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Week In Politics: Impeachment And State Of The Union

Feb 2, 2020
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DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

A two-week-long Senate trial yielded no witnesses. It also almost certainly will lead to the acquittal of President Trump by Wednesday afternoon. Starting Monday, the legal teams will present their final arguments in the president's impeachment trial.

Here to help us figure out what that means is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

FOLKENFLIK: So if the president's acquittal is this foregone conclusion, do all these other arguments and speeches matter? If so, why?

LIASSON: I think they do matter. There's certainly no suspense that he's going to be acquitted. We knew that once the witness vote on Friday failed. But what we didn't know is whether the president was going to be acquitted on his own terms. His legal team and he himself has made it very clear he wants to be acquitted by - with the Republican senators saying he did nothing wrong. It was a perfect call. You heard their arguments that even if he did it, it was fine. Abuse of power is not impeachable.

So the question was, is that how Republican senators would explain their vote to acquit, or would they stand up and say what he did was wrong and inappropriate, but impeachment is a political death penalty and is the wrong answer so close to an election?

We got the first clue to that question on Friday, when Senator Lamar Alexander posted on Twitter why he was going to vote against witnesses. He said there was a mountain of evidence. The president did what he was accused of. And he also went on "Meet the Press," and here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

LAMAR ALEXANDER: I think he shouldn't have done it. I think it was wrong. Inappropriate was the way I'd say - improper, crossing the line. And then the only question left is, who decides what to do about that?

LIASSON: In Alexander's mind, who decides? The voters should decide. We're only about nine months away from an election, and they should make the decision whether President Trump should remain in office or not. We've heard similar arguments from Senators Rubio, Portman and Toomey. We just don't know how many others will stand up and say that.

FOLKENFLIK: And Mitt Romney called it, I think, wrong and appalling.

LIASSON: Wrong and appalling.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. So what difference does it make if a couple of Republicans are highly critical and if a number of them say, look; this was wrong, and yet, here they are still acquitting him?

LIASSON: As a practical matter, it makes no difference at all. It certainly will show that the - President Trump has now demonstrated his total control over Republicans in Congress, whether they are staying in office or retiring. But it could matter because it could be used in television attack ads by Democrats. They'll cherry-pick those criticisms by Republicans.

It also matters because the Senate is sending a message. Are they sending a message that what the president did was perfect and he can do whatever he wants? As the president says, Article II of the Constitution allows me to do whatever I want. Or are they sending a message that what the president did was wrong, but that impeachment and removal is the wrong remedy? Remember, when Bill Clinton was acquitted, Democratic senators didn't stand up and say having sex with an intern was a great thing. They criticized him. But they said it wasn't worth removing him over lying about sex.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you mentioned Bill Clinton. He came out of that acquittal pretty chastened for the rest of his term.

LIASSON: Yes.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, here, Senator Murkowski, who voted not to allow witnesses - an Alaska Republican - says the Senate is broken. Congress is broken. You have all those senators you mentioned saying, you know, what he did was wrong. So if - for the rest of President Trump's term, whether it's till next year or for a second term, what check is there from the legislature on what this president - that's executive branch - does?

LIASSON: I don't think there is much of a check. Remember, the House managers and the House leadership worried about this. They said, if we impeach him - and he's certainly going to be acquitted in the Senate - is that going to embolden the president to stand up and say, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, if you're listening, please send me some dirt on Joe Biden because the Senate said it was OK for me to do it? You know, that's very possible.

We don't know if the politics of this will change. Right now, the president probably has gotten a little boost from his base over impeachment. But it really hasn't changed the overall politics. There hasn't been a big groundswell for impeachment or a backlash against it. And there really isn't a check right now.

FOLKENFLIK: And lastly, Mara, you know, we should note the president is set to deliver the State of the Union address Tuesday evening just before the final vote is expected to happen at his trial. What should we expect to hear?

LIASSON: What we've been told from White House officials is that the president is going to use his State of the Union address kind of like the first big campaign speech. He's going to talk a lot about the economy, the, quote, "great American comeback." He's going to talk about all the things he's done - low unemployment, signing the USMCA, getting China to agree to buy more American products. He's going to tout his accomplishments. The big question is, will he mention impeachment or not? Senators like Lindsey Graham are telling him he really shouldn't mention it. But it's hard to imagine that he'll miss the opportunity to gloat about his impending victory.

FOLKENFLIK: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.