Last night, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell unveiled his proposed rules for the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. McConnell’s four-page proposal—which will be debated today—hits upon a strategy that should be familiar by now to anybody who has lived through the Trump administration: exhausting the public.
A key part of Trump’s survival, thus far, has been his ability to exhaust an unserious media and easily distracted public with a constant stream of nonsense. No one crime, no one violation, no one example of racism or misogyny sticks to him too long, because he’s always on to the next crime or violation or bigotry. The media can’t keep up, his Republicans furrow their brows at “Trump being Trumpy,” and the general public adopts a defeated fatalism that assumes “ain’t nothing gonna happen.”
Trump and the Republicans clearly want to make impeachment come and go as quietly as possible. They know that if the American public pays too much attention, if they’re forced to listen to the facts and the evidence against Donald Trump, it will become almost impossible for the Senate to acquit him. As we head into the trial, 51 percent of Americans already think Trump should be removed. Nearly 70 percent think additional witnesses should be called to testify to Trump’s behavior. Trump is losing the impeachment fight; McConnell’s goal is to declare Trump the winner before the loss becomes unavoidable.
To accomplish this, McConnell’s impeachment rules adopt a very Trumpian strategy: Flood the zone with unabashed corruption and disinformation, keep things moving, and hope that the public loses focus and hope.
McConnell has proposed allowing each side 24 hours to make its arguments. That’s the same 24 hours allowed for debate during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton—but for Clinton, those 24 hours were spread out over four days. For Trump, McConnell wants to condense them into two days.
If you don’t know the difference between clocking in for a 12-hour day, as opposed to an eight-hour day, you’ve never worked all that hard for eight continuous hours. Almost nobody will watch 12 hours of impeachment coverage in one sitting, and those who do will be brought to the point where it all starts sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher is talking to herself.
What’s more, these Senate impeachment days don’t start till 1 pm. That means we’re blowing past dinner, through NBA basketball games, and finishing up after the late-night shows. Whoever is still listening to impeachment hearings at one o’clock in the morning probably needs to be fitted with a Congressional Medal of Honor and an emotional support animal.
It would be easy for me (and the American body politic) to overcome the hurdles McConnell has erected if the impeachment hearings were going to be a fair deliberation about whether the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors. But McConnell has worked hard to make sure no such deliberation takes place.
First of all, McConnell has refused to enter the House of Representatives’ investigation into the Senate record at the start of the trial. The “reason” is that McConnell and the Republicans claim the House investigation was unfair toward the president. In so doing, they blithely skip over the fact that the president himself refused to cooperate with or participate in that investigation, despite multiple entreaties to do so. Now, McConnell is using the president’s obstruction of Congress to shield the president from the impeachable offense of obstruction of Congress.
In practical effect, that means that the 24 hours of “debate” will largely be a rehash of what we’ve already seen. The Democrats’ House managers will have to reenter all of the evidence of Trump’s bribery scheme into the senatorial record in their own words, since the Senate Republicans can’t be bothered to hear it from Marie Yovanovitch or Bill Taylor or Gordon Sondland again.
During their hours, the Republicans will be busy muddying the waters with all of the intellectually dishonest arguments they’ve made before. Trump’s lawyers released a 110-page brief over the weekend. Shockingly, the brief didn’t really deny the critical details surrounding the president’s scheme to enlist a foreign government to investigate his political rivals. The president’s lawyers just decided, with no legal precedent at all, that abusing power is not an impeachable offense. It’s not a good or even rational legal argument, but it’s the precedent Republicans are willing to set in order to make sure their guy keeps his job.
After the 24 hours of argument, there are to be 16 hours of questions from the Senators, divided equally between Democrats and Republicans. I predict at least eight of these hours will represent the nadir of the United States Senate as an institution deserving of respect. These hours will be the moment when the so-called “greatest deliberative body in the world” is forced to sit through extended speechifying from Republican cowards who are desperate to avoid getting tweeted at by the president. It will be sad, it will be shameful, and by the time the Senate is done with their “questions,” people will be wondering why Kamala Harris isn’t running for president and whether we can take a bulldozer to the entire chamber and start over.
The rules will be debated today. Amendments will be offered Wednesday. If McConnell has his way, the entire process of deliberations, speeches, and questions should take us through Saturday.
And then, and only then, according to these rules, will the Senate take up the question of whether subpoenas should be issued for additional witnesses and documents. Only then will the Senate consider whether to enter the House investigation into the record. Only then will the Senate consider whether to take up new information brought forward by the likes of Lev Parnas. Only after a week of 12-hour sessions, during which media both-siders proclaim nothing “new” is happening and express their frustration that a WWE main event hasn’t broken out in the middle of the Senate chamber—only then will we get to the question of whether the American people get to hear from former national security adviser John Bolton or Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
McConnell, Trump, and the Republicans are hoping that by this time next week, the American people will be ready to cry “uncle.” They’re hoping that by next week we’re exhausted. They’re hoping that the Democrats, now led by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer as opposed to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, fracture and become hopeless.
These rules are not set up to help Republicans win the argument. Republicans have bad arguments, made in bad faith, on behalf of a criminal president. No set of rules can change that reality for them. Instead, these rules are set up to sap the will of Americans to continue fighting.
I wouldn’t bet against this strategy. Republicans are in power partly because many American news outlets have the attention span of a 7-year-old after too much cotton candy. Now, McConnell uses that weakness against us. To defend a reality-TV president, McConnell has called for an art-house foreign language movie marathon. If people fall asleep, McConnell wins. If people get bored, McConnell wins. If people have something better to do, like their actual jobs, McConnell wins. If people lose hope, McConnell wins.
This week could be the beginning of the Senate impeachment trial—or the finale. Which one it is depends entirely on the stamina of the American people to lock in, pay attention, and wade through the murk of McConnell’s rigged trial process.
These Republican woods are dark and deep, but we have miles to go before we sleep.