Iranians going into the street after the strike on Qassem Soleimani? “Joined together against us.” Iranians going into the street over the regime’s lies over its shootdown of a passenger jet? Well, “there are different reasons why people are in the street,” says … Nancy Pelosi?
That might be the preferred narrative for Iran’s ruling mullahcracy, but it’s a strange position for an American political leader to take. And yet, here we have Pelosi making that very argument on yesterday’s This Week with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. It doesn’t take long for Pelosi to get tangled up in the obvious contradictions of this argument and of the policy choices:
STEPHANOPOULOS: The question is how we get there. We’re seeing now demonstrations in the streets of Iran against the regime. Do you support those protesters and would it be a good thing if they brought the regime down?
PELOSI: Well, the regime — the protesters are — are protesting, as I understand it, this brand of protesters, about the fact that that plane went down. And many students were on that plane. And these are largely students in the street. I think the Iranians should have not had commercial flights going off when there was —
STEPHANOPOULOS: They’re calling out the regime for lying. They’re saying death to Khomeini as well.
PELOSI: Yes. Well, whatever it is. But the fact is this, the — there were protesters in the streets before against the regime. After the taking out of Soleimani, there were protesters in the street, joined together, as you know, against us. That wasn’t good. Taking down this plane is a terrible, terrible tragedy. And they should be held accountable for letting commercial flights go at a time that was so, so dangerous.
But there are different reasons why people are in the street. Of course we would love to see the aspirations of the people of Iran realized with a better situation there, but escalating the situation — unless we’ve exhausted every other remedy —
STEPHANOPOULOS: Which we haven’t?
PELOSI: Well, we don’t know that. We don’t know that. And if the first — the first action to be taken on the threat of — there — there are — a lot of bad actors who are doing bad things and threatening bad things to us. We know that. Iran being one of them. And it being a — it’s proxies doing bad things to our interests throughout the world. But how do we deal with that in a way that calms rather than escalates?
This is an absurd statement on multiple levels. This valediction from an Iranian state television anchor makes it plain why:
Pelosi’s argument assumes that Iranians have agency only when they protest against the US. It’s fair to assume that ordinary Iranians might not be terribly fond of us after years of economic sanctions, but assigning independence to those protests ignores the ruthless totalitarian nature of the Iranian regime — which Pelosi also acknowledges. The Soleimani protests served the regime’s interests, which is why they were allowed to occur at all, if not actively organized by the IRGC and the mullahs themselves for the useful idiots in the West.
Since Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimaniwas killed last week, I have been listening very carefully, to hear what is not being said. I have done this because these many decades later, I have witnessed Western media fail to discern between the public display of ideology sanctioned by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the quickly silenced protests and opinions of those who dissent.
What has not been widely said is that this revered hero was the same man who oversaw the deaths of at least 1,500 Iranians protesting the regime just this fall, when it blacked out the internet and its security forces opened fire on the millions who took to the streets — a response understood to be under Soleimani’s orders, given his role in suppressing dissent. I haven’t heard anyone refer to Soleimani’s statement, which I heard broadcast on my Los Angeles radio station only weeks ago, that he was ready to kill millions more of his own countrymen in order to protect the regime. …
The international press has reported on those who have made public statements in Iran, their tear-filled condolences for the death of this revered hero, but virtually no one in the press has mentioned that some might be forced to do so in order to protect their livelihood. Because the state controls everything in Iran. If you want permission to build an apartment, shoot your movie or display your artwork, or you need a loan to start a business or to get the deed to your own home, you are at the mercy of government officials.
In order to make a living, you play the part of a patriot, even if you spit upon the mention of Soleimani’s name in the privacy of your own home, in front of those you trust with your life. Because to dissent is to risk your life. In a dictatorship, under the reign of a murderous government, you either show your devoted allegiance, you do what you are told, or you die.
This puts the protests taking place now in a starkly different context. These are protests against the regime, tearing down pictures of Soleimani, who spent decades oppressing Iranians in the manner Foroutan describes. They are chanting “Death to Khameini” in great risk to their lives, not “Death to America” at no risk whatsoever. Which of these seems more organic and credible as a measure of the Iranian peoples’ mindset? And yet, here we have Pelosi taking the mullah-organized protests at face value while shrugging off the current protests as student grievances at best.
Pelosi doesn’t fare much better on the policy argument, either. She tells Stephanopoulos that we should try de-escalating policies first, which … we did with the Iran deal. It didn’t stop Soleimani from organizing terror-group proxies and attacks on Americans, and it’s been clear for decades that Iran has no interest in de-escalation regardless. They want to impose a regional hegemony from Tehran of their particular strain of radical Islam, not play nice in the sandbox with others. That’s been apparent since 1979, the 1982 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the series of kidnapping of Americans in Lebanon, and especially in their race to acquire nuclear weapons.
At least that’s an arguable point. By embracing the anti-US protests and denigrating the anti-regime protests, Pelosi exposed herself as incoherent at best … and totally Trump-obsessed as well.
But here in reality, the big question about Trump’s Senate trial is whether the House’s allegations will get any serious consideration from the chamber’s Republican majority — a majority that, at the trial’s conclusion, is all but certain to acquit the president and keep him in office.
With a prosecution and defense team, opening and closing arguments, the possibility of witness testimony, Chief Justice John Roberts presiding, and a mostly silent “jury” of 100 senators, the event — which will likely begin this week with procedural measures, followed by opening statements on Tuesday, January 21 — will have many of the trappings of a criminal proceeding.
But this is no ordinary trial. Senators are tasked with deciding whether to remove the US president from office — something that has never been done before.
And the Senate is no ordinary jury. They get to make important decisions about how the trial should be organized and unfold. Rather than being selected for their lack of previous knowledge of the case, they are 100 political animals with preexisting political beliefs, ambitions, and loyalties.
Some key Senate Republicans haven’t even tried to pretend the outcome is in question. “There is only one outcome that is suited to the paucity of evidence, the failed inquiry, the slapdash case,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last month. “I have clearly made up my mind,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) just days before.
On one level, then, the trial is about whether Trump is guilty of the offenses the House has charged him with — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Yet what’s really being determined here is whether Donald Trump should continue to serve as president. So far, more than enough Senate Republicans clearly think the answer is yes.
1) What is a Senate impeachment trial?
The US Constitution gives Congress the power to hold federal officers accountable for high crimes and misdemeanors through the impeachment process. But that process unfolds in two steps. First, the House of Representatives decides whether to impeach — essentially, whether to charge with wrongdoing. (The House did that for Trump last month.) Second, it’s up to the Senate to decide whether the official is guilty of that wrongdoing, for which the punishment entails removal from office.
The Senate does this by holding a trial. There have been 19 such trials in US history — 15 for federal judges, one for a senator (after which the Senate concluded that senators can’t be impeached), one for a Cabinet officer, and, most momentously, two for presidents (Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999).
Trump’s Senate trial will focus on the two articles of impeachment approved by the House. Article I, “Abuse of Power,” accuses Trump of pressuring the Ukrainian government into announcing an investigation into the Bidens by withholding both a White House meeting and military aid. Article II, “Obstruction of Congress,” accuses Trump of trying to impede the impeachment inquiry by urging government agencies not to comply with subpoenas and witnesses not to cooperate.
These trials typically end in a final vote on each article of impeachment. A vote to convict on even one article means the official is ousted. But, crucially, conviction requires a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate to actually convict; a simple majority won’t do the trick. That means it would take 67 senators to remove Trump, and that’s a very high bar to clear. But if it is somehow cleared, Trump would be ousted, and Vice President Mike Pence would become president of the United States.
2) Are there prosecutors, defense, and a judge, like an ordinary trial?
A presidential impeachment trial is a rare proceeding involving all three branches of the federal government (and both houses of Congress), with a structure broadly resembling a criminal trial. The players are:
The House impeachment managers (the prosecutors): This week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will name several members of the House to make the case that Trump should be removed from office. They are likely to be Democrats on the Judiciary Committee or Intelligence Committee, though there has also been some discussion about making Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI), who left the GOP earlier this year, a manager, too. (For Clinton’s impeachment, House Republicans named 13 impeachment managers.)
Trump’s team (the defense): The president will have to designate representatives to defend him. White House counsel Pat Cipollone will lead the team, and Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow will participate as well, Sekulow told the Daily Beast. The full roster has not yet been announced.
Chief Justice John Roberts (the judge, sort of): The chief justice “shall preside” over a presidential impeachment trial, per the Constitution. But, as we’ll discuss, it’s not clear how substantive that role is or how assertive Roberts will be in it.
The Senate (the jury, sort of, but also the court): The trial is conducted for the benefit of the 100 senators, who will eventually decide whether to remove the president from office or keep him there. And like jurors in a criminal trial, senators mostly aren’t permitted to speak at the trial; they’re supposed to observe silently.
However, unlike ordinary jurors, the Senate will make decisions on how to run the trial, with contested decisions being brought to a vote in the chamber. Since there are 53 Republican senators and 47 Democrats, the GOP will have the upper hand in making those decisions — so long as they can keep their moderate members in line.
3) How have previous impeachment trials played out?
Though the Senate has a set of impeachment rules, those rules do little to settle key questions about how Trump’s trial will be structured and proceed. How long will it take? What evidence will be admitted? Will witnesses be called? All these questions are really up to the Senate to decide.
We can expect proceedings to be bookended by opening and closing arguments from each side, as in a criminal trial. But what comes in between for Trump is yet to be determined, and it varied greatly for Johnson’s and Clinton’s trials.
Johnson’s 1868 trial took nearly two months from start to finish. The impeachment articles there focused mainly on whether Johnson violated a new law, the Tenure of Office Act, by firing his secretary of war without the Senate’s approval. Several administration officials were called to testify by each side about Johnson’s actions. The outcome appeared genuinely in the balance as the Senate prepared to vote on a verdict, with all manner of behind-the-scenes shenanigans unfolding.
Clinton’s 1999 trial lasted about one month. He was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice in his effort to cover up his affair with Monica Lewinsky — and, due to his high approval rating and continued support among most Democrats, he was widely expected to be acquitted. Things kicked off on the Senate floor with televised opening arguments and a period during which each side answered written questions submitted by senators. Then the GOP-controlled Senate voted to approve the proposal of House impeachment managers to call three witnesses — Lewinsky, plus Clinton allies Vernon Jordan and Sidney Blumenthal — for videotaped closed-door depositions.
But that testimony (which was soon released publicly) didn’t produce any revelations, and it was clear the GOP lacked the votes to convict. So the Senate decided to pull the plug, voting to deny a request from House Republicans to call Lewinsky for another round of questioning and to schedule an end date for the trial without any new witnesses. After that, action resumed in televised Senate floor proceedings with a presentation of evidence from each side and closing arguments. What followed were several days of speechmaking by senators behind closed doors (with many senators subsequently releasing their remarks), and finally, public votes on a verdict for each article.
4) When will the trial be — and how long will it take?
The short answer is that, though nothing is yet set in stone, the trial could begin this week, and will probably last a couple of weeks.
As far as the start date, since late December, the holdup has been Speaker Pelosi’s hesitance to send the articles of impeachment over to the Senate. But Pelosi has made clear the House will do so this week. The full House will vote to do this (either on Tuesday or a bit later in the week), and the day after that happens, things can start in the Senate.
The Senate will likely first begin by setting out the structure and plan for the opening phase of the trial — with opening statements likely to kick off on Tuesday, January 21, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said Monday.
When it comes to the trial’s length, McConnell has reportedly said in private that he wants a short trial, lasting around two weeks, with no witnesses called to testify. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, though, has publicly called for testimony from four witnesses with knowledge of the Ukraine scandal: acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, White House aide Rob Blair, and Office of Management and Budget official Michael Duffey.
Whether McConnell will get his way remains to be seen. He has locked down the Republican votes necessary to begin the trial without resolving the witness question (as the Senate did in 1999). But Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has said she’s trying to strike a deal to allow testimony from some witnesses. Bolton’s recent announcement that he would comply with any Senate subpoena for his testimony may make it harder for Republicans to justify skipping witnesses (though President Trump has also suggested he may try to block Bolton’s testimony through executive privilege).
5) But McConnell is just going to call all the shots, right?
So long as McConnell can keep his party together, yes, he will essentially call the shots for Trump’s trial. And he has done that so far — though on certain issues, he might find it more difficult.
The first order of business is for the Senate to come up with a plan for how to handle the trial. Back in 1999, the Senate unanimously agreed on procedures and a schedule for the first phase of Clinton’s trial. But this time around, McConnell and Schumer were at odds over the witness issue. So McConnell believes he has wrangled the votes he needs to move ahead for this first phase with Republican support alone, with no concessions to Democrats.
The math of impeachment votes is somewhat unusual for the Senate. The vote on a final verdict, as mentioned, needs 67 yeses to pass. But measures before that can be approved by a simple majority. However, Vice President Pence, who can usually break ties in the Senate, is not expected to vote on any impeachment matters. (He has a bit of a conflict of interest, since he’d become president if Trump is removed.)
For McConnell to pass a partisan measure, he’ll need to keep 51 of the 53 Senate Republicans together. That would mean he needs to keep at least one of the expected trio of swing votes — Sens. Collins, Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Mitt Romney (R-UT) — on his side. And all have signaled that they will back McConnell’s plan to start the trial without resolving the witness question.
Meanwhile, for Democrats to get a measure of their own passed, they’d likely need to win over four Republicans (47 Democrats plus four Republicans equals a 51-vote majority). In addition to the aforementioned trio, they’d need someone else. CNN has proposed several possibilities, but the incentives for partisanship are strong in the Senate.
And, to complicate things further, there’s the question of the chief justice.
6) What will Chief Justice John Roberts do?
The Senate impeachment rules give the presiding officer — in this case, Chief Justice Roberts — power to rule on “all questions of evidence,” specific questions from senators to be put to witnesses or counsel, and motions. That could give him enormous influence on how the trial plays out.
But there’s a massive catch: the Senate can reject any of his rulings with a majority vote. Still, even there, the specifics of Roberts’s ruling could influence how senators make up their minds (theoretically, key swing vote Republicans could be hesitant to overrule Roberts).
The real question is whether Roberts will choose to take a hands-on role or not.
He would have a precedent for doing so. For the first presidential impeachment trial, that of Johnson in 1868, Chief Justice Salmon Chase demanded to play an active role, as Brenda Wineapple chronicles in her book The Impeachers. In addition to ruling on evidence and the scope of testimony, Chase even decided he would have the power to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate (something usually done by the vice president).
Chase cast two tie-breaking votes, but this was controversial at the time — and while the Senate let the votes stand, they’ve never quite officially said the chief justice can do this. (Asked whether Roberts would break ties, a spokesperson for McConnell seemed to signal otherwise to Vox’s Li Zhou, “Anything that is put to a vote during an impeachment trial, ties lose.”)
Yet Roberts also has a sharply different model he can follow. When the next presidential impeachment trial came around 131 years later, Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s main objective was to stay out the way. Rehnquist wanted to let the Senate take the lead and run Clinton’s trial as they saw fit, so he declinedto rule on contested issues. He’d just refer any controversial questions to the full Senate for a vote.
Indeed, Rehnquist’s sole “ruling” of note was that House impeachment managers should stop addressing senators as “jurors” — because, he said, the Senate is “not simply a jury” but “also a court.” After things wrapped up, he summarized his role by saying, “I did nothing in particular and I did it very well.”
So it’s up to Roberts whether he’ll interpret his role like Chase, Rehnquist, or somewhere in between. Importantly, though, the nature of the Supreme Court has changed since Chase’s time. Chase was a political animal — indeed, he was angling for the Democratic presidential nomination the same year of Johnson’s trial.
In contrast, Roberts wants himself and the Supreme Court itself to have the appearance of being above grubby partisan politics. That would seem to suggest he’d take on more of a restrained role, like that of Rehnquist. Then again, he could also think of himself as an impartial arbiter helping to broker compromises that make our political system more functional, and use that to justify intervening. Again, it’s up to him.
7) Will Trump show up and testify?
The president has claimed he would “strongly consider” testifying in the impeachment inquiry at some point. But most in Washington very much do not expect that to happen. Remember, Trump also frequently claimed he’d be happy to do an interview with former special counsel Robert Mueller during the Russia probe, but he ended up submitting just one written set of heavily lawyered answers.
Trump’s legal team is certainly hoping he won’t testify. And neither Johnson nor Clinton showed up to their impeachment trials, preferring to let their defense teams do the talking.
But Trump is known for wanting to take a prominent role in his own messaging. Plus, his acquittal certainly seems safe at this point, given the supermajority required for conviction and the existing GOP majority. What does he have to lose? Why not show up, give the Democrats a piece of his mind, and get some credit for his inevitable victory?
He probably won’t, though. Probably.
8) How will senators decide a verdict?
Unless there’s a successful motion to dismiss the charges against Trump, what lies at the end of all this are Senate votes on whether he’s guilty or not guilty of each charge (abuse of power and obstruction of Congress).
As presented, the question for senators may seem simple: Did Trump do what he’s accused of doing? But the true question lurking beneath this is: Should Trump be removed from the White House?
And that’s a higher bar. Take, for instance, the Clinton impeachment. Some senators believed he was, in fact, guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice but still concluded he should not be removed from office.
Politics naturally played a role. Clinton was overwhelmingly popular, large majorities of the public opposed his removal, and Republicans came to believe impeachment was a political loser after their weak performance in the 1998 midterms. But senators also invoked the greater good of the country, arguing it would be a mistake to remove a president the public clearly supported. (No Democrats voted to convict Clinton, and several Republicans joined them in voting to acquit.)
As for Johnson, one major factor in his acquittal was who would have replaced him: Ben Wade, the Senate’s president pro tempore (since Johnson had no vice president after succeeding the assassinated Abraham Lincoln). Wade was viewed even by many mainstream members of his party as an extremist (due to, among other matters, his support for voting rights for freedmen and even women). Convicting Johnson meant making Wade president, and some Republicans feared that would sink the chances of their nominee for president in the election later that year: Ulysses S. Grant.
There may have been baser motives at play, too. After Johnson was acquitted by a single vote (due to a late switch by Sen. Edmund Ross), the House immediately launched an investigation into whether key senators had been bribed. In Wineapple’s telling, the investigation found “a great deal of smoke” but couldn’t outright prove bribery.
For Trump, though, the likely determining factor will be simple partisanship. The president is unpopular overall, but the vast majority of Republican voters continue to strongly support him. The impeachment inquiry and its revelations about quid pro quos haven’t changed that. The safe bet for senators who seek a political future in the GOP continues to be to stand by Trump.
9) Is there even a chance that Trump gets removed? Or charged criminally?
As far as criminal charges go, the articles of impeachment the House approved for Trump are not ordinary federal crimes. Rather, they’re constitutional “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Whether Trump committed any criminal wrongdoing in connection to the Ukraine scandal would be up to the Justice Department to determine. And, they’ve said, they won’t charge a sitting president with a crime. (Should Trump lose reelection in 2020, though, it’s possible that a Justice Department of his successor, under new leadership, would scrutinize his conduct.)
As for removal from office in the trial — well, never say never. But Trump technically needs only 34 Senate supporters to vote for his acquittal. There are 53 Senate Republicans, which means that at least 20 would have to defect and vote to convict him.
For that to happen, there would have to be some truly shocking developments. Keep in mind that almost all of these Senate Republicans have spent the past few years supporting Trump and standing by him — and that zero Republicans in the House voted to impeach him.
Despite the damning facts in the Ukraine scandal, Republicans have offered a variety of justifications for keeping Trump around. Some say they’re just respecting the will of the voters (in key Electoral College states); some say this is all a partisan plot from Democrats; some say Trump did nothing wrong; some say the House just didn’t get enough evidence.
It’s not inconceivable that new significant evidence will emerge. But even then, it would take a true earthquake to result in 20 Republican defections. What would likely be required is Trump’s popularity finally plummeting among Republican voters. So far, though, he has avoided that fate — and unless that changes, he’s overwhelmingly likely to finish out his term.
The real fight is for progressive power in the Democratic Party.
Before the Left can control committees, whip votes and pass laws, we will need to perfect this dance with the establishment—to strategically use the threat of protest, division, bad press and primaries to strike better deals for the working and disenfranchised people of this country.
Since the 2018 election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Queens, New York has stood on the cutting edge of left politics because the borough’s progressives have developed effective strategies to take on establishment institutions and win. When, in December 2019, activists who support Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren caught wind of backroom deals in the Queens County Democratic Party to back Joe Biden, they held a rally that successfully forestalled an endorsement. The protest revealed something that is easy to miss on Twitter: For the Left, the real fight isn’t just for the nomination—it’s for progressive power in the Democratic Party.
If a single candidate could consolidate the Sanders and Warren constituencies, that campaign would be about 5 points ahead of Biden nationally. Sanders, Warren and their supporters broadly want the same things—Medicare for All, free public college, a Green New Deal—but they are vying for many of the same primary voters. The success of the progressive movement in 2020 is, to a certain extent, contingent on that competition not undermining the broader Left.
According to a December YouGov Blue survey, 51% of Warren supporters said they were also considering Sanders, and nearly the same (48%) were considering front-runner Biden; 64% of Sanders supporters said they were also considering Warren, and 46% considering Biden. Sanders and Warren are popular with each other’s supporters—making it unwise for one to directly attack the other—even though they need to compete for the same votes.
If either fails to make a strong showing in the first three primaries—signaling they have no real chance at the nomination—they should probably drop out and throw their support to the other.
However, while both are in the race, there are ways they can team up. The most immediate and obvious way is to continue dunking on their opposition—think Bernie’s “44 billionaires” attack on Biden and Warren’s “wine cave” jab at Mayor Pete. And both should endorse down-ballot primary challengers like Jessica Cisneros in TX-28 and Morgan Harper in OH-3, to bring allies to Capitol Hill and pressure moderate incumbents to move left.
But here’s where things get interesting: The Democratic nominee is ultimately not selected by voters but by convention delegates. A campaign has to reach a 15% threshold within the state to win state-level delegates, and the same threshold in each district to win district-level delegates.
Political scientist Josh Putnam says a campaign polling significantly below 15% could urge their supporters to shift to their second choice (though an organizer with the Warren campaign told me this is easier said than done, even in a caucus like Iowa where voters physically gather to discuss, and would be especially difficult on traditional ballots). John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich struck a deal like this in Iowa in 2004, with some benefit to the former. Warren and Sanders should consider a similar arrangement, at least in the Hawkeye State.
A contested convention, though unlikely, offers other opportunities to join forces. Say Sanders and Warren amass delegates in proportion to their current national polling—about 20% and 15%, respectively—while a moderate like Joe Biden pulls significantly short of 50%. In this scenario, neither Sanders nor Warren can win, but the two could leverage delegates in exchange for concessions in the party platform and progressive picks for vice president and cabinet positions.
The last thing party leadership wants is to head into the general election against Trump with Team Blue divided. Disunity is itself a form of leverage, as Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, pointed out to me.
We may yet get a progressive president in 2021—and even progressive Senate and House leadership in the years to come. But before the Left can control committees, whip votes and pass laws, we will need to perfect this dance with the establishment—to strategically use the threat of protest, division, bad press and primaries to strike better deals for the working and disenfranchised people of this country.
It’s working in Queens. Moumita Ahmed, 29, is a co-founder of the New Reformers PAC and a 2016 Bernie delegate (and 2020 delegate candidate). She helped organize the protest in Queens, and told me that “Warren and Sanders supporters can work together on this issue of, ‘Does our party support grassroots democracy?’”
A similar approach could work in Milwaukee this summer and even in Washington in 2021.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, In These Times does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office
For another perspective, read A Primary Is a Competition. Bernie Should Play To Win. by Carl Beijer.
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One of MacDonough’s most important assignments came in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when she was still a relatively junior Senate adviser: preparing a continuity plan in case the U.S. Capitol ever needed to be evacuated and the government relocated.
Her job has many bosses. All 100 senators look to the parliamentarian’s office for advice as they draft legislation. Senate committees find out from MacDonough’s team which bills are headed their way. On the floor, she’s the one who provides guidance to the presiding officer whenever there’s a question or debate about precedent or procedure.
But it’s ultimately the Senate majority leader who makes the call on who serves in the post: Harry Reid promoted MacDonough in 2012 after Frumin’s retirement, and Mitch McConnell kept the Washington, D.C., native around when Republicans took control of the chamber two years later following the 2014 midterms.
“I’ve been here with many, many parliamentarians. All were good. But she’s the best,” said Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, the longest active serving senator.
“She’s tough,” added Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn, the former majority whip. “She calls them straight down the middle.”
For the Trump trial, MacDonough’s three-person office will get the added responsibility of serving as the main liaison for Roberts, who along with a select group of aides must make the short commute into a building that they typically only visit on ceremonial occasions.
Her team will be tasked with delivering to Roberts the daily program that he’ll use to guide the proceedings. She will also be the one helping Roberts keep track of the clock as he calls on the people with assigned speaking roles — Trump’s White House and personal attorneys, Senate leaders and the House impeachment managers who will present the case for the Democrats. It’s a critical task for a chamber that operates on a series of careful agreements dictating time management.
At times, MacDonough’s deputy, Leigh Hildebrand, will also occupy the parliamentarian’s chair. Hildebrand, a Senate staffer entering her 15th year, is also a well-known face around Capitol Hill.
Perhaps most importantly, though, MacDonough will be the one who must give the chief justice instant advice should he need to make any snap rulings or decisions that could influence the trajectory of the trial.
Unforeseen events also loom. While the members are supposed to sit silently during large portions of the trial, they do have the right to raise objections, pose questions and hold press conferences right outside the ornate chamber doors. The whole world will be watching, too, including one person — Trump — with more than 70 million Twitter followers and little restraint on raining down invective on previously unknown figures.
MacDonough is no stranger to Capitol Hill. Senators feted the moment she made history as the first woman to get the job. Freshmen preparing for their inaugural turn chairing the Senate have described her as a lifeline to navigating arcane legislative questions.
Yet given the inherent political nature of her job, MacDonough also faced some criticism. Conservatives ripped MacDonough, for example, over a 2017 procedural ruling that hindered the Senate GOP’s attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
She’s taken the criticism in stride. During a commencement speech in 2018 at her alma mater, the Vermont Law School, MacDonough weaved together stories about some of those tense showdowns with more light-hearted moments, such as a quip about Sen. Marco Rubio’s awkward reach to grab a sip of water during a nationally-televised speech.
“Taking the long view is a part of what I do every day as I represent the interest of my unseen client, the institution of the Senate itself,” MacDonough said. “While serving its 100 members on a day-to-day basis, I still represent the Senate. No matter who is in my office asking for assistance, I represent the Senate with its traditions of unfettered debate, protection of minority rights and equal power among the states.”
Of course, senators don’t have to listen to her either. Reid and the Democrats, for example, overruled MacDonough in 2013 when they invoked the “nuclear option” to end the requirement that 60 votes were needed to confirm executive branch nominations and non-Supreme Court federal judicial appointments. She faced the same predicament in 2017 when McConnell changed the Senate rules so future Justice Neil Gorsuch could get confirmed to the Supreme Court without having to find the votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
“It was a stinging defeat that I tried not to take personally,” MacDonough recalled in her speech to the graduating students. “The one thing I can tell you about situations like this. It will never feel good, or rewarding enough, to say, ‘I told you so,’ when people finally understand the point of which you are trying to convince them.”
MacDonough — and, in turn, Roberts — may end up breaking new ground during the Trump impeachment trial. Chief justices have only presided over two Senate trials involving presidents, and neither left much in the way of precedent. Back in 1868, the parliamentarian’s role didn’t even exist when Chief Justice Salmon Chase opted for a highly assertive role during the trial of President Andrew Johnson, which ended in his acquittal.
More than a century later, the Senate parliamentarian’s office built a dossier as it geared up for a Nixon trial that then-Chief Justice Warren Burger would have overseen. While the Senate never got that case, the parliamentarian at the time, Floyd Riddick, explained in an interview with the Senate historian that his research backed up the notion that the parliamentarian would be essential for any future chief justice who presides over another impeachment trial.
“I would assume that the chief justice, whether he always followed the advice of the parliamentarian or not, would at least want him there to give him the benefit of what the practices of the Senate had been, and then he would have the same right that all presiding officers have to ignore the advice of the parliamentarian and rule as he wanted,” Riddick said.
A watchdog group is asking the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi: Trump is ‘impeached for life’ Trump hits Senate for giving impeachment ‘credibility’ by holding trial Trump bemoans ‘stigma’ of impeachment MORE (R-Ky.) over his pledge to not be impartial during the upcoming impeachment trial.
Public Citizen filed a complaint with the committee on Monday questioning if the GOP leader has violated both the U.S. Constitution and the Senate’s rules.
“The public declarations by Senator McConnell that his role in the impeachment process is to coordinate with the White House and thereby make a mockery of the trial directly contradict his oath of impartiality,” Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, said in a statement.
McConnell has come under criticism for his public statements about coordinating with the White House on impeachment trial strategy. He also told reporters during a press conference that he is not an “impartial juror” in the upcoming trial.
The outside group, in its letter to the Ethics Committee, argued that McConnell’s comments are “contrary to this oath of impartiality.”
“McConnell’s comment appears to directly contradict the Senate rules oath – not because he recognizes that impeachment is a political process or because he enters the process believing President TrumpDonald John TrumpCoalition forms to back Trump rollback of major environmental law Canadian CEO blasts Trump over downed plane in Iran: ‘I am livid’ Business groups worry they won’t see a Phase 2 Trump-China trade deal MORE should be acquitted, but by his direct statement that he will not be impartial,” the letter reads.
The group is asking the Ethics Committee to investigate if McConnell violated either the Constitution or the Senate rules “and, if that is found to be the case, take appropriate remedial actions through recusal from the impeachment proceedings.”
Monday’s letter comes as the House is poised to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate this week, kicking off the trial after a weeks-long delay over the rules.
GOP senators have defended the Republican leader, noting that Democrats have criticized McConnell for his comments on coordinating with the White House even as Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerCongressional leaders have been shadow boxing on impeachment Pelosi set to send impeachment articles to the Senate next week Enes Kanter sees political stardom — after NBA and WWE MORE (D-N.Y.) has been in regular contact with House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats scramble to rein in Trump’s Iran war powers Pelosi: Trump is ‘impeached for life’ Trump hits Senate for giving impeachment ‘credibility’ by holding trial MORE (D-Calif.) about the strategy for Democrats.
Schumer previously told MSNBC’s Rachel MaddowRachel Anne MaddowTucker Carlson delivers program’s largest audience during Iranian missile strike coverage Fox News hits highest viewership in network’s 23-year history Former health insurance executive: Buttigieg uses industry talking points against progressive health care policy MORE that he and Pelosi were “talking to each other” about impeachment strategy, though he declined to characterize their conversations as “coordinating.”
Schumer also pledged, during his 1998 Senate campaign, that he would vote to acquit then-President Clinton if he won. Schumer was both a member of the House during its impeachment inquiry and a member of the Senate during the impeachment trial.
“This is not a criminal trial, but this is something the Founding Fathers decided to put in a body that was susceptible to the whims of politics,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 1999 about his decision to take part in the trial.
Republicans have also been quick to point out that some Democratic senators have said that Trump should be removed from office, and several senators running for the Democratic presidential nomination would stand to benefit if Trump was convicted and removed from office.
During an interview with “Fox & Friends” last month, the GOP leader knocked the idea that Schumer, or Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenLocal New Hampshire SEIU branch bucks national union to endorse Sanders Warren: ‘Disappointed’ to hear Sanders urging volunteers ‘to trash me’ Sanders fires back at Trump: Polling surge ‘means you’re going to lose’ MORE (D-Mass.) or Bernie SandersBernie SandersCardi B: ‘I think I want to be a politician’ Local New Hampshire SEIU branch bucks national union to endorse Sanders Warren: ‘Disappointed’ to hear Sanders urging volunteers ‘to trash me’ MORE (I-Vt.) would act as impartial judges during the president’s Senate trial.
“Do you think Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerCongressional leaders have been shadow boxing on impeachment Pelosi set to send impeachment articles to the Senate next week Enes Kanter sees political stardom — after NBA and WWE MORE is impartial? Do you think Elizabeth Warren is impartial? Bernie Sanders is impartial? So let’s quit the charade. This is a political exercise. … All I’m asking of Schumer is that we treat Trump the same way we treated [President] Clinton,” McConnell said at the time.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has jumped to a small lead in the first-in-the nation New Hampshire primary, while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has slumped to third place, a new Franklin Pierce University-Boston Herald-NBC10Boston poll shows.
Biden now gets 26%, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in second place with 22%, and Warren trailing in third with 18%, according to the poll of 434 likely Democratic primary voters. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg gets just 7% of the vote and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is at 4%.
Twelve percent of the poll respondents said they were undecided heading into the last few weeks of the primary campaign.
The Democratic poll has a margin of error of 4.7 percent.
Warren appears to have suffered the most significant drop in support in the new poll.
In an October Franklin Pierce-Herald poll, she led the field with 25%, but voters now appear to be dropping off to other candidates or the undecided column.
On the Republican side, President Trump maintains a huge lead over his opponents, with 79% of the vote. Former Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld and former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh get 4% each.
Trump’s approval rating has dropped since October, and now sits at 76%, according to the poll.
“I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me,” she told reporters after a town hall in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Sunday. “Bernie knows me, and has known me for a long time. He knows who I am, where I come from, what I have worked on and fought for, and the coalition and grassroots movement we’re trying to build.”
Warren was referring to a Politico report published Saturday that said the Sanders’ campaign has begun attacking Warren with a memo containing a script that tells volunteers for the Vermont senator to explain that Warren is only able to attract “highly-educated, more affluent people” and unable to grow the Democratic Party’s base in a way that is necessary to beat President Donald Trump.
The Sanders campaign did not challenge the authenticity of the talking points reported by Politico, but declined to comment when first asked by CNN.
Later Sunday, Sanders distanced himself from the Politico report, telling journalists following an event in Iowa City that “no one is going to be attacking Elizabeth.”
“Look I just read about it. We have over 500 people on our campaign. People do certain things. I’m sure that in Elizabeth’s campaign, people do certain things as well. But you have heard me for months,” Sanders told reporters. “I have never said a negative word about Elizabeth Warren who is a friend of mine. We have differences of issues, that’s what the campaign is about, but no one is going to be attacking Elizabeth.”
So far, Sanders has avoided attacking Warren directly, only willing to go as far as saying there are differences between the progressive colleagues and that he believes he has “a better way” to fund his “Medicare for All” plan.
Earlier Sunday, Warren also condemned any attempts to divide the Democratic Party.
“We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016, and we can’t have a repeat of that. Democrats need to unite our party,” she said. “And that means pulling in all parts of the Democratic coalition.”
She added later: “I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction.”
For the life of me, I’ll never understand why Cory Booker’s presidential campaign never even made it to the pad, let alone why it never achieved liftoff. He began with as large a national profile as any of them except, possibly, Joe Biden. He had solid debate performances. He has a large and expansive personality. Then he announced and, well…nothing. His numbers petrified. When he dropped out of the race on Monday, he did so from a position that was pretty much the same one he held on the day of his announcement.
(One other curious thing: for years, Booker was sniped at from the left for being too close to Wall Street and the financial-services industry, which, since he’s a senator from New Jersey, is rather like Mitch McConnell’s relationship with tobacco magnates. But those same people virtually abandoned his campaign, so Booker now has been pilloried for drawing support from people who ghosted him when he ran for president.)
Anyway, Andrew Yang aside, this leaves the Democratic presidential field looking as white as the 1955 Red Sox, which certainly was unanticipated six months ago. By all accounts, Joe Biden has a hammerlock on the party’s African-American constituency. Because of the utterly idiotic placement of Iowa and New Hampshire at the top of the nominating process—and Julian Castro is correct, this situation can’t be allowed to continue—Biden doesn’t have to sweat those two states as much as most of the rest of them do. Add to that the Double Millionaire Factor—Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer—and Biden likely will end up with a grip on the plutocrat end of the party when those two vanity exercises finally fizzle out.
Cory Booker’s campaign never got to the launch pad.
Larry FrenchGetty Images
The other real news in advance of Tuesday night’s debate in Des Moines is the spat over the weekend between the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Senator Professor Warren. Both of the candidates expressed shock that actual politics had broken out during a political campaign. Somebody leaked some talking points from the Sanders campaign in which volunteers were instructed to talk down SPW as an elitist who could not expand the party’s base. This was recognized to be the end of the non-aggression pact between the two campaigns.
SPW said she was “disappointed” that the Sanders forces had chosen to “trash” her. Sanders, meanwhile, explained that the two of them were still thick as thieves, and all of the folks who have parachuted into Iowa for the next few weeks had something interesting to write about. But there’s no question that the Sanders campaign was the initial belligerent here, and SPW, for her part, handled it in the proper Federalist Papers fashion.
“We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016, and we can’t have a repeat of that. I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction.”
This was a nice riposte, sending a hardly subliminal message to those Hillary Rodham Clinton voters who are still frosted over the damage they believe Sanders did to HRC last time around. As for Tuesday’s debate, it’s no better than 6-5 that Sanders’s primary target will be Biden, and not Warren. But the narrowing of the field paradoxically means less ground to fight on. Small things become bigger. Lighter issues gain substance and weight. Factionalism rears its head, just like it was supposed to long ago.
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Charles P. Pierce Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America, and has been a working journalist since 1976.