The United States Senate was unusually quiet on Wednesday, one day after the president of the United States was implicated in a guilty plea to a federal felony. No votes were scheduled, leaving reporters only one opportunity late in the afternoon—before and after an all-senator classified briefing—to harass senators with questions. The limited interaction with media was certainly convenient for Republican senators, who would prefer not to answer questions about Michael Cohen’s court admission that then-candidate Donald Trump had directed him to commit crimes.
But it was also convenient for Democratic senators, who only have hazy, hedged responses about what the appropriate remedy for such a bombshell should be. Implication in a felony, for which the president may not have been indicted himself only because he’s the president, seems like reasonable grounds for consideration of impeachment hearings in the House. Most Democrats on Wednesday, though, said that it still wasn’t time.
Multiple senators began with the most obvious dodge: that impeachment is a House procedure, so go bug them. (The House, unfortunately for senators who don’t want to answer questions, is still on recess.) Follow-up questions elicited many words but few answers.
“The Cohen revelations have accelerated discussions about, one, whatever the potential liability the president has and, two, how do you procedurally address that,” Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed told me, unhelpfully.
“I think there’s a lot of thought going on,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said. “That’s all I can say right now.”
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy explained that they’d like to see the conclusion of the Mueller investigation before making any decisions. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said he would not “speculate on impeachment.”
In a press conference on Tuesday afternoon following his meeting with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer touched only briefly on the still-unfolding news of Cohen’s plea and Paul Manafort’s conviction. He warned the president, who was about to begin his West Virginia rally, that “he better not talk about pardons for Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort tonight, or any time in the future.” As of Wednesday afternoon, Trump hadn’t talked about a pardon for either—certainly not Michael Cohen—but did offer mafia-like praise to Manafort for not ratting to the feds.
When a reporter asked Schumer what the consequences would be if Trump did pardon Cohen or Manafort, though, Schumer dismissed the question: “I’ve said what I’m gonna say.”
Even the one senior senator I spoke with on Wednesday who would draw a line couldn’t bring himself to say the word itself.
“The question going forward,” Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden told me, was whether the president would pardon Manafort, Cohen, or any of his other previous associates. “If he does, I think that would be an assault on the rule of law and would constitute a high crime and misdemeanor,” he said.
So, an impeachable offense? I asked him.
He said he stood by his previous characterization: the definition of an impeachable offense, without uttering the words it defines.
Beyond issuing vaguely threatening statements about how concerned Tuesday’s revelations made them, Senate Democrats tried on Wednesday to marry the Cohen news with Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, the subject they’re actually trying to maintain public interest in. Schumer, in his opening floor remarks on Wednesday, announced that he had, regrettably, concluded that the Cohen revelation means the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings should be postponed.
“At this moment in our nation’s history,” Schumer said, “the Senate should not confirm a man to the bench who believes that presidents are virtually beyond accountability.” He also argued that “it is unseemly for the president of the United States to be picking a Supreme Court justice who could soon be, effectively, a juror in a case involving the president himself.”
The Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, confirmed a couple of hours later that the confirmation hearings would proceed as scheduled.
Numerous Senate Democrats who had, at best, zero intention of ever voting for Kavanaugh announced that they would no longer meet with him, so tainted had the process become. Kavanaugh will surely be wounded to learn that Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, who announced his opposition to Kavanaugh the day he was nominated, no longer wishes to engage him in good-faith conversation.
The charge that the president is too tainted to exercise such constitutional powers as nominations to the Supreme Court doesn’t really jibe with the attitude that it’s too soon to consider impeachment. As Kevin Mack, the lead strategist for Democratic billionaire Tom Steyer’s Need to Impeach group, told me Wednesday, “If you’re not willing to say that Donald Trump should be impeached,” then “you don’t really have a lot of ground to stand on” in saying his Supreme Court pick is illegitimate or merits indefinite postponement.
“Members of Congress keep moving the goal posts,” Mack said.
I understand why they do, and it’s an uncomfortable position for them to be in. They don’t want to pursue—or mention!—impeachment until they’re sure it has a chance to succeed. That means a majority in the House and two-thirds of the Senate. That means Democratic control of the House after the midterms and about one-third of Republicans on board in the Senate. And that means Trump’s approval rating among Republicans falling underwater. There’s no sign that will ever happen, and so Democrats are stuck in this position of continually watching the evidence pile up and having nowhere to go.
But sure, maybe if he pardons Manafort. Maybe then.