The impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump is threatening to freeze the Democratic presidential contest in place, at least for the coming weeks, and possibly months.
A year out from the general election, the greatest X-factor for the field of candidates seeking to challenge the president might just be how the impeachment process plays out, and if it makes any new stars in the Democratic field along the way, or takes out any of the front-runners.
House Democrats have been conducting interviews about the administration’s pressure campaign to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, and his family, seeking to establish facts for drafting articles of impeachment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has been operating on the assumption that the House might send over articles of impeachment against Trump in time for a trial before Christmas, although the House’s timeline may be slipping.
Under the current Senate rules, the chamber would convene daily except for Sundays to hear testimony, with senators sitting as jurors. And there’s been no suggestion that any of the White House contenders who happen to be senators — Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado — would shirk that responsibility.
“I think this is a sober moment of patriotism and not politics. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. I will do my duty,” Booker said last month. “I will sit in my chair.”
Booker’s response to questions about balancing campaign commitments with the impeachment process is consistent with what other candidates holding Senate seats have said. That is notable because he is exactly the kind of candidate who, trailing well behind in both Iowa and New Hampshire, could plausibly benefit from the absence of some of the front-runners on the campaign trail.
Some candidates, like South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, will be able to continue on the campaign trail since they have no role in the impeachment process.
Among this second tier of candidates with no official stake in the proceedings, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has embraced the impeachment question, having appeared on CNN and other cable news networks to tout support for removing Trump from office.
“Whether he’s removed at the ballot box or through an impeachment proceeding, we’ve got to recognize the next person that comes in has to be able to deal with those great divides and get this country back,” Bullock said Oct. 17.
Warren, who is among the leaders in national surveys as well as those in primary and caucus states, was direct in saying that she would be in Washington for any trial.
“It’s my responsibility. I’ll be here,” she said the same day as Bullock made his comments.
Klobuchar, who has been showing signs of gaining support in Iowa, has said she was planning to have surrogates barnstorming the Hawkeye State on her behalf in the event she is absent.
“You really have to let the chips fall where they may because this is our constitutional duty,” Klobuchar recently told reporters in the Capitol. “If the trial’s in December, if the trial’s in January, if the trial’s in February, we’re going to have to be here.”
“I am pleased to have the most number of endorsements of any candidates on the stage — of elected and former electeds, so I’ll have a lot of surrogates if that’s necessary,” Klobuchar said.
Many of the 2020 presidential candidates who are in the Senate have pledged to review the evidence presented by the House objectively, but the reality is that impeachment and the subsequent trial is really a political process wrapped in the cloak of a courtroom.
The dual challenges came into stark relief during the most recent debate, which saw a dozen Democratic candidates sparring on stage in Houston.
Questions at the Oct. 15 debate about the impeachment proceedings inevitably led back to the unsubstantiated allegations hyped by Trump and his allies against Biden and his family about business dealings in Ukraine.
The morning after the debate, Booker had a warning.
“We are literally using Donald Trump’s lies, and the second issue we cover on this stage is elevating a lie and attacking a statesman. The only person sitting at home that was enjoying that was Donald Trump,” Booker said on CNN.
Because Trump administration actions to hold up previously appropriated assistance to Ukraine for political reasons are at the center of the impeachment probe in the House, there may be no way to avoid the conversation about Hunter Biden.
That might work to the advantage of other Democrats running for president, but Booker said it should still be avoided.
“I think we could have made news last night by not even giving that lie life. But yet again, in the second series of questions last night, we were suddenly reliving Donald Trump’s lies,” Booker said. “And frankly … making Joe Biden respond to them. And that’s just wrong.”
If the House follows through in adopting articles of impeachment against Trump, the senators who are members of the 2020 presidential field would serve as jurors — with Senate rules governing impeachment trials currently requiring six days of session each week.
The frequent appearances at the Capitol during the trial would mark a significant change from much of the fall, dotted as it is by short weeks and long recesses, and plenty of absences.
There’s also a hope — and in some corners an expectation — that Congress will move expeditiously.
“But the reality of it is that I don’t really think this impeachment process is going to take very long because as a former prosecutor I know a confession when I see it … and he did it in plain sight,” Harris said during the Houston debate. “He has given us the evidence and he tried to cover it up, putting it up in that special server and there’s been a clear consciousness of guilt.
“This will not take very long,” she said. “Donald Trump needs to be held accountable. He is, indeed, the most corrupt and unpatriotic president we have ever had.”
Harris would like to spend as much of her time as possible in Iowa. Campaign manager Juan Rodriguez announced cutbacks to deploy even more resources to the state.
“To effectively compete with the top campaigns and make the necessary investments in the critical final 100 days to the caucus, we need to reduce expenditures elsewhere and realign resources,” he said in an Oct. 30 memo.
Two places at once
Polling continues to point to a top tier of presidential candidates with deep ties to the Senate, and it’s not as if the current senators on the list have seen any repercussions for their time away from Washington.
The Senate has largely continued to work through confirming the president’s nominations, and neither of the top two White House hopefuls serving in the Senate, Warren nor Sanders, have been reluctant to miss votes.
It’s not impossible to break through the impeachment talk and get attention on the campaign trail, but it may require extra effort — or more special guests.
The quality of campaign surrogates may prove particularly important during the trial, and may have an advantage.
When Sanders returned to the campaign trail Oct. 19 following a heart attack, he was joined at a rally in New York City for a key endorsement from freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman Democrat from New York.
A leader of the younger, more liberal wing of the party, Ocasio-Cortez opted to engage in the primary and endorse the 78-year-old Sanders, for whom she volunteered as an organizer during his last run for the White House.
As Klobuchar said, a Senate trial could require more use of high-profile campaign stand-ins.
Two senators running for president have the added responsibility of serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I think it’s an easy choice for all of us,” Bennet said at the Texas Tribune Festival in September. “And that is that first and foremost, we’ve been sent there to do our job, and that is the most important job right now.”
“I’m going to make sure I’m there every moment in the Intelligence Committee long before we get to any sort of being a juror, and that is the way it’s going to be,” he said.
Like Bennet, aides to Harris have said she would make herself available for necessary work in the Intelligence Committee.
Biden first formally backed Trump’s impeachment Oct. 9, speaking at a campaign event in New Hampshire.
“The fact of the matter is, when I said he should be impeached, he should be impeached,” Biden said two days later at a fundraiser in Los Angeles. “He acknowledged that he asked three different countries … dig up dirt … any information they can get. ‘Give me something bad about Biden and his son.’ ”
Questions of emphasis
Biden has sought to use Trump’s outreach to Zelenskiy to bolster the electability argument that is key to his campaign, saying at numerous campaign stops that Trump’s apparent obsession is because the former vice president would beat the current president, “like a drum.”
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a key Biden surrogate who has campaigned with him in New Hampshire and elsewhere, recently offered some insight into why he thought Biden did not push back when the call to Zelinskiy was first reported.
“He understands and respects the important role the Senate will play in impeachment, and didn’t want to be seen as influencing or weighing in on it at all,” Coons said in an interview.
Democrats see another risk in having a conversation dominated by impeachment talk, of course. Sanders highlighted that during the debate in Houston.
“I think what would be a disaster: If the American people believe that all we were doing is taking on Trump and we are forgetting that 87 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured. We’re forgetting about the existential threat of climate change,” Sanders said. “We are forgetting about the fact that half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck.”