INDIANAPOLIS — The vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump made one thing abundantly clear.
As the process moves forward, the president and his allies have few cards to play — and little chance of regaining control of the narrative.
Most of the initial attention devoted to the House vote focused on its partisan nature. Only two Democrats voted against the measure. A former Republican who not long ago declared himself an independent voted in favor of it.
This wasn’t surprising.
Decades of scientific and successful gerrymandering has made the House a partisan cesspool. The House membership now reflects the most extreme views — left and right — in America and serves as an effective tool for further dividing the nation.
Even so, the struggles House Republicans have gone through to try to justify the president’s conduct have been illuminating.
At first, they argued the process was illegitimate because testimony — some of it involving sensitive questions of national security — was behind closed doors. They complained the president’s rights were violated because no vote authorizing the investigation had been held.
The claims were spurious.
In effect, the House Republicans argued any investigation should follow the filing of formal charges. Generally, an investigation determines whether charges should be filed in the first place.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, working with purpose to saw off the tree limb out onto which House Republicans climbed, scheduled the requested vote and put forth a process that will call for public, televised hearings. That process resembles in almost every meaningful way the one Republicans used when they impeached President Bill Clinton 20 years ago.
Now, the GOP complaint is that the vote has been taken and that the process will be out in the open where everyone — especially voters — can see it.
The words “frying pan” and “fire” come to mind.
What’s interesting is what congressional Republicans haven’t said. President Trump has urged them, loudly and repeatedly, to defend him not just on procedural grounds, but on the substance of his strange, strange interactions with the Ukrainian president.
Only a relative few who gulped the Kool-Aid by the gallon have tried to do so.
All the others have done their best to change the subject when it comes up. They do so for at least two reasons.
The first is they have no idea how bad things are going to get. What started out as an exploration of a whistleblower’s report about one very stupid phone call with a foreign leader now has expanded into an investigation of a widespread shakedown operation and a rogue foreign policy apparatus run by a private citizen who happens to be the president’s personal attorney. Almost every fresh witness has produced testimony that has made the case more damning.
The president’s and the GOP’s defense, such as it is, has been to attack the motives and often the patriotism of these witnesses, several of whom are lifelong Republicans and, in some cases, decorated combat veterans.
The second is that Republicans are deathly afraid that the president in 2021 won’t be Donald Trump or any other Republican. They’re reluctant to say, on the record, that it’s perfectly okay for a president to conspire with foreign leaders to dig up dirt on her or his political opponents because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of such treatment should Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden or some other Democrat be in the Oval Office.
So, Republicans can’t defend the president by defending what the president did.
Things will get worse for the GOP.
The Senate is supposed to be the president’s firewall, the place where the impeachment process will go to die. It likely will, but not without taking a few Republican senators with it.
Unlike House seats, Senate seats can’t be gerrymandered. Senators don’t have the luxury of going back to engage only with constituents who agree with them. They will have to justify their votes to citizens — particularly those in traditionally Republican suburbs — who aren’t Trump acolytes and are troubled by the president’s conduct.
In the not-too-distant future, Republicans will have to make a hard choice. Do they defend the president, or do they try to hold onto the Senate?
Donald Trump won’t make that an easy decision.