House Democrats are learning that President Trump is a papier-mâché man. The paste that holds him together is a mixture of bluff, myth, and his opponents’ insecurity. In the 1980s, according to The New York Times, he scammed investors by pretending to be a corporate raider. He would purchase a bunch of shares in a company, leak a rumor that he planned to take it over, then sell the shares after they rose. He played on the twin myths that he was good at business and had the competence to take over major companies—and he bet that investors would be too sheepish to question either one. It worked, for a while. But investors eventually got wise and Trump lost $35 million.
The same thing is finally happening in Washington, D.C.
Trump seems to have thought he was in the clear. The day after former FBI Director Robert Mueller testified to Congress and House Democrats made clear that they still had no intention of impeaching him, Trump called Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and pressed him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. What he didn’t realize was that some Democrats, as Bloomberg reported, “regret their timidity on Mueller report and think it signaled to president that he was above accountability.” So when the Ukraine news broke, Democrats didn’t hesitate. More than 20—including prominent hold-outs—came out for impeachment overnight. Ignoring White House spin that nothing inappropriate was said on the call to Zelenksy, Democrats pushed aggressively for a call record and the full whistleblower complaint to be released. When they were, Democrats didn’t hesitate to call the contents what they were: a smoking gun.
The lesson is that pressure works against Trump. His decision to release the call record and whistleblower report was a massive mistake, one that was hotly debated within the White House, according to the Washington Post. But when you apply pressure, you force your opponent to make mistakes.
Now that a majority of the House supports impeachment, Democrats should plan a process that exerts maximum pressure on Senate Republicans. They have largely escaped the limelight and benefited from the assumption that they’ll vote against removing President Trump. But that assumption deserves scrutiny: even if they do, the vote is likely to be messy, painful, and cost them dearly in 2020. There is a lot of uncertainty ahead, but here’s what a process that puts a squeeze on Senate Republicans could look like.
First, Democrats should immediately start hammering home the fact that if the House votes to impeach Trump, he is impeached. The two-front war against impeachment from right and left muddied this message and it needs to be re-emphasized. Article one, Section two of the Constitution states that the House “shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.” The Senate only gets to decide what to do with Trump. Neither of the two presidents in American history to be impeached were removed from office by the Senate, but history regards them as having been impeached. Establishing this principle early is important.
Second, House Democrats would be wise to keep the scope of the inquiry focused on the Ukraine news. There is some disagreement about whether to open a more sprawling inquiry on the left, but the most important goals here are to impeach this president and send the most compelling possible case to the Senate. The Ukraine news is damning, clear as day, and impossible to explain away. And it provides a rock-solid foundation for a story about a president who extorted the power of his office for personal gain, and tried to cover it up when he got caught. The Mueller report provides important context and establishes a pattern of behavior, including the President’s efforts to obstruct justice and Congressional investigations, and can be included to help tell the story.
Venturing farther afield risks giving Senate Republicans a credible way to divert the conversation and avoid being pressed relentlessly on Ukraine. There is plenty of time for other hearings on Trump’s many crimes, including sexual assault and financial corruption. But Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion, not murder. And the important thing is to impeach this motherfucker.
Third, the length of the hearings shouldn’t be artificially shortened or prolonged—it should be determined by a simple test: are we driving the news? Do we have control of the narrative? If so, keep going. If not, wrap it up and vote. When impeachment hearings begin, they will generate wall-to-wall coverage. But over time, if they stop generating news, the coverage will wane and Democrats will open themselves up to charges of leading a fishing expedition. Unlike Watergate, where the investigation led to the release of the Nixon tapes, the evidence of Trump’s impeachable crimes is already public. It would be a shame to end hearings prematurely and forego new evidence of this or other crimes, especially since the whistleblower complaint clearly implicates Attorney General Barr and other White House staff. But it would be malpractice to lose control of the narrative.
Fourth, let the facts and the witnesses be the stars. The impeachment process should be focused on presenting facts to the public—not used as a platform for grandstanding, which could be a gift to Trump and Fox News. Every member should know exactly what they want to get out of their questioning, and be able to articulate it clearly before they start. As the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on the whistleblower report showed, members have a tendency to get caught up in process, which bores people to tears. The recent Corey Lewandowski hearings were also instructive—with the exception of congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and a few others, members struggled to land punches until they turned the questioning over to Judiciary Committee staff attorney Barry Berke, who quickly caught Lewandowski in a big lie and punched several large holes in his story. Members should set aside a portion of the time in each hearing a staff attorney.
Fifth, do not fear the Senate vote—welcome it, and hammer Senate Republicans relentlessly. The prevailing assumption has been that the Republican-controlled Senate will quickly vote against removing Trump from office, allowing him to claim exoneration. This has always been flawed. Managed well, the Senate vote will not provide exoneration, and it has the potential to pay dividends for Democrats in 2020.
Managed well, the Senate vote will not provide exoneration, and it has the potential to pay dividends for Democrats in 2020.
The Senate is a diminished institution that lacks the credibility to confer anything approaching true exoneration. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, long deferred to as an institutionalist, has been unmasked as a power-thirsty partisan who has surrendered the Senate’s independence to Trump at every turn. Senator Lindsay Graham, once regarded as a thoughtful, independent voice, has been reduced to a bootlicker who defends Trump with all the subtlety of a wild-eyed carnival barker. Senator Chuck Grassley, once seen by both sides as an arbiter of fairness, led the blockade of center-left Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, refusing to hold a hearing in the Judiciary Committee that he chaired. Senators can act as Trump’s mob lawyers and get him off on a technicality, but they can’t lend him credibility.
Most importantly, it is not at all clear that the Senate will be a clean vote. It’s far more likely to be messy, maybe even unpredictable.
The key factor is the map of Senate elections in 2020. Instead of playing almost entirely defense as they were forced to do in 2018, Senate Democrats are almost entirely on offense in 2020. Last cycle, Democrats faced the most daunting set of seats that either party has faced in recent history, with ten incumbent senators running in states won by President Trump. In this coming election, only one Democrat is running in a state Trump won, while two Republicans are running in states won by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and several others are running in states that offer pickup opportunities for Democrats, like Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, and Iowa.
Democrats need a net gain of three seats to win back the Senate, which presents McConnell with an asymmetry problem: forcing members in blue states, like Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado, to protect Trump will cost them the patina of independence that they need to win re-election. Collins’s image was already damaged by her vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Gardner has been extremely vulnerable since the day he first won election, squeaking by on a narrow margin in a wave year for Republicans.
On the other hand, letting Collins and Gardner vote with Democrats will anger their base while probably not netting them enough Democratic or independent votes to offset the damage. Meanwhile, the latest poll in Arizona shows Democratic challenger Mark Kelly running ahead of incumbent Republican Martha McSally, the rerun candidate who lost just last year to newly minted Demcoratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Both Georgia seats are up for grabs, and there are red flags galore for Republicans in North Carolina, where Democrats won the governorship in 2016 despite Trump winning the state, and closed a ten-point gap in the special election earlier this month.
Even if you assume that most Senate Republicans will sacrifice their independence to Trump and vote against removing him from office without blinking an eye, the vote still presents an extremely painful calculation for the handful of senators whose elections will decide control of the Senate in 2020. Nevada is instructive: it was one of the few bright spots for Senate Democrats in 2018, where Senator Jacky Rosen unseated incumbent Republican Senator Dean Heller by forcing him to side with Trump and forfeit his independence. And Trump lost Nevada in 2016 by less than Maine and Colorado.
The first public poll on Ukraine shows strong public support for Democrats’ position, with 55 percent of Americans supporting the impeachment of Trump for blackmailing Ukraine into investigating Biden. If the House makes a tight, compelling case and public opinion sides with Democrats, McConnell may decide that the cost to his incumbent senators—and the risk to his majority—is not worth helping Trump, and shelve the vote. But this isn’t a great option for Republicans, either: it would make the House’s impeachment the last word, denying Trump any pretext for claiming exoneration, and anger Trump loyalists who will demand the Senate to cover for their hero.
So it is very wrong to assume the Senate vote will be good for Trump and Republicans—to the contrary, it could help Democrats take back the Senate in 2020, a goal that is second in importance only to taking back the White House.
It’s very early in the process, but there is a gathering sense of catharsis:. Trump got caught red handed doing what the Mueller report made pretty clear he did in 2016, but couldn’t quite prove. The whistleblower complaint shows that the rot goes as deep as it has seemed all along, with White House staff hiding evidence on secret servers and Attorney General Barr fully in on the scheme. And Democrats are flexing their muscles, using the power the American people gave them to hold a lawless madman accountable.
America might finally get the reckoning it deserves. And all of this is possible because pressure works. There will be ups and downs but the goal should be to keep the pressure up—and keep it on the Senate.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Arizona Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly as Mark Kirk.
Adam Jentleson is a columnist for GQ. He served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, where he advised on strategy and led one of the largest and most diverse communications teams on Capitol Hill during the Obama administration. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Politico Magazine.
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Originally Appeared on GQ