Why Republicans weaponized impeachment at the convention and Democrats ignored it

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“They spied on my campaign and they got caught,” Trump said, issuing his favored rejoinder to the investigations that have shadowed his entire term in office. “Let’s see what happens.”

Trump’s ad lib, not a part of his prepared remarks, was a reference to his unsubstantiated claim that former President Barack Obama orchestrated an effort to monitor his campaign and disrupt his transition to the White House. But that false narrative has become a rallying cry for his supporters as he seeks to retaliate against his political foes, including Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee.

For Democrats to completely omit impeachment from their convention was once unthinkable. Democrats had mounted a case that Trump had abused his power to blackmail Ukraine into investigating his political adversaries, including Biden. And they made an existential argument that without removing him from office, Trump’s behavior would get worse and democracy itself would be at risk.

Yet their decision underscores the party’s lingering unease about how voters may view the effort — and the reality that the country has sunk into a series of all-consuming crises since Trump’s Feb. 5 acquittal by the Senate. The coronavirus pandemic, a subsequent economic collapse and a wrenching national debate over police brutality and systemic racism paired with protests across the country combined to sideline the issue almost entirely.

Its absence at the Democratic convention was stark: Not only was the word “impeachment” entirely left out over the course of the four night event, so was any mention of Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine. A key impeachment witnesses, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, appeared in a DNC video to vouch for Biden, but did not mention the impeachment charges against the president. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia — which Democrats once thought could topple Trump for obstruction of justice — also went unmentioned, even as it was a defining moment of Trump’s nearly four years in office.

Republicans, in contrast, mentioned impeachment five times, describing it as “illegal” and a “sham.” And a member of Trump’s impeachment defense team, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, reprised her anti-Biden case during a Tuesday address as others used it as a cudgel against Democratic leaders.

“Democrat leaders told me that I had to vote for impeachment or my life would be made difficult … and I wouldn’t be allowed to run again,” said New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who left the Democratic Party and joined the GOP amid the impeachment push.

Democrats contend that Biden’s decision to keep impeachment out of his convention was logical. He wants to win over disaffected Republicans and project a unifying message, and impeachment stirs instant partisan passions. Moreover, the U.S. has weathered calamities since the end of the impeachment saga that more directly affect Americans’ everyday lives, most notably the coronavirus pandemic, which is claiming 1,000 American lives every day.

“We’re talking life and death now, as opposed to trying to cheat and steal an election,” said Daniel Goldman, who served as chief counsel for the House’s impeachment inquiry. “It would be a strong, winning message, but it pales in comparison to his complete ineptitude in dealing with Covid, which has resulted in 180,000 Americans dying.”

Trump’s response to the pandemic, Goldman added, “has put lives and livelihoods at risk here in this country, and that is both a stronger message and a more important message than his efforts to extort a foreign country in order to help him cheat to win an election.”

Democrats agonized for weeks over whether to even move forward with an impeachment inquiry targeting the president, fearful of the potential for blowback at the polls. Eventually, after the party’s moderate and vulnerable lawmakers relented, Democrats used an immense amount of political capital on the impeachment effort, backed by polling data showing that public support had finally shifted in favor. The impeachment of a president is a historic event; only three presidents have been impeached including Trump, and a fourth, Richard Nixon, resigned before the House could impeach him.

“It seems so long ago already. It seems like history,” added House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the Democrats who led the prosecution of Trump’s impeachment trial. “One of the things with the Trump administration … there’s outrage upon outrage upon outrage.”

Nadler said despite the absence of explicit impeachment references, the impact of the investigation and trial are an important part of the election backdrop — reinforced every time new developments emerge, like the Senate Intelligence Committee’s finding that Trump campaign leaders worked closely with a Russian agent.

“It’s having its impact,” he said.

But even as the convention placed a heavy emphasis on the pandemic and Trump’s response to it, a major theme of the week centered on Trump’s handling of foreign-policy and national-security issues, with Democrats arguing that the president has made the U.S. less safe.

Central to the House’s impeachment case was the argument that Trump abused his power by soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election when he pressured Ukraine’s newly elected president to launch investigations targeting Biden and his son Hunter. That Biden was the target of the effort made it even more remarkable that Democrats chose to avoid the topic altogether.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who served as the lead impeachment manager during the Senate trial, noted that many of the speakers at the Democratic convention sought to make the case that Trump has undermined U.S. national security and alienated longtime allies — even though they didn’t explicitly mention the allegations central to Democrats’ impeachment case.

It was part of an explicit effort by the Biden campaign, Schiff said, to appeal to disaffected Republicans — a tacit acknowledgment of how polarizing the impeachment issue remains in American politics.

“I think they chose to make the case at the same time of how broad the tent is and bring in a number of former elected Republican officials,” Schiff said in an interview this week. “And so I think the thrust of the Democratic convention was really to show what a big tent the party has, how the vice president is such a profound contrast on the issue of character, decency.”

Yet Democrats said throughout the trial that even though they knew they were going to lose the Senate vote, they had secured a political victory because polls had moved sharply in their favor. About 70 percent of Americans viewed Trump’s actions toward Ukraine as wrong, a bipartisan majority that they said justified the national pain of an impeachment. But after the trial ended on a nearly party-line vote to acquit Trump, with Utah Sen. Mitt Romney being the only Republican to vote to convict, Democrats pulled back from their investigative posture and focused on the pandemic and racial-justice issues.

And when Biden surged in the Democratic primary in March, impeachment all but dropped from the lexicon.

Without an affirmative Democratic effort to define their impeachment case against Trump — that he abused his power to blackmail Ukraine into investigating Democrats — Republicans recognized their monopoly on the issue and weaponized their own impeachment arguments against Biden. They also leveled some of Trump’s favored, factually challenged rejoinders to the Russia and Ukraine investigations.

Bondi, the former Florida attorney general, delivered a sequel to her impeachment defense, leveling discredited charges about Biden’s diplomatic efforts in Ukraine. Biden helped engineer the ouster of a prosecutor viewed by the international community as corrupt — but Bondi reissued debunked claims that Biden sought to remove the prosecutor to shield his son Hunter, a member of the board of a Ukrainian energy company at the time, from a corruption investigation.

Former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell falsely said that Biden asked to unmask “hidden information” about Trump’s incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn “three weeks before the inauguration.” But the documents that Grenell himself released undercut that claim. They show that Biden — or someone in his orbit — asked to review intelligence that turned out to include Flynn’s name on Jan. 12, eight days before inauguration, and that the request included legitimate justification.

Republicans and even Trump, to be sure, soft-pedaled many of their more salacious allegations about Democrats. No one echoed Trump’s favored “witch hunt” attack. And Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, eschewed the issue altogether, despite his years-long effort to pressure Ukrainian leaders to investigate Biden, a push that accelerated Trump’s impeachment.

In a Thursday radio interview, Giuliani indicated he hadn’t given up on the matter, though.

“That’ll be for another day,” he said.

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