ukraine, and the second with obstructing Congress during its investigation of those actions. 

Republicans are already pledging to give him an early election-year victory by acquitting him of the charges at the culmination of the Senate trial.

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate includes 0M for mail-in voting in coronavirus spending deal Hillicon Valley: Facebook reports huge spike in usage during pandemic | Democrats push for mail-in voting funds in coronavirus stimulus | Trump delays deadline to acquire REAL ID Democrats press for more stimulus funding to boost mail-in voting MORE (D-Del.) said in a recent “Meet the Press” interview on NBC that he was “gravely concerned” about Trump’s potential behavior between the end of the Senate trial and the 2020 election.

“If he is ultimately exonerated in the Senate, if the Senate Republican majority refuses to discipline him through impeachment, he will be unbounded,” Coons said, predicting that there would be “no restrictions” on Trump’s behavior. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Concern about the possible repercussions stemming from Trump being acquitted comes as the Senate is expected to start the trial in January, though the exact date is in limbo amid a standoff between Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Trump signs T coronavirus relief package Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing MORE (R-Ky.) over the rules of the chamber’s proceedings. 

Trump is pushing for a quick trial, tweeting that “no more time should be wasted on this impeachment scam.”

“This Witch Hunt must end NOW with a trial in the Senate,” he added.

Republicans are increasingly rallying behind a shorter trial that might not include any witnesses. Instead, one path outlined by GOP senators would be to let the House impeachment managers and White House defense team make their case, allow senators to ask questions and then move directly to votes on the two articles of impeachment. 

Though both McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTexas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing COVID-19, Bill Barr and the American authoritarian tradition MORE (D-N.Y.) have said they hope to reach a bipartisan deal on the trial rules, no progress is expected on that front until the first week of January at the earliest, when senators return to Washington. Absent a deal between the two leaders, 51 senators will be able to determine the shape of the trial since only a simple majority is needed to decide procedural motions.

That scenario has sparked concern among Democrats, who worry McConnell could try to force through his own rules resolution if enough of his caucus is on board.

“If the Senate essentially treats this trial like a sham … doesn't call witnesses and tries to end it quickly, tries to call witnesses that have nothing to do with the Ukraine matter and with these matters that we are discussing in these articles, then I think this just emboldens the president even further to continue to do what he's doing,” Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalPelosi says House will review Senate coronavirus stimulus package Critical supplies shortage hampers hospitals, health providers Washington state lawmakers warn health workers running low on protective gear MORE (D-Wash.) told MSNBC. 

Democrats, while saying they want a “speedy” trial,” have outlined a list of Ukraine-related documents and witnesses they believe should be included. 

They’ve asked for four witnesses, including former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonBolton defends decision to shutter NSC pandemic office US retaliates with missile strikes in Iraq The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the APTA - A huge night for Joe Biden MORE and acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyTrump to nominate Russell Vought as budget chief Warren, Brown press consumer bureau on auto lending oversight Bottom line MORE. Schumer also sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to the full Senate outlining what documents Democrats are requesting, namely Ukraine-related communications between top White House officials. 

Democrats need to win over at least four GOP senators to get their desired witnesses or documents, and are expected to force votes on the Senate floor. No Republicans have backed their request, but Democrats are warning that a trial without witnesses or additional documents would amount to a “sham.”

“I believe that if we don't do this seriously and get all the facts out, yes, America's at risk because that will mean we'll never have a real impeachment trial. Because if you can't get the fundamental and basic facts getting out to the public and for the senators to hear, this president could be further emboldened,” Schumer told reporters. 

He added that if Trump could avoid “any serious trial by withholding facts, withholding witnesses, withholding documents, the country has future trouble.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Even if Democrats can’t prevent a Trump acquittal, they argue that the severity of the accusations against him left impeachment as their only option. They hope that the evidence presented during the earlier House inquiry and the upcoming trial will convince Americans, if not their GOP colleagues, that Trump abused the power of the presidency.

“I think the evidence speaks for itself, and most people across this country … I believe will come to the same conclusion that no president should be allowed to misuse or abuse the power of his office for political or personal benefit,” Durbin said. 

Murphy added that voters would recognize that Democrats were drawing a “line in the sand.” 

“I think it’s really important to communicate to the country and the world that there still exists some moral center of gravity in this country,” Murphy said. “The president and many Republicans may have strayed far from it but we need to have an anchor, and this process provides a moral anchor.”