Acquitting Trump Will Be Harder for the Senate Than It Appears

This essay was originally published on Medium on Thursday, Dec 19th.

Regardless of what we’ve heard so far from Senate Republicans, I don’t think their upcoming decision about whether to keep or remove President Trump is an easy one. In the Ukraine scandal he committed serious crimes, betrayed the country and was caught. Two of his top aides, Mick Mulvaney and Gordon Sondland, have confirmed these crimes on camera. The original referral of these crimes came from two Trump appointees — the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community and the General Counsel of the CIA. They established the gravity and urgency of what the President had done, and other Trump Administration officials confirmed the story we know today — a story which was never seriously challenged during the House Impeachment process.


And this is the problem for the Senate Republicans — there is no question the President is guilty. Any effort to proclaim his innocence will be really risky — can one use the word innocent and Donald Trump in the same sentence? Just in the past few years he has been caught in a massive education fraud scheme (Trump U); his Foundation was shut down due to illegal activity; he and Michael Cohen broke federal campaign finance laws in their effort to bury his cheating on Melania; he and his family have enriched themselves while in office in a manner never seen before in US history; the New York Times and other news organizations have found clear direct evidence of Trump family federal tax fraud; questions about his illicit relationship with foreign leaders like Putin, Erdogan and MBS are likely to get much more scrutiny and could be very explosive. So when you hear House Democrats talk about a “pattern” of lawless activity, they are not just talking about his repeated cheating in an election, it is about him, the President, and his contempt for the rule of law and other norms which are required to make democracies work.

So, claims of innocence, one assumes, will be off the table. Given that Trump is now Impeached, and there is irrefutable evidence of his guilt in both the Ukraine affair and these other matters, exoneration is also not available to the President or GOP Senators. Just a corrupt acquittal. And so I think then the calculation comes down to something deeply political — will Senate Rs be more likely to keep their majority with him, or is the risk of keeping him too great? I want to argue that in the coming weeks Senate Republicans are going to start becoming far more aware of the risks of keeping Trump and that this decision will no longer be a simple one for Mitch McConnell or his colleagues.

The three seat GOP Senate majority is a fragile one. Three incumbents — Gardner (CO), McSally (AZ) and Tillis (NC) — are in bad shape and could easily lose. Maine’s Susan Collins while perhaps in slightly better shape could lose, and has a strong opponent. If Steve Bullock decides to run Montana will be in play, and while seemingly safe now, GA and SC could become uncomfortable wild cards for the GOP. Even if they beat Doug Jones in Alabama, there is a very high likelihood that the Democrats get to 50 or 51 in 2020; 50 with a Democratic President means McConnell is minority leader. As President, Trump had led the GOP into three disastrous elections in a row. Given how tenuous the majority is, the GOP should be very worried about Trump leading them into battle again.

If Republicans vote to acquit Trump all their incumbents will be running with Trump all next year. And what will that look like?

First, John Dingell. Last night, in the critical swing state of Michigan, the President made an outrageous attack on a revered long serving Member of the House who recently passed away. House Republican Members have already come out and asked the President to apologize. Here is what GOP Rep. Paul Mitchel tweeted this morning:

“John Dingell was a well-respected man & I consider Debbie a close colleague and friend. To use his name in such a dishonorable manner at last night’s rally is unacceptable from anyone, let alone the President of the United States. An apology is due, Mr. President @realDonaldTrump.”

When have we ever seen anything like rebuke from a lowly GOP House Member in the Trump Presidency? Do GOP Senators want to lash themselves to an ever crazier and unstable Trump who is capable of these kinds of uncivil acts daily for all of 2020? The Senate GOP has hopes of winning in Michigan in 2020 — that job just got a whole lot harder.

But the second and more profound problem for the Senate GOP is that all of the President’s problems with Russia, corruption, federal criminal investigations — criming in today’s vernacular — aren’t going to disappear if they acquit Trump. This week his deputy campaign manager, Rick Gates, was sentenced to prison, joining his lawyer, his campaign manager and other aides in prison. On January 28th Mike Flynn will be sentenced to prison, and Roger Stone gets his prison sentence on February 8th. Who knows what else may come from the 11 — yes 11 — ongoing legal cases Robert Mueller left behind when he closed up shop earlier this year.

In September a new SDNY/FBI federal criminal investigation began arresting Donald Trump’s new set of political aides (most of his old ones are in or headed to jail) for their involvement in the same Ukraine scandal the President has been Impeached for. One of those arrested, Lev Parnas, has fingered the President, Rudy Giuliani and Rep. Devin Nunes directly. Subpoenas have been issued for prominent GOP leaders and Trump allies in the critical 2020 state Florida; a former Republican Member of Congress Pete Sessions has already testified in front of the grand jury. And most ominously for the President and the entire GOP, just this week we learned that Parnas received $1m just this past September from a Russian account of Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch close to Putin, considered to be part of the Russian mob, and a man wanted here in the United States. This payment creates a direct connection from pro-Putin Russian mobsters to the President of the United States. Who knows what else may come out next year? Will Rudy get indicted? Nunes? Will those who worked directly with Rudy in this criminal scheme — Pompeo, Mulvaney, Perry, the President — all have to testify in the investigation, will they be considered co-conspirators?

So, if acquitted, Senate Republicans will have to spend 2020 explaining why they let a serial criminal go, one whose aides keep getting sent to jail, one who is capable of saying and doing things which are impossible to defend — with the backdrop of a brand new explosive federal criminal investigation looking once again into the President and Russia.

I’ve been in national politics for 30 years now, and I can tell you there is not a single US Senator who wants to run for re-election under those circumstances. While they may ultimately decide to acquit the President, I think as the Senators begin to really weigh both the evidence and the broader politics, the chances of the President being removed, or forced to resign, are going to grow significantly in the coming days. This is perhaps why McConnell is threatening to not even have a trial at all — means the public isn’t exposed for weeks to Trump’s clear guilt, and the Senators don’t have to make the hard decision on whether to acquit or not.

Fasten your seat belts folks.