The Real Impeachment Trial

It’s not happening on the Senate floor. It’s happening on cable news and on social media.

In 1999, after Democratic President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, then Republican Senator Arlen Specter said the following: “The Senate proceeding posed a curious dichotomy with one hundred sitting silent Senators in the Chamber and non-stop Senators’ interviews in the corridors and media galleries. The case was really not being tried in the Senate Chamber, but in a sense was being tried in the Senate corridors, on the evening TV interview shows, and on the Sunday talk shows.”

Democrats today should find some comfort in those words, because no matter what happens in the Senate, the case for Donald Trump’s impeachment will be tried, like Clinton’s, not just on the Senate floor, but on the evening TV interview circuit and on the Sunday talk shows. It will also extend to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. It will be all over the internet.

Simply put, Democrats will have the opportunity to win in the court of public opinion, if not in the Senate trial itself.

A little more than two decades after the Clinton impeachment trial consumed America’s attention, Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for just the third Senate impeachment trial in American history. On Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed seven House members to serve as impeachment managers, or prosecutors of the case, and transmitted the articles of impeachment to the upper chamber. Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over the Senate trial. Without any witness testimony scheduled to date, the proceedings are expected to run two weeks long.

That opportunity to reach the public will be all the more important for Democrats because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s current plans for Trump’s trial are egregiously illegitimate. As of this writing, McConnell has blocked all attempts to allow for witness testimony during the Senate trial—even though every prior impeachment trial in United States’ history has included witnesses.

As McConnell continues to insist on conducting a sham trial, voters must demand a fair showing of witnesses and relevant documents. That said, Specter’s insight from 1999 serves as a strong reminder for what is at stake in the impeachment trial: If Democrats effectively communicate the information presented by House Democrats—and take advantage of the ongoing media attention—it will put Trump’s impeachable conduct in the forefront of the minds of the American people.

We don’t yet fully know the parameters of McConnell’s rules for the impeachment trial. Historically, senators have not played a vocal role during impeachment trial proceedings. The 1999 Clinton impeachment trial provides a glimpse of that limited role.In that case, the parties negotiated an agreement that three witnesses would be deposed by House Managers, in advance of the trial via videoconference. Then, six Senators, three from each party, “presided over” the three depositions, but none of them actually conducted them. Instead, they held more of an administrative role, such as negotiating potential objections and asking only minor questions.

During Clinton’s Senate trial, the senators could not interject to ask questions. Rather, their role was to observe and listen while the House managers presented the case for impeachment. The senators could only pose written questions to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presided over the Clinton trial. At the trial’s conclusion, each individual Senator made a closed-door impeachment statement. Then, the Senate voted. Clinton was acquitted by a vote of 55-45.

That all sounds very technical—and that’s because it was. It’s one of the reasons hardly anyone remembers that aspect of the spectacle. What they do remember, however, was the media blitz that accompanied the trial.

Indeed, in 2020, senators will be able to make a meaningful impact through what they say on television in the hours after the trial. That’s when they will have the opportunity to go on the record and share publicly their thoughts and what they learned during the trial.

Republicans seem to be aware of this. Senator Roy Blunt, under McConnell’s leadership, already has issued press restrictions for the 2020 trial, much to the frustration of the media, Democrats, and even some Republicans. Those rules include confining reporters to a “press pen” in the Capitol, limiting their usual hallway access (Capitol Hill reporters frequently interview members as they are walking around), and banning the use of electronics, such as cell phones or laptops, in the chamber during the trial. These aren’t longstanding Senate rules. Under the guise of security, they are an instrument for McConnell’s blatant attempt to blunt coverage of what will surely be a fiasco for the president. Unfortunately, those restrictions will remain unless two-thirds of the Senate votes to loosen the rules—an unlikely scenario.

Nevertheless, Democratic senators will still be able to make the case for Trump’s removal from office before the largest possible audience. Former prosecutors turned senators, like Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Patrick Leahy, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Doug Jones, will be particularly skilled in their ability to assess facts and evidence, paint a clear picture of wrongdoing, and distill a narrative for voters. Other talented Senate orators, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, can spend their evenings and weekends hitting the talk show circuit and utilizing their vast followings on social media.

With all of these lawmakers using their collective bullhorns, they can effectively chronicle the trial for the American public. In many ways, this opportunity to reach voters at the end of the workday—most will be following through social media and the nightly news—and persuasively stringing together the day’s narrative may be more impactful than voters actually watching the proceedings. That, in and of itself, could make the impeachment process worth it, even if it ultimately results in the president’s acquittal. It will make more citizens informed of Trump’s misbehavior.

Plus, Republican Senators who are up for re-election in purple states will be put in a prickly position: whether they support or oppose impeachment, they will automatically risk alienating key constituencies in their states.

While many Americans would like nothing more than for the impeachment trial to result in the removal of President Trump before the end of his term, Democrats likely won’t be able to whip the 67 Senate votes needed for his conviction. Still, Democratic Senators may have more power than perhaps even they realize. With some media savvy, they can very well win over hearts and minds. That may not remove Trump from office just yet, but it could go a long way toward making him a one-term president.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Julie Rodin Zebrak

Julie Rodin Zebrak is a veteran attorney with nearly 20 years of experience at the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Justice. She is the founder and CEO of Yes Moms Can and the co-founder of Mamas4Kamala.