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New idea: Pelosi should offer to withhold the articles of impeachment if the Senate agrees to censure Trump

For cripes sake. Why the hell would Republicans agree to censure Trump at this point?

It’s a sign of how bummed the anti-Trump commentariat is about the lackluster outcome of impeachment that they’re inventing elaborate scenarios that make no sense strategically by which Pelosi will supposedly secure some sort of moral victory in lieu of an actual victory. Yesterday the idea was “impeach and withhold,” in which Pelosi would refuse to deliver the articles of impeachment to the Senate unless Republicans over there guaranteed a fair trial. But the last thing Pelosi wants is a delay. She never wanted to touch this hot potato in the first place and now she can’t wait to hand it to McConnell. That’s the whole reason they didn’t bother trying to compel testimony from crucial witnesses like Bolton and Mulvaney: They want this over with. They know the Senate won’t convict. Let’s wrap it up, says Nancy.

Now, via a Politico op-ed, we get “impeach and withhold unless the Senate censures.” A total nonstarter, but we need to pass the hours somehow until the trial so here you go:

We can call this strategy “conditional impeachment.” Here’s how it would work: The House adopts its articles of impeachment, as it is planning to do. But it also adopts a separate resolution saying that the House will deliver the impeachment articles to the Senate only if the Senate fails to censure the president for his Ukraine-related misconduct by a specified date. If the Senate does censure Trump, the House could refrain from delivering the articles of impeachment to the Senate at all…

It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility that the Senate would go along with a censure resolution as a way of avoiding a trial—which many senators seem to want, fearing it might turn into a political circus or get in the way of legislation. And unlike conviction upon articles of impeachment, which requires a two-thirds vote, a censure resolution would require only a conventional majority. It seems plausible that the 47 Democrats in the Senate (counting the two independents who caucus with them) could pick up four Republicans in support of censure.

What’s more, the idea of impeachment and censure, without acquittal, still has to begin with a vote to impeach the president, which should make this approach palatable to those House members, or their constituents, who insist on impeaching the president. The history books will still describe Trump as joining Johnson and Clinton’s small, infamous circle. For all those House Democrats who currently view censure in the House as a weak alternative to impeachment, it is crucial to understand that, in the situation I’m proposing, censure would not be an alternative to impeachment; it would be induced by the impeachment vote itself.

How can it be that all of these unorthodox too-cute-by-half ways for Pelosi to dispose of impeachment somehow fail to imagine the one thing that would actually help her at this point, avoiding an impeachment vote altogether? She’d love to be able to spare the Elissa Slotkins and Kendra Horns in her caucus from having to cast a vote that’ll be held against them next fall — but it’s frankly too late for that now, with all of the most vulnerable House Dems having gone on record by affirming their support for impeachment anyway. If Pelosi were going to play hardball with the Senate to extract concessions from McConnell, the time to do it would have been a few weeks ago, before Democrats had been forced to show their cards. “I’ve decided we can’t go forward with this matter,” Pelosi could have said at the beginning of December, “unless Mitch McConnell assures us in advance that he’ll call Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton as witnesses.” That would have been, er, awkward since it’s still within Pelosi’s own power to try to force Bolton and Mulvaney to testify, but McConnell doubtless would have said “no way” and then Pelosi could have said “we’re suspending the process until he changes his mind” and walked away from impeachment.

But of course that wouldn’t have worked. The left would have flipped out. Trump would have gloated about it hourly for weeks. Once this process was begun, it had to be completed. And now that it’s (almost) completed, Pelosi has little choice politically but to get rid of the hot potato.

Anyway, let’s play out this fantasy in which Pelosi promises to withhold the articles of impeachment if McConnell and Republicans agree to censure Trump. Imagine that McConnell said yes and they censured Trump. Would the left be happy with that? Of course not. “Why did we let Susan Collins and Cory Gardner off the hook from voting on whether to remove Trump?” they’d say. “Why are our party leaders constantly losing their nerve instead of forcing Republicans to take responsibility for their own complicity in Trump’s crimes?” The moral-victory option wouldn’t have been much of a moral victory.

But McConnell would never agree to censure Trump. The response to Pelosi’s offer, obviously, would be a big fat “no” from the Senate. That’s because Trump doesn’t just want to be acquitted, he wants to be vindicated. He wants to put Hunter Biden on the stand and somehow prove Burisma-related corruption by Joe Biden and to put the whistleblower on the stand and prove a deep-state coup orchestrated by Adam Schiff. He might settle for not being able to call witnesses provided that Democrats don’t get to call any either, with McConnell and Lindsey Graham whispering in his ear that the longer the trial goes, the more difficult next November will be for Collins and Gardner at the polls. But that’s the best-case scenario for the Senate GOP. If they passed a censure resolution agreeing with Democrats that Trump’s behavior towards Ukraine wasn’t PERFECT!, we’d see the Trumper tantrum to end all Trumper tantrums. MAGA Nation would go ballistic. Why are Republicans punishing Trump when they have the votes to completely acquit him at trial? they’d ask.

It’d be a fair question. What would McConnell say? Why not just laugh in Pelosi’s face, let her send over the articles of impeachment, then hold the sort of perfunctory trial that Graham wants in which the lawyers from the two sides present their case over a week or so without witnesses and then the Senate votes? If anything, this censure gambit might inadvertently make McConnell’s life easier by giving him an opportunity to reject Pelosi’s offer. Right now he’s worried about having a big fight with Trump over whether the president gets to call witnesses or not, which will irritate Republican voters. If McConnell can bank some righty cred in advance by tearing up Pelosi’s offer, he might earn enough goodwill with Trump that Trump will back off on calling witnesses and let him hold a quick trial instead.

I’m not even sure the censure option would be a safer play for Collins and Gardner, the people whom McConnell’s most concerned with in all this. Voting for acquittal at trial will be hard for both but there are at least legal arguments they can make in their defense, i.e. the case just wasn’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Voting against censure would be harder. “They won’t even say that what Trump did is wrong,” critics would gasp, “despite the fact that the president would suffer no penalty if they did? They’re that cowardly?” Imagine how enraged Democrats back home would be.

Anyway. Weird stuff, particularly since even Romney doesn’t sound like he’ll make trouble for McConnell at the trial. At the beginning of the impeachment process, the question was how many headaches the GOP caucus might cause for Cocaine Mitch during a trial. The answer now increasingly looks like it’ll be zero. The headaches are likely to come from — who else? — the president, when it comes time to call witnesses. We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, here’s Chuck Schumer whining today that Republicans in the Senate won’t call the same witnesses his own party is perfectly capable of calling in the House but which they’ve refused to call for purely political reasons.