WASHINGTON, Dec 6 — Donald Trump's impeachment would not only trigger an extraordinary US Senate trial, it would ensnare — with potentially ruinous results — several of the candidates aiming to defeat the president at a critical time in the 2020 election process.
Of the 15 candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, five are sitting senators whose constitutional duty to serve as jurors during an impeachment trial will likely tether them to Washington for most of January, when rivals will be barnstorming early-voting states Iowa and New Hampshire.
That timing could prove calamitous for the senator candidates in the run-up to the all-important Iowa caucuses, the first vote in the White House nomination battle.
Senate Republican John Cornyn this week had a word to describe his colleagues' unprecedented quandary: “Awkward.”
Like many observers, Cornyn believes juggling campaigning for president and sitting in judgement of Trump will leave candidates such as senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren “at a disadvantage while Joe Biden and Mayor Pete (Buttigieg) are out there” campaigning unencumbered across Iowa.
As the frantic pre-Iowa caucus days play out, “these guys are stuck here,” he said.
Senators Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet are also in the race. Senator Kamala Harris dropped out earlier this week.
All back the impeachment inquiry against Trump, but they stand to reap the consequences if they are locked in a prolonged Senate prosecution.
Bill Clinton's impeachment trial in 1999 — not an election year — lasted five weeks, from January 7 to February 12.
If the same timing were used in 2020, Trump's trial would run through both the Iowa caucuses on February 3 and the New Hampshire primary eight days later.
According to Mitch McConnell, the Senate's Republican leader, the trial would occur Monday through Saturday, dramatically curtailing campaign time.
And crucially, “senators will not be allowed to speak” during the proceedings, McConnell said.
House managers and lawyers conduct the proceedings, presided over by the Supreme Court chief justice, depriving the chamber's presidential candidates of the chance to shine before a national television audience while grilling the president.
The candidates have put a brave face on their predicament.
“We all have to fulfill our constitutional responsibility,” Bennet, currently polling at about one per cent, told AFP in Washington recently as his rivals were on the campaign trail.
“We'll figure it out.”
Klobuchar dismissed the suggestion that she will be at a disadvantage to Biden and Buttigieg, who like her are running in the centrist lane, by leaving the campaign trail for the impeachment trial.
“I meet whatever obstacle is put in front of me,” she told CNN Sunday, adding she has strong surrogates including her daughter, to step in while she is anchored to Washington.
The collision between campaigning and impeachment may well prove devastating for the candidate senators.
“They could lose a lot of valuable face time with Iowa voters who have come to expect one-on-one interaction with those running for president,” said Jim Manley, a political strategist and longtime aide to Senate Democrats.
There are work-arounds, such as holding press conferences on the trial sidelines but still in the national spotlight, and dialing in by video link to rallies and other campaign events.
Candidates no doubt will also seek to dash out after Saturday trial sessions to show their face on the campaign trail on Sundays.
But skipping parts of the trial is a no-no.
“There's nothing more important, short of a declaration of war, than this upcoming trial,” Manley said. “It is not politically viable to skip.”
On one hand, Biden and Buttigieg will relish the chance to press the flesh in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states in particular that cherish retail politics, without five rivals breathing down their necks, Manley added.
On the other, Biden and Buttigieg “will be the outsiders looking in on one of the most significant political stories of this year — or any other year in recent memory.” — AFP