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Democrats Try Flattery as Impeachment-Trial Tactic

Jonathan Bernstein

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On the first day of the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, New York Representative and House manager Jerrold Nadler ruffled feathers when he told the Senate that it, too, was on trial.

Then the House managers, who are serving as prosecutors, changed their tactics. One after another has begun speeches by complimenting senators on their exemplary open-mindedness and the serious attention they’ve been paying to the marathon sessions. Instead of proclaiming it the duty of all senators to subpoena witnesses and documents, as the Republican majority has refused to do, the lead House manager, California Representative Adam Schiff, has repeatedly appealed to their curiosity. Wouldn’t they like to know what was said in certain conversations? Aren’t they interested in learning the contents of some memos? 

Whether that tactic can succeed is unclear, but it’s probably the right way to go. Not much has been lost by assuming that U.S. senators have plenty of tolerance for flattery and ingratiating behavior.

Not that Trump would pass up the chance to do a little bullying. Reports Thursday night had the White House giving Republican senators a simple message: “Vote against the president, and your head will be on a pike." 

With one day left of the three they were given to present their argument for Trump’s removal from office, the House Democrats have made a strong case for the first of the two articles of impeachment, which accuses the president of abuse of power. Schiff, who has been eloquent throughout, summarized the case Wednesday night by going through the key July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — the one in which Trump asked Zelenskiy “to do us a favor” by working with his aides to dig up dirt on a main political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The call record, to be sure, seemed incriminating when it was first released in September. Schiff explained how it fit into Trump’s effort to squeeze Ukraine by trying to block congressionally approved military aid intended to help Ukraine stand up to Russia. House Democrats have been laying out that context all week, partly by showing video clips of testimony from national security officials and others presented during the House impeachment hearings. For anyone who has been following the unfolding story from the start, it was a beautiful way of tying the pieces of it together. For those who have not, but who tuned in to Schiff’s speech, it was surely convincing. At least, for those open to being convinced.

Whether any Republican senators fall into that category — open to being convinced, even at the risk of their heads winding up as new White House decorations — is unknown. Whether the House managers can even find votes to subpoena witnesses or documents is just as unknown.

What is also unknown is what strategy the president’s team will use starting on Saturday to counter the mostly sober, methodical and careful House presentations. (Schiff did end Thursday night with an emotional pitch about democracy and doing the right thing, and there have been some other glimpses of emotion from the managers, but for the most part on Wednesday and Thursday they were more Spock than Kirk.) My best guess? The president’s lawyers may take their cue from Senator Lindsey Graham’s tantrum at the September, 2018 confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and dial up the outrage and resentment. After all, that’s what Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow did Tuesday afternoon (as Jonathan Chait explained) over what appears to have been a misheard phrase.

After all, in this situation even more than in the Kavanaugh confirmation, all that’s really needed is to rally the most partisan Republicans around the president. 

I’ll close out by once again urging everyone to watch some of the trial (and, yes, both the House managers and the president’s team). It really is an extraordinary moment. We’ll see beginning Saturday which if any of the Trump group is particularly worth watching. Among the Democrats, Schiff has been the standout, with California’s Zoe Lofgren and New York’s Hakeem Jeffries both quite good as well. 

1. Boris Shor’s latest update on endorsements of presidential candidates by state legislators. One more piece of the puzzle of support from party actors.

2. Lisa Baldez at the Monkey Cage on the Equal Rights Amendment.

3. Jack Santucci and Benjamin Reilly take aim at a voting system. I’m not much of a fan of ranked-choice voting, but for those who do support it, make sure to do it correctly.

4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Hal Brands on the need for Congress to re-assert itself in foreign policy and national security.

5. Annie Lowry on the federal tax code.

6. Sarah Ellison reports on regional Trump-loyal talk radio hosts. That’s the part of the party that may be strongest for Trump, and one that is a major player in Republican politics.

7. Greg Sargent makes the point that more information about Trump and Ukraine will surely come out, some of it relatively soon — and thinks about what kinds of incentives that creates for Republican senators.

8. I’m not sure whether this excellent Ruby Cramer item about Cory Booker supporters in Iowa demonstrates suspicion of Pete Buttigieg among some Democratic party actors, the inevitable heartbreak of the campaign trail, or the difficult strategic choices that presidential candidates must overcome — or maybe all of those things. Anyway, it’s great reporting.

9. Nate Silver on the chances of a contested convention. It is certainly possible, but still very unlikely. Winnowing works. Probably.

10. And Aaron Blake questions the use of a much-cited (by Democrats) Alexander Hamilton quote.

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(Corrects spelling of Senator Lindsey Graham’s first name in eighth paragraph.)

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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