A thousand miles away Trump’s trial was still going on, and Democratic senators were seized by one question: What happens if the Senate adopts the view that withholding security assistance to a foreign ally at war until the ally slimes a political rival isn’t an abuse of power?
At the Des Moines rally impeachment was treated by Trump and his fans as something to mock. Trump went on a long tangent about how the Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and even Andrew Johnson impeachments were “dark” times in American history. In contrast, Trump said, “This is a happy period for us.”
On the eve of his likely acquittal and days before Democrats begin deciding on the person they will nominate to try to defeat him, it’s worth pondering whether there’s something to Trump’s statement. Why was everyone so happy?
There are a few serious reasons.
The first is that impeachment may end up dramatically expanding the power of the executive branch at a time when Trump and his supporters are instinctually in favor of giving him more authority and less accountability.
Impeachment has rallied the GOP to defend executive branch obstruction of Congress and a revisionist constitutional argument that places previously shocking behavior outside of the impeachment remedy.
The end result of both the Mueller probe and the Adam Schiff impeachment is essentially a Republican Party endorsement of what might be called the Fifth Avenue rule: almost nothing Trump does can have consequences while he is in office. Mueller refused to indict Trump, despite finding evidence he obstructed justice, because of a Department of Justice policy — not a law, just an internal rule — against indicting sitting presidents. You don’t indict presidents, you impeach them, the theory went. But then Republicans yawned at both the statutory crimes that Mueller documented and the more general abuse of power alleged by the House managers over Trump’s Ukraine caper. The result is undoubtedly a far more powerful President Trump.
Shortly after Trump finished speaking Thursday night in Iowa, Schiff made this point at the Senate trial, pointing out that it was the day after the release of the Mueller report that Trump had his infamous call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump was previously protected by a no-indictment policy at DOJ. Now he will also be protected by a new Dershowitz-inspired, no-removal-from-office policy in the Senate, Schiff argued. “What do you think he will do the day after he’s acquitted here?” Schiff asked.
The second result of impeachment is that it has blotted out the Democratic nomination race for weeks. January would normally be a period of saturation coverage for a party’s candidates. Four years ago, Trump used the excitement of the GOP’s rollercoaster primary to promote himself endlessly on cable news. But the primaries this year have not been able to compete with impeachment. Two of the Democratic candidates who generate the most interest and enthusiasm have sat silently on the Senate floor for two weeks. It’s difficult to quantify, but here in Iowa there is something listless about the race in this final week that is different than in previous cycles when the Iowa finale was the most important story in the world. Biden’s Iowa events are small and subdued. The senators, meanwhile, have sent lower-wattage surrogates: a daughter (Klobuchar), a wife (Sanders), a dog (Warren).
The final weekend before the Iowa caucuses will likely be dominated by news of Trump’s Thursday rally, which featured some juvenile attacks on Biden (“sleepy Joe”) and Buttigieg (Trump mocked his name), and Trump’s acquittal in the Senate. Both will come at the expense of the Democratic candidates themselves. With some help from congressional Democrats, Trump has practically taken over the Iowa caucuses.
Finally, though this is less clear, impeachment has intensified support for Trump. At about 45% his approval rating is still dismal for a president presiding over a growing economy. But his campaign and the Republican National Committee report increased fundraising, and impeachment has galvanized his supporters, who almost universally see impeachment as a story of Trump being victimized by ruthless Democrats. And in the Trump era that kind of negative partisanship — hatred of the opposition as much as love of your candidate — is the glue that holds Trumpism together.
As Trump began talking about how the Green New Deal would “destroy our wonderful cows” and a thermometer conveniently next to the Jumbotron dipped below freezing, I left the rally.
On the way out a woman was hawking brick-shaped squishies for two dollars a piece.
“What would I do with those?” a Trump fan asked her.
“Strengthen your voting hand or chuck ‘em at a libtard,” she said. “For two bucks you can’t go wrong, man.”
“OK, I’ll take two.”