WASHINGTON — As his impeachment trial opens Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s instinct for creating chaos represents an imminent threat to Senate Republicans’ ability to protect him, and themselves.
That is, the more Trump discredits the Senate during his trial, the more he discredits an outcome engineered to help him now and as he seeks re-election.
For Republicans, the challenge is to acquit Trump while using the trappings of the Senate to present as much of a patina of high-minded fairness and objectivity as possible. And no venue in American politics is more aptly designed to preserve his power than a Senate that has perfected the art of smothering justice with solemnity.
Likewise, no one in the modern Senate is better at working the rules and the Republican members of the Senate than Trump’s ally, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has made no secret of his desire to deliver an acquittal of the president as swiftly, and with as little fanfare, as possible.
McConnell’s strategy is fairly simple: If the outcome is a foregone conclusion — and it will be without a massive shift in circumstances — there’s no reason to call extra attention to that fact or give House Democratic prosecutors any extra opportunity to present politically damaging information to the Senate and the public.
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“There’s a clear understanding at the White House and among Senate Republicans that they want the same thing: to get it done as quickly as possible because it’s been distracting from the policy accomplishments that they’ve been achieving together,” said Ron Bonjean, a former Senate leadership aide who is in contact with White House officials.
But Trump’s own treatment of his trial so far — his Twitter rants, his public statements and his appointment of a television dramedy cast of lawyers to represent him — suggests deep trepidation on his part about the prospect of cutting his losses so far and walking away with the win of a quiet acquittal. Instead, he appears to be spoiling for the kind of high-profile fight — a trash-talking, institution-bashing, circus-like demonstration of raw muscle — that threatens to expose the inequity of a politically driven trial controlled by his own party.
One tension point is that Republican senators in tight re-election races want as little attention to the trial as possible, because it inherently challenges their ability to stoke their political bases while attracting crossover votes from Democrats. Meanwhile, Trump typically sees his best political tactic as raising the stakes of any confrontation with adversaries.
Ever since House Democrats impeached him last month, more evidence surrounding Trump’s Ukraine scandal has emerged, including text messages the House obtained from Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, that appear to show surveillance of then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. If Trump is eventually acquitted, new revelations between now and then that support an impeachment article alleging he withheld federal aid to Ukraine to secure that country’s help in his re-election campaign are not helpful to Senate Republicans who vote in his favor.
Julian Zelizer, a historian and professor at Princeton University, said that while impeachment is different from a legislative issue, the Senate has historically dispatched matters of national importance, from civil rights to climate change and immigration, by silently voting “no.”
“They want to kill this quickly, they want to kill it quietly,” he said, “whereas President Trump likes to handle problems by creating chaos and creating a circus.”
Aside from Trump’s own conduct outside the chamber, one unknown, Bonjean said, is how the TV talking-head lawyers on his team — Alan Dershowitz, Ken Starr and Pam Bondi among them — will engage in his defense.
In an interview Friday on Sirius XM radio, Dershowitz played down his role on the legal team but hinted that it will be aimed at turning the trial into a meditation on 2016 Trump rival Hillary Clinton. He said he would present his constitutional argument against Congress trying to remove her from office “had Clinton been elected and had she been impeached.”
Or maybe not. No matter what, Bonjean said, “this really all depends on how they interact, like how robust and dynamic President Trump’s legal team is going to be during this trial or if this is really being done as a show of force — and either way, the fact that he has such a huge legal team makes for great television. That doesn’t mean this is going to be turned into a circus.”
But the risk exists. That risk always exists with Trump.
This time, Trump needs one of Washington’s institutions to work for him. If he turns it into a circus, he may undermine the credibility of its verdict even with persuadable voters. And that’s the real danger he faces over the coming weeks and months.