Members Only | January 29, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

What Is Trump’s Trial Really About?

Removal, for the Republicans, would be suicide.

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Let’s talk about what we’re really talking about when it comes to the president’s impeachment trial. Fixating on the details can often obscure what’s going on. Fixating on conflict, as the press corps is wont to do, can blur what might otherwise be clarity. Yes, no one knows precisely what’s going to happen, but there’s a lot we do know.

In theory, Donald Trump could be removed from office, but that would require two-thirds of the Senate. That’s 66 out of 100 senators. We already know, thanks to Rand Paul, that 45 Republicans are ready to acquit. The numbers don’t add up to conviction.

Try imagining removal from a practical GOP point of view. Removing a president during a presidential election year means what precisely? Running the vice president?

The only thing that can change GOP behavior is recognition of what it is: an insurrection.

I suppose it’s possible. But even if the Republicans could gin up enthusiasm for Mike Pence, they’d face a lethal backlash from Donald Trump diehards. Removing a president would be a form of political suicide. Let’s be real, and not expect that.

This is irrespective of the question of whether he should be removed from office. The practical considerations are so fierce that Republicans like Lindsey Graham aren’t bothering to ask the question. Indeed, he doesn’t need to. He’s from South Carolina. His seat is safe (for now). The GOP has long been southernized. The Confederate States of America were home to the original domestic fascists. Republicans there don’t mind abuse of power and obstruction, as long as they’re doing it, not the enemy.

So what are we talking about?

Again, from the Republican point of view, especially from the point of view of safe Republicans, the impeachment trial is an opportunity to turn the tables on the Democrats. At least they think it is. They tried convincing the public Joe Biden was so corrupt the president was justified in asking the Ukrainians to investigate him. The subliminal message here amounts to smear campaign of Trump’s most worrisome rival. There was, in fact, no corruption on Biden’s part. The Republicans were lying.

You’d think lying of such magnitude and in such a coordinated fashion would result in some kind of accountability so the Republicans would be deterred from lying again. But there are currently no consequences for lying among Republicans. Rick Scott, senator of Florida, made a video in which he complains of being held “hostage” at the Capitol. He also accuses the Senate Democrats of covering up Biden’s “corruption.”

You’d think hypocrisy of such magnitude and in such a coordinated fashion would result in some kind of accountability so the Republicans would be deterred from acting hypocritically again. But there are currently no consequences for hypocrisy among Republicans. Graham in particular led the charge in 1998 to convict Bill Clinton for perjury. He and others now say even if Donald Trump did abuse his power, by exacting a quid pro quo from Ukraine’s government, that isn’t a removable offense.

Lying is grounds for removal—if you’re a Democrat.

Bribery isn’t—if you’re a Republican.

What are we talking about then when we talk about the impeachment trial? The GOP won’t removal Trump, but the Democrats can force vulnerable Republicans to choose between loyalty to the president and duty to constituents. The Republicans hate the idea of calling witnesses. The public hates the idea of not calling witnesses. The Democrats, from the start, have been putting the GOP in a vise-like squeeze play.

The vise got tighter after John Bolton, the former head of the National Security Council, was determined this week to have witnessed the president’s bribery of Ukraine. That won’t compel the Republicans to remove Trump. Remember that removal is suicide. But the trial was never about that. For Democrats, the trial is about wearing down the GOP one senator at a time in the hope of regaining the majority. If squeezing the Republicans results in wounding the president, so much the better.

I can’t end my explanation here, though. Losing the Senate wouldn’t change Republican behavior. Losing the presidency wouldn’t either. The only thing that can change GOP behavior is widespread recognition of what the party is: an insurrection.

The Republicans long ago decided the Democrats and democracy itself were not only impediments to getting what they want. They had become the enemy. When fighting an enemy, you are willing do anything, because failure means extinction. That means lying as if there are no consequences. That means acting hypocritically as if there are no consequences. That means protecting a president even if he betrayed his country.

There are two solutions to a party that has become an insurrection.

First, stop giving it the benefit of the doubt. Second, start seeing it as the enemy.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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