At one point last month, President Donald Trump announced that he might just testify at his own impeachment inquiry, so eager was he to prove his innocence. It never happened. He said Hunter Biden and the whistle-blower should be forced to testify too, as payback for their heresies. Don’t count on that either.
In the end, Trump will settle for a no-muss Senate trial that results in a speedy acquittal, White House aides and a person close to him told me. The verdict won’t serve up that satisfying cocktail of revenge and vindication he seems to crave, but he’ll take it and move on. “A perfunctory trial and an end to this—that’s the preferred scenario,” said a White House official, who like others I talked with for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there aren’t people the president would like to hear from—like the whistle-blower and Hunter Biden. But if the choice is ours, it’s Let’s wrap it up.”
We’ve been here before. Trump habitually stakes out maximalist positions of some sort and then folds when reality sinks in. During the Russia investigation, he had said he was ready to testify and lay out exactly why Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe was bogus. “I’m looking forward to it, actually,” he told reporters last year.
Actually, he wasn’t. Trump wound up heeding his lawyers, who worried that if he ever testified before Mueller’s prosecutors, he might get charged with perjury. That’s what happens when blustery clients who are loose with the facts testify under oath. Not only didn’t he testify in person; Trump gave a series of written answers that Mueller deemed “inadequate.”
Impeachment is following a similar script. Trump started out bold, insisting that his phone call with the Ukrainian president was perfect, his accusers, treasonous. But, privately, he’s climbing down. His advisers are warning that a full-blown Senate trial aimed at unearthing the truth of what happened is risky. In the House hearings last month, witnesses gave sworn testimony that Trump held back vital military aid to Ukraine in a bid to pressure the country’s president to announce investigations helpful to him politically. A prolonged trial, the White House official told me, euphemistically, could create “uncertainties.”
Trump seems persuaded. He’s suggestible, of course, but as of now, he seems prepared to “do whatever the lawyers think is appropriate,” one person familiar with the Trump legal team’s thinking told me. What that means is pocketing the rapid-fire acquittal they’re hoping for, even if Trump doesn’t get to see Hunter Biden squirm under cross-examination.
It likely won’t be clear until at least early January what the trial itself will look like, given House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s surprise announcement that she’d withhold sending the two impeachment articles to the upper chamber until she gets more clarity on the proceedings Republicans would arrange. Democrats want to hear from more witnesses in the trial; Republicans want the whole thing ended as quickly as possible. “I’m not anxious to have this trial,” the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News on Monday.
Republican Senator David Perdue of Georgia, a Trump ally, told me: “I know President Trump wants to have his day in court. And absent other issues, he’d like to see all the witnesses come in—his accusers and all that.” What Perdue envisions instead is a simple trial, with House Democrats presenting their case and the president’s lawyers having their say.
Inside the White House, aides are preparing for a trial on the assumption that Pelosi relents and sends over the articles. A trial will inevitably be an epic piece of political theater, and Trump has expressed strong interest in the dramatis personae. On his legal team, he wants personalities who will take maximum advantage of the spectacle and make a compelling public case for his exoneration, even if he is prepared to ultimately accept a simple acquittal. Taking a lead role in Trump’s defense is likely to be White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, an experienced private-sector lawyer with little public profile. A year into the job, he’s won Trump’s confidence and become part of his inner circle, as I reported in October. How he handles the high-stakes impeachment trial will test that relationship like never before, though—nothing sours Trump on an aide as quickly as a poor TV performance.
Believing he also needs lawyers who are comfortable in front of the cameras, Trump is considering additional attorneys to mount his defense. “This is not a venue for a legal-beagle person. It’s someone who needs political chops and TV skills,” an administration official told me. “This is not a court of law, which Pat would be great at. It’s political theater.”
Trump advisers told me that among those who could play a role are Jay Sekulow, the longtime Trump lawyer with his own radio show who represented the president in the Mueller investigation, and Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor emeritus practiced in the art of cable-news combat. “Of course it would be interesting. No doubt about that,” Dershowitz told me when I asked him about whether he might join Trump’s defense team. A messy complication is Dershowitz’s connection to Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire convicted sex offender who killed himself in his jail cell earlier this year. Dershowitz once represented Epstein, and he himself is embroiled in litigation with one of Epstein’s accusers, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who has alleged that Dershowitz had sex with her when she was a teenager. Dershowitz has denied the allegation. He could prove a distraction, to say the least, were he to show up on the Senate floor to defend the president, but Trump still has him under active consideration.
Making it tough for his staff to plot an impeachment defense is Trump’s habit of taking advice wherever it comes, depending on who gets his ear and what he sees on Fox News. One former senior White House official told me that if Trump were to venture to a gas station and talk with an attendant who recommended a lawyer who once quashed his uncle’s subpoena, the president might be sufficiently impressed to hire the guy. What would serve him best, at this stage, is getting out of his own way. That’s not how he’s wired, though. “It’s in Trump’s interests to get it over with and put this chapter behind him, and not make it more of a spectacle,” Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist, told me.
With impeachment an indelible part of Trump’s legacy, his advisers are arguing, predictably, that the historical stigma is actually helping the president—that the scandal has energized his base and led to fundraising windfalls. (Of course, impeachment is galvanizing Trump’s opponents too.) In focus groups of independent women voters conducted by the Trump political team amid the impeachment hearings, the results suggested that people weren’t following the proceedings with any great interest, two Trump advisers familiar with the exercise told me.
The complexity of the Ukraine matter plays to Trump’s advantage, his allies argue. It’s hopelessly obscure compared with, say, former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment a generation ago, one person close to Trump’s campaign told me. “Clinton was easy to understand,” the person said. “With this one, I do this for a living and I have a hard time. It gets real complicated, real quick.” Maybe not that complicated. Boiled down to one sentence: Trump is accused of using presidential powers to strong-arm a foreign country into damaging a political rival, at the expense of American interests.
Trump has no incentive to keep matters clear and simple. If impeachment leaves voters confused, he benefits. When a Senate trial rolls around, we can expect him to keep up a running commentary about how his rights were trampled and how his accusers have been improperly shielded. It’ll be empty rhetoric, though. Trump will be happy with the acquittal. He long ago backed off.