Mitch McConnell’s Potemkin Trial

Senate Republicans can scarcely afford to hold a trial—but they can hardly afford not to hold one either.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Updated on January 21 at 1:45 p.m.

Everyone’s going to hate the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

The president, who would prefer that there is no trial at all, will hate that it’s happening in the first place. Senators as a whole, who may have to sit—sans chatter or phones—into the wee hours of the morning hearing the case, are going to be miserable. Most of the Democrats among those senators think that the rules are a sham, designed to move through the trial quickly, without any serious consideration. Most of the Republicans, well, want to get the trial over with as quickly as possible, without any serious consideration. Chief Justice John Roberts has to hold down two jobs, juggling his Supreme Court responsibilities while also presiding over the impeachment trial. And don’t get me started on the journalists who have to cover it under especially outrageous limitations.

It’s a good thing that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell relishes being a “spear catcher” who takes blame for unpopular ideas.

The rules that McConnell has laid out, on which the Senate will vote this afternoon, provide for a Potemkin trial, not a real one. McConnell has been open that his goal is to dispose of the trial before the State of the Union address, on February 4, and the rules show far more interest in speed than accuracy or deliberation.

There’s a good chance the Senate won’t hear from any new witnesses or see any new documents at all; in any case, a vote on that will be held later. Any witness would be deposed before testifying. The Senate will still be able to vote to dismiss the charges outright, though Republicans have suggested that there’s not majority support for that step. The House impeachment managers, a team of Democrats appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will have 24 hours to present their case—but over the course of only three calendar days. (McConnell initially budgeted only two days, but switched to three at the last minute.) Since the days start at 1 p.m., that means managers will be running into the night if they take all their time.

McConnell indicated that the rules would mirror those adopted for Bill Clinton’s impeachment, but they diverge in crucial respects. These include the two-day limit, which is clearly designed to minimize public attention, and the method by which the rules were adopted: The Clinton rules came out of a bipartisan agreement, while the Trump rules are expected to pass on something like a party-line vote.

Trump’s acquittal is effectively a foreordained outcome—especially if senators don’t hear any more evidence or witnesses, though it’s not clear that any evidence of misconduct by the president could really sway Republican senators at this point. So why bother having a trial at all?

The catch is voters, and in particular the multiple electorates that McConnell has to consider: the nation as a whole, but also the voters in those states where vulnerable Republicans are up for reelection.

The Senate can scarcely afford to hold a trial. The Senate majority leader has forged a surprisingly effective working relationship with Trump, who detests the idea of a trial. And if McConnell held a real trial, he would risk uncovering new information that is damaging to the president. The House impeachment hearings, rushed as they were, provided a parade of scathing revelations about Trump’s lawlessness and abuse. Even without a real threat of conviction, that’s not in Trump’s interest, and it’s not in McConnell’s interest to come up with even more evidence against Trump and then still acquit.

Yet McConnell can’t very well not hold a trial either. He’s said that the Senate rules require one, although he has hedged a bit by allowing the possibility of a motion to dismiss. The public wants a trial, too. There’s been durable, widespread public support for impeachment since September. FiveThirtyEight’s average of polling finds that a slim plurality supports removing Trump from office. A new CNN poll even finds a majority for removal (51 percent).

The Senate has to at least have the appearance of a trial to provide cover to vulnerable Republicans, such as Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine. But it can’t be too fair, because that could expose Republicans to primary challenges from the right, which would make McConnell’s delicate act of keeping his caucus together only more challenging. His best prospect is to run the gauntlet and hope that in the process he makes life difficult for endangered Democratic senators, such as Doug Jones of Alabama.

That’s the paradox of the Senate’s handling of impeachment. The proceedings there look like a flimsy excuse for a trial, and they are. But under the surface, a series of real trials is going on. Vulnerable senators sit in the dock, the jurors are voters, and the verdicts won’t come back until November.