Earl Ofari Hutchinson
There are two near set in stone articles of political faith in the upcoming Senate trial of Trump. One is that no GOP senator will vote to convict. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in between micromanaging, massaging, mocking, and lambasting the impeachment push has pretty much said that. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul also flatly said that he doubts that any GOP senator would ever vote to convict.
The other near article of political faith is that Democratic senators will vote as one to convict. The first article is pretty much one that you can take to the bank. There’s Trump railing, saber rattling, tweeting furiously away against impeachment; and then doubling down with dire warnings of punishing any GOP senator who would dare think such a thing. He doubled down again on this threat by quickly endorsing Jeff Van Drew, the renegade Democrat turned Republican, in his GOP congressional New Jersey primary race against a well-established GOP candidate. Trump’s endorsement, as it has in other GOP races, packed a wallop, Van Drew instantly became the favorite to win the GOP primary.
The second article is the kicker and puzzler. Six Democrat senators have been as close mouthed as a champion poker player in response to countless inquiries about the trial. They absolutely refuse to say how they’ll vote on conviction. There’s good reason. They are Red State Democrats. A couple are up for reelection in November. They are walking the tightest of tight ropes. Their phones are almost certainly ringing off the hooks with Trump backers screaming at them don’t even think about voting for conviction.
They have made bland, cryptic statements declaring their “neutrality.” Or, they have simply called for a fair trial, with multiple witnesses, and then insist they’ll keep an open mind on Trump’s guilt or not. Even without the flak from GOP voters and conservative Democrats in their state who aren’t too thrilled about removing Trump, there’s no guarantee that some Senate Democrats wouldn’t break ranks and not back conviction.
Convicting a sitting president poses many perils to the democratic process. In the past, when a handful of senators from the opposite party of the President have been faced with an actual vote to remove that president they have back pedaled.
In 1988, the GOP had absolute control of the Senate when Clinton was impeached. It did not convict. Ten GOP senators publicly said they wouldn’t vote for conviction. True, Clinton was a popular president, and some of the senators came from states that Clinton won. They took the inevitable glance over their shoulders at possible voter backlash for a conviction vote. However, the senators also made clear that the offenses simply didn’t warrant ousting a sitting president from office.
In fact, almost nothing would. The Founding Fathers were deeply wary of ever having to do just that. They warned when wrangling over putting a mechanism in the Constitution for getting rid of a sitting president who abused the office of the extreme danger of using impeachment and conviction as a malicious weapon to cajole, threaten, intimidate, and ultimately remove a president of the opposing party they didn’t like, want, or had a vendetta against. If that happened, this would hopelessly taint the established process of getting rid of a bad or bad behaving chief executive; namely at the ballot box. Removal by anything other than an election, was extreme, and would be widely viewed as extra-legal.
Democratic party leaders are aware of the near impossibility of convicting a sitting president. They have piled on document after document. They have compiled a mountain of circumstantial testimony from witnesses during the House impeachment hearings. They have issued countless subpoenas trying to get someone from Trump’s inner circle to testify. They have combed every nook and cranny of Washington trying to get someone who may have first-hand knowledge of Trump’s malfeasance in the Ukraine hit job on Biden to come forth. They carefully narrowed down the impeachment articles to two articles.
It didn’t matter. None of this was ever likely to shove one GOP senator off the dime to vote to convict Trump. It also may not be enough to get a handful of non-committal Democratic senators off the dime either and vote to convict.
Still, the non-committal Democratic senators should be believed when they say it will take real, hard evidence such as a paper trail, or real, solid witnesses in a position to know that Trump broke the law in his dealings with the Ukraine to move them to convict. An iron-clad case must be made that he intentionally, and deliberately obstructed Congress. McConnell will do everything to ensure that this doesn’t happen. He wants a watered down, severely limited, perfunctory trial that will give just enough cover to the few wavering or fearful Democrats for them to cast a vote against conviction.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that these Democrats won’t vote to convict Trump even in the absence of that irrefutable evidence. It just means that given the towering obstacles to conviction, there’s no guarantee they will.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Impeachment of President Trump? (Amazon Kindle). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the Hutchinson Report on Pacifica radio in Los Angeles.