The public phase of the House impeachment proceedings, which President Donald Trump’s critics predicted would finally begin his removal, or at least his political destruction, instead became a dry run for his 2020 re-election campaign. Trump emerged from the first set of hearings most likely headed for impeachment in the House of Representatives and exoneration in the Senate. But they also proved that his favorite tactics still work and are ready to be deployed relentlessly during next year’s presidential race.
Trump will likely continue to sear the Washington establishment and the bureaucracy — which seems unaware it is far less popular with the public than it is with itself.
Trump will likely continue to sear the Washington establishment and the bureaucracy — which seems unaware it is far less popular with the public than it is with itself. He will deploy his usual vivid character assassination against opponents, skillfully highlighting any questionable behavior that might suggest they deserve it.
He will also undoubtably issue more charges that the media has cast aside any pretense of objectivity, instead delivering “fake news.” He seems prepared to use all this to ignite his base, which he will spend less time “expanding,” as the experts constantly counsel, and more time getting supporters to the polls on Election Day.
After weeks of sequestered run-throughs, Trump’s impeachment show finally opened Nov. 14 in Capitol Hill’s grandest theater, the cavernous assembly room usually used by the Ways and Means Committee, for a series of matinee performances. The featured witnesses recited the narrative of how Trump withheld aid from Ukraine in what Democrats said was a quid pro quo — later revised by some lawmakers as “bribery” when that line seemed to fall flat — in exchange for investigations of his political opponents. Dialogue from Trump himself was cited, albeit as overheard by an eavesdropper on a phone call.
Washington’s elite lapped it up, cheering from the front rows and the boxes. Reviews from the media critics concurred, with rave reviews like: “bombshell,” “stunning” and “explosive.”
But in the back rows and the balcony, unexpected boos and catcalls were heard. Many who tuned in outside the Beltway seemed unmoved — or even moved in an unintended direction. That is all Trump needed to know to understand that his unconventional tactics still make political magic.
On Nov. 14, as testimony began, Trump’s approval rating stood at 41.2 percent and his disapproval at 54.5 percent, according to an averaging of polls on the website FiveThirtyEight. By Nov. 22, closing night for the limited-run show, 41.9 percent approved of Trump compared to 53.6 percent who disapproved. Worse for the show’s producers, support for impeachment had declined slightly from 48.5 percent to 46.3 percent, while opposition was essentially unchanged. (Support as of Dec. 3 had risen back to close to 49 percent.) And of course, not a single House Republican said they would vote in favor of impeachment.
The Washington establishment Trump had run against in 2016 was onstage for all to see during the hearings, and the president was getting in shape for 2020 by eagerly blowing poisonous spitballs their way. Who among Trump voters would have sympathy for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., or the parade of bureaucrats embodying what Trump and his allies label the “Deep State,” flushed out from the bowels of the bureaucracy to testify?
Trump went for his go-to move, the one that carried him through the Republican primaries and into the White House: slash, burn and scatter the ashes. Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch “was not an angel” and had screwed up “everywhere” in her diplomatic assignments. Career diplomat George Kent, bow tie in place, was right out of elitist central casting. He, Jennifer Williams, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence and Ambassador William Taylor, a diplomat coaxed out of retirement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, were all cast by Trump as "Never Trumpers," without evidence.
The Democrats running the hearings, the primary focus of Trump’s attacks, of course fared worse. “Corrupt politician Adam Schiff’s lies are growing by the day,” Trump tweeted. “Keep fighting tough, Republicans, you are dealing with human scum who have taken Due Process and all of the Republican Party’s rights away from us during the most unfair hearings in American History.”
The media convened endless TV “roundtables,” where supposedly objective reporters appeared barely able to contain their excitement while detailing how damaging the hearings were for the president. Their comments, and those of the print and online press, seemed to include descriptions of more “bombshells” than had exploded during all World War I.
Trump used the event to target Hunter Biden, his potential opponent Joe Biden’s son, and the suspicion among Republicans, despite a Ukrainian prosecutor’s decision to put a corruption case on ice, that his father had called off the dogs by getting the prosecutor fired.
Trump also stepped up his campaigning, heading to the hinterlands to rally his troops twice as often in November than in recent months.
At the same time, Trump cleverly appealed to his base of evangelical Christians with de facto recognition of Israel’s legal right to the West Bank settlements — enormously significant for the religious right because it secured for Israel lands granted in the Bible.
Trump also stepped up his campaigning, heading to the hinterlands to rally his troops twice as often in November as in recent months. He even tried out a new tactic: coddling his allies. Trump has invited Republican lawmakers, who might be deciding his political fate, for summer camp-style weekends at Camp David or lunch at the White House.
Ticket sales over the run of the Schiff Show were slow, averaging 13 million to 14 million TV viewers — compared to the close to 20 million who had tuned in to both former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony in June 2017 and the melodrama of the Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh spectacle in September 2018. Even the Michael Cohen off-Broadway show last February drew 16 million viewers.
The public does not appear to be demanding more — but they will get it.
After the Democrats impeach Trump, which could happen as early as December, a new show will open over on the Senate side of the Capitol called “The Trial.” That production will be brought to you by the Republicans, who control the Senate — and will give Trump an even grander opportunity to rehearse his 2020 campaign.