David Rothkopf, Opinion contributor
Published 3:15 a.m. ET Jan. 28, 2020 | Updated 10:46 a.m. ET Jan. 28, 2020
The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump received a dose of defense in an attempt to invalidate the charges against him.
Trump The judgment of the court of public opinion will matter more to history and the 2020 elections than the verdict in the Senate impeachment trial.
There was more uncertainty about the outcome of Soviet show trials than there is about the charade taking place in the U.S. Senate. If we end up with no witnesses or evidence, the entire event will be revealed as what Fielding Mellish, the character played by Woody Allen in the movie “Bananas,” called “a travesty of a mockery of a sham.” But even if former national security adviser John Bolton’s revelations motivate a tiny handful of Republican senators to challenge the order ordained by President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and vote for the semblance of normalcy that allowing a few witnesses to appear would bring, there is still little doubt about how all this is going to end up.
Trump is almost certain to be acquitted by the Senate — not because he is innocent (he is undoubtedly guilty of all he has been charged with and more), but because he has the votes. The senators are reminding us daily that theirs is not the impartial body the Founders imagined. They do not even take their oaths seriously. Nor, for that matter, do those who will reflexively vote to acquit Trump seem to care much about the precedents they will be setting or the damage they will be doing to the institution in which they serve, or to American democracy as a whole.
This raises a question that was heard before the impeachment inquiry began. Was it a mistake to proceed? Can nothing good come out of this process?
Trump Value of accountability and facts
I would most emphatically suggest that undertaking the impeachment investigation was far from a mistake. Even with the deck stacked against a just outcome by a GOP leadership that has lost sight of the most basic ideals associated with public service, much good has come out of this process and might come out of it even in the event of an acquittal.
First, the mere pursuit of the facts by the House has both underscored the importance of accountability, and it has, in a very systematic and public way, revealed the facts of this case. Trump, McConnell and the army of parrots spouting White House talking points may repeatedly say otherwise, but the president’s wrongdoing has been made crystal clear, and many of those detailing or corroborating it have been witnesses who are above reproach, objective and distinguished. Many of them are Trump appointees or apolitical career public servants. Today, poll after poll reveals that a substantial majority of Americans believe that the president is guilty of wrongdoing, and about half believe he should be removed from office.
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This could fall on deaf ears for Republicans who until this week did not even seem to care that multiple polls also show that two-thirds or more of Americans want to hear from witnesses in this Senate trial. But the judgment of the court of public opinion will matter more to history and, likely, in the election to come, than the verdict in this trial.
Consider the case of President Andrew Johnson, who was also spared conviction due to partisan support, but who was subsequently denied his party’s nomination and who is seen today, in the light of his impeachment and the behavior it highlighted, as one of our worst presidents ever.
The political consequences in this fall’s presidential election will not be not insignificant, either. Trump barely won his last victory, eking it out with fewer than 80,000 votes in three states. Consider the latest polls and the evidence against the president revealed during the impeachment and ask: Might it tip the scales? Might it turn some against Trump who voted for him? Might it lead others not to vote, who would have cast their ballots in his favor?
Trump Profound breach of public trust
It seems certain it will have some impact and, contrary to a popular theme before the House impeachment, there will be no backlash in Trump’s favor. There is absolutely zero evidence of a backlash and, indeed with every day of the trial, the numbers have looked worse or unchanged for Trump. He has gotten no bounce from outraged Republicans who want to defend a president’s right to seek foreign intervention on his behalf in an election … again.
Another potential political effect of the trial is that it will reveal Republican senators to care more about party loyalty than justice or the country. Not only is this clear based on the evidence to date, but it is quite likely that an acquittal could be followed by regular instances in which new evidence appears and underscores the Senate’s profound breach of public trust in denying a modicum of justice or seriousness to this undertaking. This in turn might tip the scales against some senators in swing states which could, at least conceivably, return the Senate majority to Democrats this year.
Further, some of the cases raised in the impeachment regarding the power of the Congress to issue subpoenas may, ultimately, produce verdicts that shore up that power despite the president’s best efforts to negate it. And this groundwork could produce more effective investigations in the future including, if circumstances warrant, further impeachment investigations on other matters.
There are many areas in which the president has abused power, obstructed justice and violated his oath of office. As House leaders have indicated, the possibility of additional impeachment action remains.
Trump Truth now clear for voters and history
Trump will hail his acquittal as a vindication much as he did the Mueller report’s conclusions. But just as was the case with the Mueller report, the people and history are wise to this tactic. The Mueller report was, particularly in the area of obstruction of justice, damning. The Senate trial has already demonstrated the corruption endemic to this administration.
An acquittal, it must be acknowledged, may also be seen as giving Trump license to continue his bad behavior and supporting dangerous precedents, like the deeply un-American, anti-democratic notions that the president is above the law or that Congress is not a coequal branch of government. These great risks are not to be minimized. They are ones McConnell and Trump’s lawyers have invited on behalf of a president and an administration seemingly committed to advancing not the ideals of the Founders, but the aspirations of a would-be autocrat.
The entire nation must fight to ensure that this “travesty of a mockery of a sham” does not permanently damage the United States and the institutions upon which it depends. But it is quite possible, for all the reasons cited above, that even with an acquittal, consequences of this impeachment process will ensure that the defense of our democracy is successful.
Thanks to the House-led impeachment effort, the truth about the corruption of this president and the Trump years will be much more clear than would have been the case without it, both for voters in November and for posterity. That is in all of our interests and will be long after the White House press releases, unctuous pronouncements of the majority leader and tweets of the president are long forgotten.
David Rothkopf is CEO of the Rothkopf Group and host of “Deep State Radio.” Follow him on Twitter: @djrothkopf