The Slatest

Impeach-O-Meter Goes to the Senate: Schiff Takes His Losses Like a Winner

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) strides across the Capitol floor outside the Senate chamber, followed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).
Rep. Adam Schiff, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries head toward the Senate chamber before the start of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The re-relaunched Impeach-O-Meter is a wildly subjective and speculative estimate of the likelihood that Donald Trump will be removed from office by impeachment trial before the end of his first term.

At 1:31 a.m., the tail end of a long Tuesday night in the Senate, Rep. Adam Schiff stepped to the lectern to deliver his final remarks on the Senate Democrats final attempt to amend Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed rules for the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Schiff, the lead impeachment manager from the House, had been talking off and on for hour upon hour, as legal Twitter marveled at his agility and endurance, the president’s legal team snarled derisively at his arguments, and the rock-solid Republican majority voted again and again to ignore whatever his side was proposing.

This time it was a measure to give Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the trial, the authority to resolve disputes about which witnesses would or wouldn’t be relevant to the case—if McConnell’s rules ever did allow any witnesses to be called. Jay Sekulow, the president’s personal attorney, had mounted the argument against it, making a terse case that continued along the path established by all the previous defense arguments, heading inexorably toward the legal doctrine of Nuh-Uh.

“With no disrespect to the chief justice,” Sekulow said, “this is not an appellate court. This is the United States Senate. There is not an arbitration clause in the United States Constitution. ‘The Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.’ We oppose the motion—the amendment.”

Sekulow had been hunched over the podium, visibly annoyed at the length of the proceedings. Roberts, throughout the day, had lost his own famous bloom of boyishness till he looked more and more like his predecessor William Rehnquist. But Schiff smiled a little as he started speaking.

“Well,” he said, “this is a good note to conclude on, because don’t let it be said we haven’t made progress today. The president’s counsel has just acknowledged for the first time that this is not an appellate court. I’m glad we have established that. This is the trial, not the appeal. And the trial ought to have witnesses, and the trial shouldn’t be based on the cold record from the court below, because there is no court below, because, as the counsel has just admitted, you are not the appellate court.”

This was, in a certain sense, a triumph. The premise behind McConnell’s trial rules, worked out in advance with Trump’s defense team, was supposed to be that the House has already given the president’s misdeeds a full airing. The Senate is simply there to review the House’s conclusions, and if the House failed to secure all the witnesses and documents to make the case indisputable—thanks to blanket executive defiance of subpoenas, backed by judicial slow-walking—then the Senate has no constitutional duty to try to learn more.

The premise was absurd, but the president’s defenders had been arguing absurd things all day, when they weren’t arguing false ones. Schiff had patiently, thoroughly countered each argument. And now he had maneuvered Trump’s personal lawyer into making the case against the ostensible core of the defense strategy.

It was elegant and pointless, like seeing a basketball player put on a scoring exhibition in an empty gym after even the janitor has swept up and gone home. The real core of the defense strategy is that Mitch McConnell is going to acquit the president no matter what happens. Trump is obviously guilty of abusing his power to try to force Ukraine to advance his political interests for him; between impeachment and trial, the Government Accountability Office helpfully affirmed that his plain undisputed act of withholding aid funds was illegal all on its own.*

The figurative gutters of Fifth Avenue are awash in blood and spent shell casings. What the Senate cameras recorded was a day-long showdown between reason and brute force. Schiff and the other impeachment managers have all the facts and principles on their side. The president’s defenders had nothing to counter them with but nonsense and lies. Nonsense, lies, and 53 votes.

A meter showing that Trump has a .5 percent chance of being removed from office.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Peter Parks-Pool/Getty Images.

Correction, Jan. 22, 2020: This post originally misidentified the Government Accountability Office as the Government Accounting Office.