Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Revelations in the New York Times of a book manuscript by former national security adviser John Bolton claiming President Donald Trump told him he wanted to continue withholding aid from Ukraine until its government announced investigations “into Democrats including the Bidens” offer the latest twist in the impeachment saga. But the news is unlikely to change the political calculus of Republican senators who were already unlikely to convict the president.
The banter on Monday centered on whether GOP senators will now shift gears and call for witness testimony, which would include Bolton and perhaps other people like Hunter Biden and the government whistleblower whose complaint launched this whole ordeal. But why would they?
If you are a Republican senator who believes that the Ukraine matter does not warrant the removal of the president, is hearing from Bolton going to change that? Better yet — is doing so going to change the mind of 20 Republican senators, which is what it would take to convict the President?
Everyone has been focused on the witness question in the wake of the Bolton news, but the larger — and more important — question remains: Even if Bolton’s account is fully accurate, does this episode, taken in its entirety, warrant the removal of a duly elected president and his removal from the ballot this November? This point was argued Monday night by Alan Dershowitz, who I am told impressed the Senate GOP conference mightily with his arguments.
I seriously doubt the New York Times story about Bolton’s book has altered anyone’s perceptions on that question. Could Bolton’s words give Republican senators some heartburn? Undoubtedly, and maybe they already had it following some of the testimony gathered in the House. But that’s different than going all the way and removing the president.
Many have lamented that the House Democrats turned this into a binary choice — acquit or convict — leaving no room for any other outcome like oversight hearings akin to what Republicans did to the Obama administration during the Fast and Furious and Benghazi scandals. And Ken Starr, speaking for the President’s legal team on Monday, hammered this point home ably.
If you were a Republican senator who has had some amount of discomfort or displeasure with what the President did, Starr offered a compelling option: vote to acquit and chastise the House Democrats for forcing this impeachment trial instead of simply conducting oversight hearings.
The result of those hypothetical hearings — potentially a damning report outlining the president’s abuses — would perhaps have produced more information and witnesses than what Democrats chose to muster in their House impeachment inquiry, and maybe would have been a less partisan investigation. The result of the impeachment, by contrast, will be a series of Trump campaign exoneration rallies as he travels the country hammering Democrats for their overreach.
Along with the still-powerful argument that it would be unwise to throw a president out of office and off this year’s ballot based on a purely partisan impeachment that has further divided an already divided country, Starr’s oversight argument gives Republicans solid cover to vote against additional witnesses and to acquit the President.
Some have argued voting to acquit would embolden future presidents to seek foreign interference in elections, as Democrats allege Trump has done (most Republicans, including me, don’t accept that’s what happened here, but for arguments sake bear with me). But to assume that all future presidents fill the space left to them by their predecessors is clearly absurd. If they did, every subsequent president would’ve committed the same indiscretions as former President Bill Clinton, including an affair with an intern. Why not? Clinton skated and his approval rating went up!
No Republican is going to fall for this apocalyptic future-casting. All senators can do is analyze and deal with the here and now: a partisan impeachment that has failed to generate any sympathy from Republican members of Congress or rank and file Republicans nationally.
If they want to throw a president out, congressional Democrats need something bipartisan that arouses the passions of a group other than those who hated Trump already. They can make the case that Congress should exercise oversight duties. Sure, they won the 2018 midterms, after all, and could reasonably conclude that voters want them to conduct vigorous oversight over the Trump administration on a range of issues, Ukraine included. It would be easier to convince some Republicans to support this than to support Trump’s removal from office.
But instead they took it too far, plunging the nation into a divisive episode destined to end in failure. And, ultimately one that will lead the president to proclaim, just as he did at the conclusion of Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, that he was completely exonerated in a process demanded by Democrats.