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Cynics Are Wrong. The Impeachment Trial Matters.

Jonathan Bernstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- U.S. Representative Adam Schiff began the House impeachment managers’ case for the conviction of President Donald Trump with a masterful opening statement in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday.

In a bit over two hours — especially impressive after a session that ended well after midnight on Tuesday — Schiff did an excellent job of weaving together the basic facts of Trump’s attempt to pressure a foreign government to help his 2020 re-election campaign, and to explain why it should persuade senators to remove the president from office. He effectively used video clips from House impeachment hearings to make the argument more vivid. And he included just enough poetry to drive home the importance of the president’s actions and the Senate’s choices.

As he summed up the first article of impeachment, charging Trump with pressuring Ukraine to launch a criminal investigation of a leading Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, Schiff, who is chair of the House Intelligence Committee, talked not about Trump but about Russian President Vladimir Putin, and about the differences between Putinist autocracy and U.S. democracy. It was a powerful framework for thinking about why Trump’s actions should not be excused or ignored.

I can hear a lot of cynics, however, humming their chorus. It doesn’t matter, the lyrics go; everyone has made up their partisan minds. And it’s almost certainly true that a somewhat better or somewhat worse presentation from either side isn’t going to make the difference between whether Trump will be acquitted — the almost certain result at this point — or convicted and removed. Indeed, there’s evidence that a lot of Republican senators aren’t bothering to pay attention.

And ...

Nevertheless, don’t believe the cynics.

For one thing, it is certainly possible that a few of the less-zealous partisans in the Senate — Republicans such as Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Utah’s Mitt Romney, and Democrats including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, Alabama’s Doug Jones, and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema — could change their votes on procedural matters and even possibly their final votes based in part on what they hear during the trial. And, for that matter, on how the trial presentations are covered by the press. Trial oratory wouldn't be the only factor, or even a major factor, but could it matter at the margins? Sure.

But that’s only the beginning. The Senate trial is receiving tons of media coverage. It’s going to affect how the people paying attention, including reporters and editors, think about impeachment and about Trump. It could have effects on Trump’s approval ratings, which in turn could make it easier or harder to get things done. It might even, at the margins, have small effects on the 2020 elections. It could have effects, too, on Trump’s professional reputation, which also could make it easier or harder for him to convince people to go along with things he wants. 

There are also a lot of specific precedents that will be set about how Senate impeachment trials work in the future. This trial, whatever the verdict, will either raise or lower the bar for what a future House of Representatives might do, and how a future Senate is likely to act. 

What happens in the trial will also affect the course of the presidency. Will future presidents take the threat of impeachment seriously? Or will they think of it as a small annoyance that isn’t worth avoiding? Will they feel secure in resisting what has been up to now routine congressional oversight, or will they accept that bargaining with Congress is part of the rules of the game? Will they feel emboldened to ignore the law when it comes to appropriations, or will they accept that spending law is binding? All presidents take domestic politics into account in foreign affairs, and rightly so, but will future presidents remember this episode and feel licensed to conduct foreign affairs for their own narrow personal interest — or will they remember this episode and exercise caution?

Or, to put it more or less as Schiff did: Will the U.S. wind up a stronger democracy after this trial — or a lesser one?

The answer to all those questions depends in part on how the public comes to understand what happened in 2019-2020. And that understanding will be, in part, created by what happens in the Senate right now, how it is reported, and how the citizenry reacts to it. 

The public assessment will be affected by the performances of the House managers and the president’s lawyers. So yes, the cynics are surely correct that senators aren’t likely to be persuaded by Schiff, his colleagues or his trial adversaries when they finally vote on removing the president. But that doesn’t mean that the conduct of the trial won’t affect the rest of Trump’s administration and the future of U.S. democracy. 

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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