Trump impeachment trial set to throw Democratic primary into disarray

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — As the timetable for the Senate impeachment trial finally came into focus on Tuesday, it brought a startling realization that the proceedings will likely have a large impact on the Democratic presidential primary. 

It’s virtually certain that the trial will last beyond the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses. The bigger question is how much the trial might interfere with the Feb. 11 New Hampshire primary. 

This is unwelcome news for the Democratic senators who are in the thick of battle for their party’s presidential nomination. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has been in a tailspin of late. Over the summer, she was climbing in the polls and by early fall had tied former Vice President Joe Biden for the lead, but she has lost considerable momentum since then.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Photo: Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has been trying to break out of single digits and has seen signs she might be able to do so, but has yet to have that breakout moment. She’ll be looking for one in the debate Tuesday night in Des Moines. 

But now, Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg — the two frontrunners not in the Senate — will be free to campaign in Iowa in the crucial closing days before the first contest of the primary, while Warren and Klobuchar will be confined to their seats in Washington, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.

“It’s a challenge for the candidates who will be stuck in Washington. It’s an advantage for Biden and Buttigieg,” Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa Democratic operative, told Yahoo News. 

But a senior campaign staffer for one of the senators in the race rejected the notion this gives Biden a leg up. “Joe Biden can run all over Iowa, but most of the media and the country is going to be focused on what happens in the Senate,” the staffer told Yahoo News.

The Constitution and Senate rules require that all 100 senators be present for the entire impeachment trial, and that the Senate work six days a week while the trial is underway, allowing for only Sundays off. 

From left, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, at last month's Democratic presidential debate in Los Angeles. (Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

Further, senators are required to be present in the chamber, and will be largely silent. They are there to play the role of judge and jury in determining the guilt or innocence of the president, which means they will have few opportunities for the breakout moments that often define other congressional proceedings.

Even any questions they want to ask must be put in writing. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters Tuesday that he expects the Senate to begin its trial next Tuesday, after the House votes this Wednesday to name impeachment managers and to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate: one for abuse of power and the second for obstruction of Congress. 

McConnell said the Senate will likely vote next Tuesday on an organizing resolution that lays out the rules for the trial, but even after that, it is likely to be a few days before opening arguments begin, giving House Democrats and the White House a few days to file legal briefs, a McConnell spokesman said.

That puts the beginning of arguments at the end of next week. There’s only one week after that before the Iowa caucuses. 

If the trial lasts only two weeks, it’ll end the week before Feb. 11, when voters in New Hampshire go to the polls to pick the Democratic candidate. But it’s very possible that the trial will last three weeks, putting it into the week of the state’s primary. 

And if the Senate decides to call witnesses, it could go even longer, overshadowing the Feb. 22 Nevada caucuses, possibly even lasting right up until the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary. 

For candidates who are struggling to stay afloat financially, like Klobuchar and Bennet, this could be a fatal body blow. It already helped push another Democratic senator, Cory Booker of New Jersey, out of the race on Monday. In an email to supporters announcing his decision to suspend his campaign, Booker suggested he no longer saw a path to victory because, among other things, “the urgent business of impeachment will rightly be keeping me in Washington.” 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren helps a woman fill out a "commit to caucus" card in Maquoketa, Iowa. (Photo: Daniel Acker/Reuters)

Sanders is so well-financed from small-dollar donors and a loyal core following that he is expected to stay in the primary all the way until the end. So this might help him by weakening Warren. 

The most up-to-date fundraising numbers show Sanders with a cash-on-hand total of $33.7 million, followed by Buttigieg with $23.4 million, Biden with $9 million, entrepreneur Andrew Yang with $6.8 million, and Klobuchar with $3.7 million. 

While senators in the race and their respective staffs will lose time on the ground in key early states, they still have a few weapons at their disposal to mitigate the impact of being pulled away from the first phase of the primary. It’s likely the next few weeks will see a number of press conferences from Capitol Hill, stepped up surrogate appearances, candidates beaming in to local television affiliates via satellite and livestreaming with supporters. 

As for squeezing in trips to Iowa, candidates will be largely limited to Saturday evenings, and rushing back 24 or 36 hours later to be in the Senate for Monday’s session. 

Bernie Sanders has a major edge in two of these categories. He was endorsed by three-fourths of “the Squad” of freshmen congresswomen, which gives him some of the highest profile surrogates in the race. Sanders’s large war chest also makes private jet flights for single-day trips to Iowa a more realistic option for him than for many of his rivals. 

All of this raises the question about what would have happened if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had sent articles of impeachment to the Senate immediately after the House impeached President Trump on Dec. 18. 

In that scenario, a trial could have started right after the new year, and might have been completed before Iowa. But so far, no leading Democratic candidates have openly criticized Pelosi’s decision. 

“It is what it is,” the senior campaign staffer said.

* Hunter Walker and Brittany Shepherd contributed to this story.

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