Trump impeachment: looming Senate acquittal threatens to overshadow Iowa

Oliver Laughland
Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

As a growing number of Republican senators confirmed they will vote to acquit Donald Trump at the conclusion of his impeachment trial on Wednesday, the saga threatened to overshadow the first contest of the Democratic primary season in Iowa on Monday.

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On Friday, the Senate voted 51-49 to block testimony from new witnesses and the admission of new documentation in Trump’s trial, the first time the body has elected to block such evidence in history.

Just two Republicans, Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine, broke ranks in the vote. Although neither has publicly stated how they will vote next week, a super majority of 67 would be required to remove Trump from office – a figure that appears all but impossible in a hyper-partisan era.

On Sunday, in an interview with the Fox News host Sean Hannity broadcast as part of coverage of the Super Bowl, Trump said impeachment proceedings, in which state and intelligence officials provided firsthand testimony of the president’s attempts to secure foreign investigations of his political rivals, had been hurtful to his family.

He also suggested the process would make it harder for his administration to cooperate with Democrats in passing legislation.

“They [Democrats] don’t care about fairness,” he said. “… You look at the lies, you look at the reports that were done that were so false. The level of hypocrisy. So I’m not sure if they can do it to be honest. I think they just want to win. It doesn’t matter how they win.”

Some senior GOP senators predicted on Sunday every Republican in the chamber would vote to acquit Trump on Wednesday, and suggested a handful of Democrats up for re-election in swing states might also vote to acquit.

I think he shouldn’t have done it, I think it was wrong

Lamar Alexander

Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who last week briefly wavered on whether the former national security adviser John Bolton should provide potentially damning testimony, confirmed to NBC’s Meet the Press he would vote to acquit.

Despite that, Alexander labelled Trump’s behaviour in the Ukraine scandal, in which the president pressured Kyiv to investigate the Biden family and other political rivals, as “wrong” and “inappropriate”.

“I think he shouldn’t have done it,” Alexander said. “I think it was wrong. Inappropriate was the way I’d say – improper, crossing the line.”

The Democratic-controlled House sent two articles of impeachment to the Senate, one concerning abuse of power and the other obstruction of Congress.

Bolton has reportedly detailed direct interactions with Trump over Ukraine in a book which the White House is seeking to block. Few observers doubt that even without Bolton’s testimony, the case against Trump was proved.

But Republicans have said that does not mean the president should be removed. Like other members of his party, Alexander said his vote to acquit was linked to the fact that removing Trump would mean he could not run in the election in November.

“You know,” he said, “it struck me, really for the first time, early last week, that we’re not just being asked to remove the president from office. We’re saying, ‘Tell him he can’t run in the 2020 election which begins Monday in Iowa.’”

Joni Ernst of Iowa, who faces re-election, also confirmed she would vote to acquit, despite meekly criticising the president’s behaviour.

“I think ferreting out corruption [in Ukraine] is absolutely the right thing to do,” she told CNN’s State of the Union. “Now if he was tying it to other things, that’s the president. It’s probably something that I wouldn’t have done.”

Adam Schiff, the Democrats’ lead impeachment manager, said Republicans’ acknowledgment of wrongdoing but decisions to acquit were “remarkable”.

“The House proved the corrupt scheme that they charged in the articles of impeachment,” Schiff told CBS’s Face the Nation, adding it was “pretty remarkable when you now have senators on both sides of the aisle admitting the House made its case and the only question is, should the president be removed for office because he’s been found guilty of these offences?”

The Senate is the jury today, but we are the jury tomorrow

Pete Buttigieg

Polling released by NBC and the Wall Street Journal on Sunday indicated that the country remains split over Trump’s impeachment, with 46% of registered voters supporting his removal and 49% believing he should remain.

Although Iowa holds the first vote for the Democratic nomination on Monday, many of the candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, will be forced to return to Washington to hear closing arguments in the Senate trial.

Trump is scheduled to deliver his state of the union address on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, giving him a primetime platform.

Joni Ernst talks to the media at the Capitol on Thursday. Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

Though his likely acquittal will be on Wednesday, many observers expect him to claim exoneration anyway, as he did, inaccurately, after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference last year.

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Democrats are looking to turn the Senate trial to their favour, branding it a cover-up and mobilising grassroots organisations to punish Republicans at the polls.

The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigeg, polling in third place in Iowa, told CNN on Sunday: “The Senate is the jury today, but we are the jury tomorrow.

“And we get to send a message at the ballot box that cheating, lying, involving a foreign country in our own domestic politics, not to mention abuse of power more broadly and bad administration, that’s not OK, that we can do better.”

Senate Republicans also plan to capitalise on Trump’s likely acquittal.

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on Sunday urged colleagues to commence investigations of the Bidens’ activities in Ukraine and to examine the start of the FBI investigation into Russian election meddling, which led to Mueller’s appointment.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of this to make sure it never happens again,” Graham said on Fox News Sunday.

Addressing Republican voters, he added: “You should expect us to do this. If we don’t do it, we’re letting you down.”