Trump Set for Acquittal With Democrats Second-Guessing Strategy

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s inevitable acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial on Wednesday has some House Democrats fretting that they should have delivered a more complete case to argue for his removal.

Trump is emerging from the two-week Senate trial looking as strong as ever, barely wounded by the relentless details of his efforts to force Ukraine to investigate one of his main political rivals. Instead, the Republican base appears reinvigorated, sending Trump to a record 49% approval rating in the latest Gallup poll.

And on Tuesday night, Democrats watched while the president entered the very chamber where his impeachment had taken place and triumphantly declared: “the State of our Union is stronger than ever before!”

Chief Justice John Roberts is scheduled to take his place in the Senate chamber one last time to preside over a 4 p.m. vote on the two articles of impeachment. Most Senate Republicans have already declared they will vote to acquit, and only a handful said they disapproved of Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine.

House Democrats are left grappling with what they could have done differently and what the trial’s conclusion will mean for their party in the 2020 elections.

On the one hand, by wrapping up impeachment just as primary voting begins, Democrats can turn their attention back to a broader agenda. But some Democrats who represent swing districts could also pay a price for supporting impeachment, rather than focusing on issues like health care that got them elected.

“I’m hopeful we are going to stay in the majority,” said Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, acknowledging concerns that Republicans could use impeachment to take back the House.

Multiple House Democrats, who asked not to be named to speak more candidly, questioned the strategy of focusing impeachment articles on the allegations that Trump used U.S. foreign policy regarding Ukraine for his own political benefit. Some are also concerned that the swift investigation and hearings to impeach Trump by the end of 2019 gave Republicans an easy way to dismiss the process as illegitimate.

“There’s going to be a lot of second-guessing about this by colleagues and by historians,” said Representative Dan Kildee, also of Michigan and a member of the House Democratic vote-counting team. “It’s really almost impossible to guess when House Democrats would coalesce around impeachment. It happened when it did. It was organic the way it happened. Nobody was whipped into their positions.”

Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, in announcing Wednesday that he’ll vote to convict the president, was nonetheless critical of the way the House investigation was conducted.

“I have struggled to understand the House’s strategy in their pursuit of documents and witnesses and wished they had done more,” Jones, who will face voters in November in a Trump-supporting state, said on the Senate floor. Still, he said, “I believe the president deliberately and unconstitutionally obstructed Congress by refusing to cooperate with the investigation in any way.”

‘Impeached Forever’

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew when she announced the impeachment inquiry in September that the Republican-led Senate would almost certainly not reach the two-thirds majority needed to actually remove Trump from office. But Democrats hoped the inquiry and trial would expose what they saw as Trump’s unacceptable conduct to a bigger audience.

“We had a strong case of impeachment of the president of the United States,” Pelosi told reporters last week. “No matter what the senators have the courage or not to do, he will be impeached forever.”

Trump did not mention the proceedings during his State of the Union address, but the tensions were evident when the president refused the speaker’s hand before he began speaking, and when she tore up her copy of the speech immediately after he finished.

Democrats did score a series of damaging revelations during their investigation last year. And new information continued to emerge in the new year that implicated Trump personally, including the bombshell that his former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s unpublished book manuscript has a firsthand account of the president’s demands for Ukraine.

In the Senate trial, Trump’s defense team said Democrats’ self-imposed deadline proved that the investigation was hasty and not thorough enough to convict the president -- even though one of the charges against the president was obstruction of Congress, for not complying with the House’s subpoenas and requests.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, one of the impeachment managers, said throughout the process that the House refused to get dragged into lengthy court battles to enforce subpoenas.

‘Preference for Speed’

Republicans who sought to justify their decision to vote in Trump’s favor cited the House’s rushed process as a reason they weren’t convinced.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said the trial should have been sufficient to judge Trump’s guilt or innocence, “but the foundation upon which it rested was rotted.”

“The House rushed through what should have been one of the most serious consequential undertakings of the legislative branch simply to meet an artificial self-imposed deadline,” Murkowski said Monday on the Senate floor.

Maine Senator Susan Collins, who was one of the two Republicans who voted with Democrats to seek more evidence in the Senate trial, said the House should have waited for the courts to decide whether to force the Trump administration to comply with congressional subpoenas.

“The House substituted some political preference for speed over finality,” Collins said Tuesday in her speech to explain why she plans to vote to acquit Trump.

In addition to the obstruction of Congress charge, the other article of impeachment said Trump abused the power of his office by withholding nearly $400 million in congressionally approved security aid for Ukraine as leverage to demand that newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announce an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump.

Ultimate Censure

These allegations were initially raised by an intelligence community whistle-blower, and Democrats considered them to be so serious that even more moderate members who resisted previous calls for impeachment shifted to support opening an inquiry in September.

Dingell was one of the Democrats who said the Ukraine allegations convinced her that Trump deserved the ultimate censure for a sitting president.

“As somebody who did not come out for impeachment in the summer -- and probably getting more pressure to than anybody in the country -- once you had an inspector general saying there was a credible and urgent threat to our national security, that changed the formula for me,” Dingell said. “You can’t ignore something like that.”

Now, however, some Democrats are second-guessing whether the impeachment investigation should have included charges related to campaign finance and an emoluments probe of whether Trump properties profit from foreign nationals. Multiple House committees had been investigating these issues for months before the Ukraine revelations.

Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney acknowledged that some would rethink the strategy and choices, but she declined to specify what should have been done differently.

“When you have hindsight, you can always improve,” Maloney said when asked about any regrets on impeachment decisions. “But I think the team did an extraordinary job. And the impeachment in the House was based on indisputable facts, overwhelming evidence.”

‘Has to Be Clarity’

One House Democrat involved in the impeachment investigation said part of the second-guessing centered on why the House set aside broader investigations in committees outside Schiff’s control. This Democrat, who asked not to be identified to speak more candidly, said some of the other allegations could have been more solidly proven as crimes.

In a November interview with Bloomberg News, Pelosi said “there has to be clarity” for the American people to understand any impeachment case brought by the House. She said the Ukraine allegations were easily understood and “changed everything in the public mind.”

Ashley Etienne, a Pelosi spokeswoman, said the impeachment proceeding has received “overwhelmingly positive reactions from the caucus“ and from people around the country.

Yet even those Democrats who say they are confident that the House impeachment was handled as well as possible, given total Republican opposition, worried that Trump’s acquittal in the Senate would not only bolster his re-election pitch but also give him license to act without any institutional checks.

“The impeachment is what it is, and the acquittal is going to happen tomorrow but that doesn’t give him some kind of gold plated ‘get out of jail free card,’” Kildee said Tuesday. “The fear is that he will feel emboldened.”

(Updates with Jones comment starting in 10th paragraph)

--With assistance from Erik Wasson.

To contact the reporter on this story: Billy House in Washington at bhouse5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at kwhitelaw@bloomberg.net, John Harney

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