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Trump’s Impeachment Timeline and the 2020 Election

“The President is the smoking gun,” said one member of the House Judiciary Committee. But is the schedule just rushing the impeachment to an acquittal?

Amid the many words spoken—some passionate, some false, some bitter—in the late-night session of the House Judiciary Committee last Wednesday, one line, in a speech by Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, had particular resonance. Johnson quoted Fiona Hill, a former national-security official who, in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, had described a “blowup” she had had with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, with regard to Ukraine. After hearing Sondland’s own testimony to the committee, Hill said, she’d had an epiphany about the source of their conflict: though she’d believed that they were both engaged in the grand mission of foreign policy, the President had actually dispatched Sondland on “a domestic political errand.”

That errand, Johnson said, was to make Ukrainian officials “an offer they could not refuse.” In the words of the first of two articles of impeachment that the Judiciary Committee’s clerk read on Thursday morning, at the start of a tense and long debate, Donald Trump “corruptly solicited” the Ukrainians, attempting to trade military aid and a White House meeting for two investigations. One involved a specific conspiracy theory about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election; the other concerned Vice-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Trump wanted Ukraine “to target an American citizen,” Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of New York, said. Democrats have described this scheme, with some justice, as extortion or bribery, but the charge in the first article is abuse of power.

The Republicans on the committee used the debate to try to peddle a different story. “Show me the Ukrainian that was pressured!” Matt Gaetz, of Florida, said, although multiple witnesses had already testified that a number of Ukrainians were. Ken Buck, of Colorado, brought up the money that Hunter Biden received as a member of the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, and argued that Trump was within his rights to ask for an investigation: “This isn’t smearing. This is seeking the truth about corruption.” (Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, argued that Trump’s truth-seeking impulse arose only after Joe Biden declared his Presidential candidacy.) And Jim Jordan, of Ohio, offered his theory on what the meaning of “us” was when Trump, in the now infamous July 25th phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, said, “I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot.” This “us” was not “the royal we,” reflecting a request for a personal favor, Jordan said, but an example of Trump’s “working on behalf of the American people.” In case that didn’t clear things up, Jordan had a simpler explanation for why anyone would want to impeach Trump. “They don’t like us,” he said. “All of us common folk in Ohio, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Texas.” Republican after Republican goaded the Democrats with the notion that they were just scared that Trump would win again.

The focus of the first article of impeachment is, of course, what Trump has already done to try to secure that victory—namely, enlist foreign officials in his reëlection campaign. His demand for the Ukrainian investigations, according to the charge, was not a backward-looking effort to get to the bottom of a corruption case but an attempt to anticipate and influence the 2020 election. That prospective threat is one reason the Democrats have given for moving the articles of impeachment along with great speed. They do not pretend that they have collected all the available evidence. For that shortfall, they have blamed what Jamie Raskin, of Maryland, described as Trump’s “blockading and intimidating.” At the President’s direction, witnesses under subpoena have failed to appear, and the Administration has refused to turn over documents. (During the debate, Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, offered the weak riposte that no “retribution” had been inflicted on the witnesses who did testify.) There are court fights under way now over the subpoenas, but the Democrats, rather than wait, made the President’s defiance the subject of the second article of impeachment: obstruction of Congress.

“The President is the smoking gun,” Pramila Jayapal, of Washington, said, adding, with a slightly too picturesque extension of the metaphor, “The smoking gun is already reloaded. And whether or not it gets fired—that’s up to us.” At a press conference on Tuesday, during which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi introduced the two articles, Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that to ask “Why not wait?” is the equivalent of asking “Why not let him cheat just one more time?” That may be a resounding appeal, but on its own terms it doesn’t make much sense. The rushed timeline almost certainly means that impeachment is hurtling toward an acquittal for the President in the Republican-controlled Senate by February, with nine months left before the election. A longer investigation might have been a better way to monitor and restrain Trump; it’s worth remembering that his call to Zelensky came the day after the testimony of the special counsel Robert Mueller in the House, which, he felt, had lifted a “phony cloud” from over his head.

This schedule may help get moderate congressional Democrats reëlected and the Democratic senators who are running for President back out on the campaign trail (and get Hunter Biden out of the spotlight). But, adding to the sense of missed opportunities, the articles largely bypass other issues that have been raised about Trump, such as violations of the emoluments clause and matters covered in the Mueller report—notably, a long list of possible examples of obstruction of justice.

The hearings in the Judiciary Committee provided a sad confirmation of the likelihood of the President’s acquittal. “Do we have abuse of power? Yes: Adam Schiff!” Guy Reschenthaler, Republican of Pennsylvania, shouted. He added that the committee had voted down his attempt to subpoena the whistle-blower: “That is obstruction of Congress!” (By way of compensation, Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, recited a list of names that included a person suspected of being the whistle-blower.) In the coming trial, the tone of the Republican senators may be more restrained, but it is unlikely to be more edifying.

Val Demings, of Florida, was one of several Democrats who spoke of the historic weight of the moment, and to an extent she was right: Trump will always be a President who was impeached, and the two articles describing his offenses will be scrutinized in textbooks. But domestic politics impose their own burden. Not one of the House Republicans is expected to vote yes on either article. They know their President, and they know their errand. ♦

  • Amy Davidson Sorkin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2014.




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