Sunday, November 3, 2019

BTRTN: The House Impeachment/Senate Trial Endgame - Our Prediction

Tom with the BTRTN October 2019 Month in Review, and our take on where it is headed.


·        The House impeachment inquiry moved along at a lightning pace, as a series of diplomats and White House advisors disdained “stonewalling” and described the Ukraine fiasco in full, revealing a shadow foreign policy hinged on a quid pro quo –  Trump would release U.S. aid to and provide public support for Ukraine, in return for publicly declared and politically motivated Ukraine investigations into the Biden’s, and Hillary Clinton’s server.

·        The White House “strategy” shifted from defending the “substance” of Trump's policy to attacking the impeachment process, as the talking points (“there was no quid pro quo”) kept getting undercut by the testimony, as well as by Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

·        Trump continued to argue that his July 25 phone call to Zelensky was “perfect” and expressed frustration with tepid GOP support in general, and then, more recently, with the GOP focus on process rather than substance.

·        House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, suddenly in possession of a wealth of incriminating evidence, must now decide how to balance the desire for additional corroborative testimony from willing witnesses (including, potentially, John Bolton) with the need for speed.

·        Meanwhile, there are glimmers of what the endgame might look like – which we will describe below.


October, 2019 was consumed by the impeachment inquiry, which was launched not long after a whistleblower came forward with concerns about a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine president Zelensky.   In that call, Specifically, Trump demanded politically self-interested investigations of Joe and Hunter Biden and their involvement with a Ukraine company, Burisma, and also a look into the whereabouts of the infamous Hillary Clinton server with her emails.  In return, Trump would release nearly $400 million of congressionally approved aid to Ukraine, and agree to a face-to-face meeting for Zelensky with Trump, which Zelensky, new in office, wanted to help solidify the ties between the two nations.

After the whistleblower report, the White House released a summary of the July 25 call, which supported the whistleblower’s account in full.  The impeachment inquiry began with the usual requests for documents and the White House adopted a combative approach, declaring the entire inquiry a sham and refusing to participate.  But cracks quickly appeared in the stonewall, and on the very first day of testimony Congress secured texts between senior diplomats that involved the quid pro quo.

Soon thereafter, various diplomats – former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch (who had been forced out by Trump), her de facto replacement, the esteemed Bill Taylor, Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent and other senior officials – went to the Hill to tell their story.  And this was the story of a “shadow” diplomatic effort led by Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, abetted by Trump flunky Gordon Sondland, a former real estate mogul and Trump’s E.U. Ambassador.  Far from “no quid pro quo,” Taylor testified that the entire shadow policy was the quid pro quo.

National Security Council aide Alexander Vindman was next, and he offered particularly compelling testimony.  Vindman has a remarkable life story:  he was born in the Ukraine, emigrated with his family to the U.S. at age three, became a Harvard-educated policy maker, saw live combat in Afghanistan, and earned a Purple Heart in an IED explosion while serving his country.  Vindman proved to be as close to an unimpeachable witness as the Democrats could conceive.  He was also the first White House official to defy the stonewall, and was the first to testify who actually listened in on the infamous July 25 phone call.  He not only upheld the veracity of the whistleblower story but also stated that the written summary excluded other references to Burisma and Biden.

The initial overall GOP Trump defense strategy, such as it was, focused on the substance:  first, “the whistleblower is wrong,” then, “there was no quid pro quo.”  Each line of defense, however, was subsequently undercut by either Trump himself, chief of staff Mick Mulvaney or witnesses, forcing Trump defenders to not just continually “move the goal posts” but to essentially vault them out of the stadium entirely. 

The next stratagem was to attack the Democrat’s impeachment process.  All testimony was given in the secure basement of the House (designed for security purposes), under the bi-partisan watch of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees.  The taking of depositions in private is a standard procedure of many investigations, akin to a grand jury.  This process allows for the proper uncovering of facts used to build a case.  Despite the long history of following similar processes by both parties, the GOP chose it as an attack point, because, frankly, it became harder to defend Trump’s action as the testimony mounted.   

The low point of the “attack the process” charade was a farcical, five-hour “Pizza In” disruption of the depositions by a gaggle of GOP congressmen, designed to protest the “secret nature” of the process.  The main problem with such process attacks, apart from the many ample precedents, was their short shelf-life:  Pelosi always intended to proceed next to public testimony, which would undercut the “secret deliberations” argument, and the Senate trial would include all the “due process” features typical of the U.S. judicial system.

Trump, already annoyed at the less than full-throated support he was receiving from the GOP, was then annoyed at all the process talk, demanding the GOP defend his policies instead.  But at this point, GOP senators have become largely silent, insisting that given their potential role as jurors in the trial, they had best, at this point, say nothing at all.

Pelosi now faces a balancing act.  Given that the facts are largely known, based on the evidence and testimony to date, what is the value of additional witnesses?  Is it better to proceed to the public testimony now, while the story is clear and the momentum is in the Dems’ favor?  Or go for more revelations, but at the risk of detracting from the 2020 election as we head into primary season?

This would likely be a reasonably easy call if not for John Bolton.  The well-known former National Security Advisor, notoriously conservative and even more notoriously independent, is known to have opposed the shadow Ukraine initiative.  Testimony against Trump by a figure of stature among the base could be a ground-shifter, if not a game changer.  But to get Bolton on the stand will require a subpoena (he has already turned down an invitation to testify voluntarily) and his lawyer, Charles Cooper, would likely leave it to the courts to decide (the method he is following with another client).  That will take some time.

Pelosi did have the full House vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry process, not because she felt she needed such a vote in order to proceed, but instead to undercut GOP howls that lacking such authorization the inquiry was a “sham.”  And so Pelosi allowed the authorization to come to the floor, and it passed along partisan lines, save two Democrats in Trump-heavy districts that voted against it.

Remarkably, at a time when Trump badly needs the support of GOP House members and particularly the Senate, during the month he undertook two acts that they simply despised.  The first was the shocking and abrupt decision to abandon the Kurds in Northern Syria, effectively ceding the region to Turkey.  And the second was the announcement that the 2020 G7 would be hosted by Trump at his very own hotel complex at the Doral in Florida. 

The blowback on both was instant and bi-partisan.  Almost immediately after the Trump announcement of the U.S. troop withdrawal, the Turks moved in.  Not only were the Kurds forced to abandon their battle against ISIS – our allies in this cause – but also lessen the priority on watching over 12,000 ISIS prisoners held in the area, a number of whom escaped.  GOP wrath even included Chief Acolyte Lindsay Graham, who emerged from Trump’s hindquarters long enough to bark a loud objection (which he later more or less retracted).

The blowback on Doral was so intense that Trump was actually forced into a rare retreat (reversing himself on Doral as a site), with much sputtering about the “phony” Emoluments clause, which in reality does exist, right there in Article I, Section 9, Article 8 of the Constitution of the United States, penned by our forefathers to prevent things like, well, hosting the G7 at Trump’s own Doral.

The month also featured the arrest of two Rudy Giuliani Ukrainian associates, hours after they had lunch with Rudy and en route to Dulles Airport with one-way tickets to Europe.  The two were charged with violating campaign finance laws.  The obvious implication was that the two were involved in UkraineGate in some way, and their arrest forced Giuliani to seek legal counsel of his own.

At the end of the month, Trump did achieve a badly needed win, with the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by U.S. commandos.  But Trump undercut his own victory with his graphic, tasteless and semi-fictional account of his death.  Trump claimed that the terrorist was “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” to his death, when no such evidence exists to support the characterization and no military figure will confirm it.  He also said that the killing was bigger than Barack Obama’s conquest of Osama bin Laden, which of course is simply not true.

Finally, there was indeed the usual array of Trump madness.  Our favorite included Trump various immigration ideas such as shooting migrants in the legs and building an alligator-infested moat. 

Where Is This Going?  Our Impeachment/Trial Prediction

The endgame is beginning to come into view.  Here is the BTRTN prediction, barring any further even more spectacular revelations.

Pelosi will opt for speed over further fact-finding, and public testimony will begin in mid-November.  The tightly choreographed testimony will be managed for maximum effect, going for the power of a first-round knockout rather than a graceful win on points built over 15 rounds.  Trump will be impeached by the holidays.

McConnell will conduct some measure of a proper trial.  While not the full two-month trial that Clinton endured, this one will go for 30-45 days under the watchful eyes of John Roberts.

The Senate will acquit, largely along party lines, and GOP senators will use the following logic to justify their position:  “Trump did offer a quid pro quo to Ukraine, and that was indeed poor judgment, out of bounds and, yes, an abuse of power.  But it does not rise to an impeachable offense.  Trump is an unconventional politician and, in this instance, he went too far.  But Trump brings new thinking to stagnated world problems, his creativity and deal-making prowess are well worth the occasional slip-up.  And he was poorly served by advisers who should have known better.”

There will be no attempt to justify Trump’s actions, or defend them beyond that.

What will be interesting is how far (some) Republicans go beyond simply acquittal:

·        Will any Republicans vote to convict?  If Trump cannot muster a majority of the Senate, that will be news.  Keep an eye on Romney (untouchable in Utah), Collins (under heavy fire in Maine), Gardner (a potential loser in blue state Colorado), others in close elections, and other oft-critical GOP types like Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowsky.  Look as well at red state Democrats who might vote to acquit, such as Doug Jones of Alabama or Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

·        Will some heads roll?  We might see the rapid departures of some of those who “poorly served” Trump, including Sondland, Mulvaney – and perhaps even Pompeo. 

·        Censure?  The House and/or Senate could vote to censure Trump on his conduct, which would be a humiliating black eye, though well short of conviction, of course.

·        Keep in mind that some “acquittal” votes may be horse-traded for some of the above concessions from wavering Republicans and Democrats.

And while Trump thus is ultimately acquitted, and the 2020 campaign moves to the forefront, Ukraine will not go away.  The public trial of Rudy Giuliani will see to that.

Trump will not benefit from this acquittal.  The public nature of the testimony and the tepid support from GOP Senators will have some modest impact in the court of public opinion, and Trump’s cries of vindication will ring hollow.  He may lose a bit on the margin, and he cannot afford any such losses given the current electoral dynamics.

You heard it here first.


Trump’s approval rating decreased by a negligible one percentage point in the month of October, from 44% to 43%.  His approval rating was in the 40-45% range for the 22nd consecutive month.  Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of an impeachment inquiry has changed anyone’s mind about Trump. 





The Trumpometer did not change from September to October, holding steady at +10.  The +10 Trumpometer reading means that, on average, our five economic measures are +10% higher than they were at the time of Trump’s Inauguration, per the chart below (and with more explanation of methodology below). 

Per the chart below, none of the five measures showed much movement month to month.

The “Trumpometer” was designed to allow an objective answer to the economically-driven question of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  The Trumpometer now stands at +10, which means that Donald Trump can definitively claim that the answer to that question is “yes.”  (Whether he deserves credit for that score is another matter.)

End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 9/30/2019
Trump 10/31/2019
% Chg. Vs. Inaug. (+ = Better)

  Unemployment Rate
  Consumer Confidence
  Price of Gas
  Dow Jones

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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Trump Inaugural on January 20, 2017, on an average percentage change basis... The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline, and the GDP. 

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