How Republicans Can Use Impeachment to Mess With the Democratic Primary

Will Joe and Hunter Biden be the real defendants if Trump is tried by the Senate? Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Unauthorized interference in U.S. elections has been one of the grand themes of impeachment proceedings against the president in the House this year. But once Trump is impeached, his party may have the opportunity to conduct its own sinister black-ops effort to disrupt the competition to choose his Democratic opponent.

The most obvious possibility is a Senate trial that focuses obsessively on the alleged corruption involving Joe and Hunter Biden that supposedly justified Trump’s request for a Ukrainian investigation. Let’s say the Senate trial follows the same schedule as the Clinton trial in 1999, which ran from January 7 until February 12. That means potentially negative information involving Joe Biden could be dominating news coverage during and even beyond the run-up to the February 3 Iowa caucuses, at a time when Biden’s Democratic rivals are battling to bury him so deeply that he will not be able to recover in friendlier territory like South Carolina. And no matter how often Democrats discount the accuracy and relevance of allegations against the Bidens, the charges cannot help but reinforce, however subtly, the general indictment of the former vice-president in progressive circles as being too close to a corrupt political Establishment and its pro-corporate tilt, while undermining Democratic voter confidence in his electability.

It’s possible, of course, that a heavy-handed Trump/Republican effort to smear Joe Biden will produce a rallying effect for him among Democratic voters. But that, too, would represent a form of Republican interference in the other party’s presidential nomination process beyond the control of Democrats.

Perhaps the eeriest thing about a Biden trial in the Senate are the echoes it might produce of the last presidential election, as the New York Times notes:

[T]he prospect of a public airing of the White House’s corruption claims lasting into the primary season worries some Democrats, who see a parallel to Republican efforts to tarnish Hillary Clinton over her email practices in the run-up to the 2016 election. That campaign, they say, proved how damaging a constant stream of insinuations and accusations from Mr. Trump and his allies can be.

“The tactic is very similar,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic consultant and former Clinton campaign senior spokeswoman. “Republicans were doing all they could to amp up the questions about her emails. They didn’t necessarily argue the facts. All they had to do was throw in the question to raise doubts.’’

The last thing Joe Biden needs is to begin looking like Hillary Clinton.

Aside from the possibility of a focus on the Bidens, there’s an even more obvious way in which an extended Senate impeachment trial can affect the 2020 Democratic caucuses and primaries: by tying down the (at this point) five senators who are competing for the presidential nomination, as I observed last month:

An impeachment trial doesn’t allow for time off to do campaign events: The Senate rules require that once the trial begins, it must stay in session six days a week …

[T]he current Senate rules compel virtual silence from senators during the trial itself, though they are free to run their mouths before it begins and after it ends. During the trial, unless precedents are ignored, all senators get to do is to send written questions to be posed by the House managers or the president’s attorneys, and then stand up and vote “guilty” or “not guilty” when the deal goes down. Not much room for showboating there.

It’s also possible — particularly if Republicans wind up dictating the details of the impeachment-trial rules on a party-line vote — that a conscious effort could be made to restrict what senators say about impeachment and removal and the underlying allegations, even when the trial itself is not in session. It’s not clear that would be an enforceable edict, but it might provide some manufactured drama in a trial with a preordained outcome. Certainly a Republican Party that is willing to dismiss all the evidence of President Trump’s misconduct as part of a “witch hunt” will have no problem using an impeachment trial to improve his odds of reelection.

How GOP Can Use an Impeachment Trial to Mess With Democrats