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Trump’s impeachment trial: How to own a Senate

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The result of this week’s Senate vote to reject the two articles of impeachment approved by the House of Representatives has been expected for some time. But the long-term implications only became apparent after the lengthy presentations of both the House impeachment managers and President Trump’s defense team.

I would describe the president’s defense as an odd restaurant menu: Pick whatever dish you think works for you — but don’t combine them, because you will get sick. They don’t work together. And the fact that they have been offered so cynically and aggressively guarantees that the Senate will never be the same after this week. 

The president’s defense is comprised of basic, competing arguments: Yes, the president did withhold funds from Ukraine to encourage a corruption investigation into the Bidens but it wasn’t an impeachable offense. No, he didn’t withhold funds for this purpose and there are no direct witnesses who have said he did.

Yes, former national security adviser John Bolton would be a direct witness of the president’s words and actions but he isn’t reliable because the president fired him (although Bolton insists that he resigned).

No, we can’t hear from direct witnesses like Bolton or Mick Mulvaney, the president’s chief of staff, because then we would have a national debate and lengthy legal procedure about executive privilege and national security, and that will take too much of the Senate’s time. And, finally, my favorite defense: The president can do what he wants if he, in his sole discretion, determines that it is in the national interest. 

So, did he or didn’t he?

The Senate will vote that it doesn’t matter what he did or didn’t do. It only matters that they now do what he tells them to do. And therein lies the future of the Senate.

Since 2017, President Trump has owned the Republicans in the House. Previous presidents have always tussled with members of their party in Congress. But, unlike presidents who engage in a back-and-forth over strategy and differ with their allies on priorities, Donald Trump has faced no such resistance in the House of Representatives since he’s been in office.

There are volumes written about the whys and hows of this, but it is undisputed as fact. House Republicans do what Donald Trump tells them to do.

Senate Republicans, however, have been no such collective toadies. Yes, they approved his two Supreme Court nominations, but they did so for their ideological reasons. That is the same reason they have moved so many federal judicial nominations; it is what they and their supporters have wanted them to do.

But they have also rejected several things the president has asked of them over the years. They have rejected several presidential appointments, his prescription drug bill, his attempts to kill ObamaCare, his attempts to lift Russian sanctions, and a few other things. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has listened as much to his caucus as he has to the president on these matters. 

But now we have the big ask, the moment when there is a vast body of evidence that the president has engaged in wrongdoing and is demanding that the Senate ignore that evidence and vote to acquit him. Does he threaten them directly? No, at least not that we know. He doesn’t need to issue direct public threats, given the amount of money he controls for senators up for reelection and the megaphone he has in their states and across the country. They instinctively know his power over them.

What they are not considering is this: Once they vote to acquit him, they are no longer differing with him over policy; they aren’t rejecting an unqualified nominee or upholding traditional U.S. foreign policy. In other words, they aren’t doing their jobs — they are doing his bidding, his personal bidding.

And when they do, he will own them. He will always know that, when the heat in the kitchen gets hot, he can bend them to his will and not the other way around. The men and women of the Senate Republican caucus will shrink in stature, ineffectiveness, and moral clarity, all because the president insists they do so. And they will never be the same.

Hilary Rosen is a Democratic strategist and vice-chair of SKDKnickerbocker, a public affairs consulting firm that focuses on Democratic Party candidates and issues. She was CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) from 1998 to 2003 and is a CNN contributor.

Tags Donald Trump Federal government of the United States Impeachment Impeachment in the United States John Bolton Mick Mulvaney Mitch McConnell Mitch McConnell Politics by country Politics of the United States

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