The unusual event will begin with a restriction from the Senate Sergeant at Arms that for most senators, especially the ones jostling for advantage in a fiercely competitive primary, will be akin to telling Superman to relinquish his cape: “All persons are commanded to keep silent, on pain of imprisonment, while the Senate of the United States is sitting for the trial of the Articles of Impeachment exhibited by the House of Representatives against Donald John Trump, president of the United States.”
Unlike a hearing for a high-profile confirmation battle, or the House impeachment hearings, senators won’t be able to manufacture viral video moments. Senators, including the six presidential candidates, don’t speak during the trial and if they want to ask questions they need to write it down and pass it to Chief Justice John Roberts, all of which was news to numerous aides I spoke with this week on multiple campaigns. The Biden campaign, which includes several people who were working in the Senate or White House in 1999, seemed to know this history better than others.
“At the trial the problem is that members are supposed to be there the whole time,” said the Biden adviser. “The only people really have an opportunity to grandstand are the people who come over from the House, the House managers.” (In 1999 the managers, who are essentially the prosecutors at the trial, were House Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, which wrote the articles of impeachment against Clinton.)
If some of Biden’s advisers exhibit a slight glee over how impeachment might play to their advantage, the campaigns of the senators are more muted. Generally the response I got was the equivalent of the shruggie emoji.
“We haven’t gotten that far, man!” said an aide to one senator, who noted everyone was too mired in prep for the December 20 debate in Atlanta to focus on a potential Senate trial two to three months away. “I don’t even know what we’re doing the day after the debate.”
“We have no idea,” said an aide to another senator.
A third aide to a senator running for president offered some possible strategies. First of all, this person argued, it was useless to predict who would benefit. “It’s going to consume all the political oxygen in the country,” he said. “Anyone who says they know who it is going to help doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It just as easily could help the senators as mayor Pete or Biden depending on how the senators play it.”
While the senators couldn’t talk during the day, they would almost certainly be a presence on TV as soon as the Senate adjourned in the evening. “All five or six of the senators will be camped out on Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes or Lawrence O’Donnell,” he said, speaking of the primetime MSNBC lineup. “You have to think the Democratic primary electorate will be as engrossed in the story and soap opera as everyone else. It will cast a looming shadow over the race in those final months.”
For Sanders and Warren, the common view is that their time would be better spent in Iowa and New Hampshire, rather than Washington. For Booker, Harris, Klobuchar and Bennet, all of whom are in single digits in the polls, impeachment might serve as an arena that could showcase their talents as a senator and shake up the race. “Each of the candidates have qualities that might benefit from impeachment,” said the third aide. “Maybe it’s who can make the case that they are the rule of law candidate? The mood could change in a way that voters suddenly look for new qualities about the candidates. Maybe it helps Pete because he’s fresh and different. Maybe Warren because it focuses attention on her anti-corruption plan. Maybe
Kamala or Klobuchar because they were prosecutors. It just gives you a new platform to talk about this stuff and get you in front of a lot of eyeballs.”
Schatz would not even hazard a guess as to who it would help. (He joked that John Delaney, the longshot former Maryland congressman, was the clear beneficiary.) He agreed that the real wild card for Democrats — and the country — was whether any Republicans are affected by the case against Trump that will be laid out over the next few weeks.
“Impeachment can give someone the opportunity to be an unexpected American hero,” he said, somewhat skeptically. “You can see a moment where if you’re either an ambitious young Republican who wants to be the future of the party or you’re a retiring Republican who wants the right kind of legacy, maybe you decide that this guy isn’t worth your reputation.”