The Memo: Day One shows conflicting narratives on impeachment

The Memo: Day One shows conflicting narratives on impeachment
© Greg Nash

The third impeachment trial of an American president got underway in earnest on Tuesday, amid an atmosphere of instant recrimination and polarization.

One small exception came when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKentucky state official says foreign adversaries 'routinely' scan election systems Don't let 'welfare for all' advocates derail administration's food stamp program reforms Whistleblower retaliation: Stop confusing unlawful attacks with politics MORE (R-Ky.) made a last-minute concession, announcing that each side would have three days — not two as he had previously asserted — to make its case.

But that was a rare, and relatively minor, shift from McConnell, who has previously said that he would coordinate the conduct of the trial with the White House.

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“Do Americans really believe he wants a fair trial? I don’t think so,” McConnell’s Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerBarr to testify before House Judiciary panel Graham won't call Barr to testify over Roger Stone sentencing recommendation Roger Stone witness alleges Trump targeted prosecutors in 'vile smear job' MORE (N.Y.), said at a news conference before proceedings got underway.

When the action moved to the Senate floor, the arguments ran along well-worn tracks — but with added gravity and drama percolating through the day’s events.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTop intelligence community lawyer leaving position Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Democrats fear rule of law crumbling under Trump MORE (D-Calif.) spearheaded the Democratic case in the upper chamber.

The president’s lawyers, Pat Cipollone and Jay SekulowJay Alan SekulowWhat the impeachment vote looked like from inside the chamber Senate votes to acquit Trump on articles of impeachment Roberts emerges unscathed from bitter impeachment trial MORE, laid out the counterattack — surely mindful that Trump himself would be monitoring proceedings from 4,200 miles away, where he was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

No one expects Trump to be convicted and removed from office. Such an outcome would require about 20 Republican senators to turn on him, and there is no evidence this will happen.

But both parties, and the allies clustered around Trump, know the battle for public opinion is of vital importance to the president’s hopes of a second term. 

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Will Trump be wounded, politically speaking, by the presentation of evidence against him and the spotlight on the trial? 

Or can he and his allies jiujitsu the process to their advantage, arguing that Democrats are seeking to undo the verdict of the voters who elected the 45th president in the first place?

“It is an extremely historic event. Everyone has remarked that it is only the third impeachment trial in U.S history but its significance goes far beyond that,” said Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University and the author of a 2017 book calling for Trump’s impeachment. 

“The charges are by far the most serious charges ever leveled against an American president,” he said.

For Democrats, the evidence is clear-cut that Trump sought to pressure a foreign leader — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine — to interfere in American politics by investigating former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Biden will go after Bloomberg, Sanders at Las Vegas debate, aides say MORE and his son Hunter Biden.

Democrats cite the White House’s own record of the call, as well as damning evidence that was presented to the House during its investigation — including by the United States ambassador to the European Union, Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandCongress looks to strengthen hand in State Department following impeachment Trump unleashed: President moves with a free hand post-impeachment Donald Trump: Unrepentant, on the attack and still playing the victim MORE.

Schiff, speaking on the Senate floor, accused the GOP of trying to “rush the trial … to cover up his misdeeds,” as senators looked on impassively.

But Cipollone and Sekulow hit back in fiery speeches. 

Team Trump’s case is centered less on the evidence and more on the contention that Democrats are engaged in a partisan effort to oust the president.

Sekulow insisted “there was a desire to see him removed” from the day Trump took office. Cipollone accused Democrats of wanting to “steal two elections” — the suggestion being that the opposition party was trying to both invalidate Trump’s 2016 win and stymie his chances of a second term.

One key question is whether either side can find some point of leverage to shift voters from their trenches.

Polls so far suggest a nation deeply divided on impeachment, as on so much else.

The RealClearPolitics polling average on Tuesday afternoon indicated there was less than a single percentage point dividing public opinion: 47.3 percent wanted Trump convicted and removed from office and 47.5 percent did not.

Trump was restrained by his standards for most of the day. As of late Tuesday afternoon, he had only tweeted the instruction that people should “READ THE TRANSCRIPTS!” — presumably of his call with Zelensky.

The president will, however, sit for a CNBC interview early on Wednesday morning — and there is always the possibility that his Twitter account will erupt in the interim.

Meanwhile, Democrats will press the case that Republicans are mounting a sham trial — and Republican unity shows little signs of fraying.

On Tuesday afternoon, a proposal from Schumer to see more documents was defeated, 53-47.

The vote was precisely along party lines.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFed saw risks to US economy fading before coronavirus spread quickened Pro-Trump super PAC hits Biden with new Spanish-language ad in Nevada Britain announces immigration policy barring unskilled migrants MORE’s presidency.