Americans are not great theater-goers. But the theater is now coming to us.
It is a major national show: “The impeachment and trial of Donald J. Trump – in three acts.”
We already have a pretty good idea of the plot, but we remain fascinated by the leading character.
Act 1 is the impeachment inquiry. Democrats seek to build a case that President Trump improperly asked a foreign leader, the Ukraine president, to announce a review of the false claim that former Vice President Joe Biden undermined a Ukraine investigation of his son Hunter. An earlier investigation there had turned up nothing.
The Democrats also want to show that Trump withheld vital military aid to Ukraine to force an announcement about the Biden case and the discredited claim that it had meddled in the 2016 campaign to help Hillary Clinton. This trade-off would be the famous “quid pro quo.”
In the now famous July 25 call, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Trump for military aid and promised even more military purchases from the U.S.
Trump immediately responded, “I would like you to do us a favor though….” Does the use of “though” mean that aid depended on that favor?
Republicans claim there’s no direct evidence that Trump took any such improper actions, though Trump tries to block his staff from testifying and withholds documents. And nothing really happened, because the aid flowed, though only after a whistleblower revealed the call, and there were no new Ukraine investigations.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are drafting a list of charges and will recommend impeaching Trump. The House Judiciary Committee could add obstruction of justice and other charges.
Act 2 will be the House debate. A united GOP will argue that Trump’s requested “favor” and efforts to block the investigation fall short of impeachable offenses. The Democrats, without Republican votes or hope of removal by the Senate, will vote to impeach.
Why would they impeach Trump, if they can’t win?
Though impeachment will look partisan, Democratic leaders believe it is important to act if they find Trump abused his powers.
This case will be only the fourth time the House has considered impeachment. If a president is ever again charged, House action now would help define the broad offenses in the Constitution that could one day influence that case. Of course, it would also strike a political blow at Trump in an election year.
Act 3 will be the trial in the Senate. It would take 67 senators to remove Trump from office. At least 20 Republicans would have to decide Trump is guilty. That seems virtually impossible.
Why won’t Republican senators vote against Trump? The GOP has become Trump’s party and is now so closely tied to him that his defeat could threaten Republican senators in the 2020 elections and the future of the party itself.
Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton all left obvious fingerprints on their offenses, so the charges were easily pinned on them. Republicans stress that proof of Trump’s responsibility comes mainly from others, even though some reports come from multiple witnesses.
The Republicans charge witnesses are biased. For the GOP, not only must there be a “smoking gun,” but there must be a picture of it in Trump’s hand. The Democrats keep looking for it.
The only remaining question is if Trump’s actions rose to a sufficiently high level that he should be removed. The two previously impeached presidents were not removed. Nixon would have been forced from office, so he became the only president to resign.
The GOP will continue to argue that, even if Trump had threatened a “quid pro quo,” he caused no harm. His mere attempt is not an impeachable offense. The Democrats will say lives were lost because of the aid freeze.
The Republican position is bolstered by Zelensky’s failure to claim that he felt any pressure from Trump. Obviously, he is mindful of his country’s dependence on the U.S., which may influence his attitude. He wants to stay out of American politics.
Though the plot of this drama seems easy to forecast, the show will go on. We want to see the actors perform, and we hope for surprises.
There is at least a slight possibility that, even though not removed from office, Trump would fail to gain the majority support of the Senate. That might take the opposition of only three Republicans. And that could influence the 2020 elections.
Whatever happens, this play won’t be a comedy; it could well be a tragedy.