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The Times view on what went wrong in the trial of Donald Trump: Failed Impeachment

The Times view on what went wrong in the trial of Donald Trump: Failed Impeachment

The blunders of Donald Trump’s opponents have strengthened his hand

Monday February 03 2020, 12.01am GMT, The Times

The impeachment of Donald Trump has been an ugly partisan battle which has reflected poorly on almost everybody. From the outset, given the Republican majority in the Senate, President Trump’s opponents will have understood that they were likely to fail to eject him from office. A more modest hope, however, was to damage Mr Trump’s standing and chances of re-election by forcing a spotlight on to his unpresidential behaviour. In this, they seem to have failed, too.

Mr Trump is only the third American president to face such proceedings, and for all of his shouting about witch-hunts the allegations against him appeared strong. In conversation with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Mr Trump stands accused of seeking to tie military aid to a demand that Ukraine provide compromising material on Joe Biden, the former Democrat US vice-president, and on Hunter Biden, his son. Thereafter, when Congress investigated, the White House refused to co-operate.

Technically this could well have qualified as the sort of action that could justify impeachment, but the finer details of the story were murky and the White House’s own transcript of the call was rough and inconclusive. In the words of Mr Trump’s lawyer, Patrick Philbin, “there’s been no proof of a quid pro quo here”.

To remove Mr Trump from office his accusers needed to show him guilty of “high crime and misdemeanour”, which is a lofty bar. In order to make their case, to the American people as much as to the Senate itself, Mr Trump’s accusers sought to subpoena further documents and witnesses, perhaps subjecting the latter to televised hearings. “We must hear from those who were ‘in the room where it happened’,” was how the House impeachment manager Sylvia Garcia put it on Friday, with the last phrase referencing the title of a new book by Mr Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton. Leaked extracts from Mr Bolton’s book appear to support allegations against the president, but the Republican-dominated Senate voted against calling new witnesses. As a result they are almost certain to vote for Mr Trump’s acquittal this week.

Democrats will regard this as a partisan stitch-up even if their own victory would have been one too. Yet while their defeat may have been anticipated, their failure to even land much of a blow on the president leaves them looking like incompetent wreckers. Mr Trump, triumphant in his escape, has been gifted a victory over the political establishment that he can crow about on the campaign trail. While nothing technically prevents him from being impeached again, it is deeply unlikely with his majority support in the Senate now so solid.

In the absence of dramatic testimony the process will have served to solidify minds rather than change them, reinforcing America’s political polarisation. Today the next presidential race kicks off in earnest with the Iowa caucuses. Mr Biden, almost certainly the candidate whom Mr Trump most fears, lags in Iowan polls behind the senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, whom the president understandably fears less. it is time for the Democrats to grasp that the best way to dislodge Mr Trump from the White House is via the old-fashioned route of beating him in an election. A failed and farcical impeachment may have made that a harder task.