The Senate Trial Will Be Totally Predictable—With One Potential for Surprise

Prepare for peak tedium.

The U.S. Capitol building at sunset
Loren Elliott / Reuters

Unless the country has another curveball coming its way, this week should see the transmission of articles of impeachment by the House of Representatives to the Senate—thus triggering the beginning of that body’s trial of President Donald Trump.

An impeachment trial of a president should be a riveting political event. It’s a major occasion, after all—an ultimate expression of separation of powers, in which one branch of government literally sits in judgment of another and conducts a litigation of sorts, with its members sitting as triers of fact and standing as prosecutors. An impeachment trial should be taut with suspense, as witnesses come forward to reveal what they know and senators keep their minds open about the evidence they have seen until it is time to vote—and then vote their consciences, having taken a special oath to do “impartial justice.”

And yet the country is not riveted, and for good reason: The impeachment trial is likely to be really, really boring.

It will be mostly—perhaps entirely—composed of arguments by the House impeachment managers and the president’s defense team, not a presentation of new evidence. The trial format will be mostly a matter of form and pageantry, not an actual adversarial litigation in which the prosecution team presents its evidence and then the defense team presents its case. If the Senate allows witnesses to be called at all, it will do so in small numbers and in a stage-managed form.

And, of course, there’s no mystery in how the whole thing is going to end.

“This trial will end in a matter of days, not weeks,” Senator Lindsey Graham promised recently on Fox News. “And [Trump’s] going to be acquitted.”

Indeed, the president’s allies in the Senate seem set on stripping away any possible suspense—as do his opponents, for that matter. A Politico tally counts only six senators—the Republicans Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins; the Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema; and the independent Angus King—whose final votes are in serious question. By and large, the significant majority of senators have made clear that they will vote with their party on whether to evict the president. Some have been more egregious in this predetermination than others: Graham and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has pitched his “total coordination” with the White House as a selling point, are at the far end of that spectrum. But partisanship is such that there is no doubt about the trial’s conclusion and very little margin of error in predicting the final vote.

A twist ending isn’t necessary for a good drama, of course. Plenty of stories draw their power from the inevitable descent toward a tragedy—or a marriage—everyone knows is coming. The tension comes from wondering just how the characters will arrive at that point. Yet McConnell is doing his best to suck any narrative interest out of the process.

In a real trial, the members of the House of Representatives presenting the case for removal would be allowed to tell the whole story of Trump’s conduct—at least, whatever part of it they can tell without requiring testimony that would violate one privilege or another. That would mean they could call all of the witnesses who testified in the House impeachment proceedings and add to them key witnesses who declined to show up. They could seek documents that have not been turned over so far. And they could present all of this material as a coherent case, much the way a prosecutor tells a jury a story by presenting a sequence of witnesses. And in a real trial, the president’s lawyers—who have complained that the House proceedings did not allow them to call witnesses—would be able to present a case of their own. All of this would result in actual suspense over the question of what information would compose these cases. What new things would we learn? And from whom would we end up hearing?

In this case, the live question is not whether we will hear a complete presentation of the evidence and the available witnesses but whether we will hear any witnesses at all. The answer to that question is, in fact, the only matter of significant doubt as the trial gets under way.

But even if the Senate ends up calling former National Security Adviser John Bolton and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, it is most unlikely to call anywhere close to the wide array of witnesses who have new light to shed on L’Affaire Ukrainienne—like the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, former Acting National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman, and other Office of Management and Budget and White House officials who could add details on what the president knew about the hold on aid to Ukraine and when he knew it, along with his motivations for holding it up in the first place.

As useful as this testimony could be, there does not seem to be an appetite for drawn-out appearances from numerous witnesses. Republicans just want the matter to go away, to get to a final vote as quickly as possible. Whether there is enough Republican support to hear from any witnesses at all is very much in doubt: Senator Susan Collins is reportedly working with a “fairly small group” of fellow GOP senators to form a bloc in favor of calling at least some witnesses, but it’s not clear how successful her efforts will be or how seriously she is taking the project. And Democrats may not feel like pushing hard to secure lots of witnesses. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s initial letter to McConnell proposed only four, far from a maximalist approach. Democratic senators campaigning for the presidency may well want to get back to Iowa and New Hampshire quickly—while even those who aren’t seeking the White House worry that the impeachment proceedings will somehow strengthen Trump’s hand by enraging his voter base.

So both sides appear ready to rely on testimony already given to the House to the extent possible. The most anyone is arguing for is hearing from a few witnesses whose testimony the House did not get.

This isn’t the first time an impeachment trial has been boring. In fact, boring is the American impeachment-trial tradition. The 1999 Senate trial of Bill Clinton, despite being about sex, was incredibly dull. It followed Kenneth Starr’s investigation and highly detailed report, which laid out facts that were never subsequently in serious dispute. The trial consequently involved the presentation of virtually no new information and thus had a similar quality to the current one. There was nothing new to say, though the Senate deposed a few witnesses anyway—just an argument to be had over whether Clinton’s conduct warranted removal from office.

Further back, the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson was likewise tedious. A Baltimore Gazette editorial complained that the trial sparked “less interest in the public mind than the report of a prize fight.” Representative James Garfield, who would later become president, expressed frustration with how the proceedings were droning on: “Here we have been wading in words, words, words, for a whole week.” At one point the British novelist Anthony Trollope, watching arguments in the Johnson trial from the Senate gallery, reportedly fell asleep.

To the extent that there will be drama in the upcoming weeks, it will turn on John Bolton. Nobody knows whether Bolton will end up testifying. And nobody knows what he will say if he does—whether it will be “damning to the president,” as The New York Times reported that unnamed former White House officials and people close to the matter had speculated, or whether it could be helpful to Trump’s defense, as Senator John Cornyn stumped. In a time of near-perfect predictability, stemming from near-perfect polarization, Bolton is a wild card—a friend neither to Trump nor to those who oppose the president. That makes him a fascinating, if morally suspect, figure against the boredom spread out before us.

Bolton is interesting, in other words, because he is capable of surprise. Among many other things, this is what distinguishes him from the president—who, for all his antics, is brutally, ploddingly predictable. Pick a given subject and any person paying attention to the news can write his tweets for him. (Witch Hunt!) The matter for which Trump has been impeached—his efforts to extort Ukraine into providing him with negative information on the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden—is itself a remix of the matter for which Trump was investigated by Robert Mueller. His desire to turn the apparatus of the state into a weapon against his rivals remains unchanged.

And this is the real reason the Trump impeachment trial will be boring: the president himself. There is no real doubt about how Trump will respond to the events of the trial. There will be tweets. There will be bombast. There will be cries of “Presidential Harassment,” denunciations of Nancy Pelosi, and tirades against Chief Justice John Roberts for every incremental ruling Roberts might issue that doesn’t cut his way.

For a man who catapulted the country into only its third presidential impeachment trial in almost 250 years, in other words, the president is actually pretty predictable. And his grip over the party has rendered most Republicans predictable as well, incapable of any surprise. Trump will react to impeachment precisely as one expects him to react—and the Republican Party will act as though his reactions, just like his abuses of power toward Ukraine, are normal.