The year of the political trial has been a true roller coaster: a slow rise to a peak at the time of the report by special lawyer Robert Mueller; a rapid and deep fall later; a rocket-like ascent following the reporter's complaint about President Donald Trump's call with Ukraine; and now, at the end of the year, a heartbreaking race towards a political trial that will probably end in a disappointing vote in the Senate in favor of the president's acquittal.
Go back, if you can, in early 2019, when Mueller's investigation was still under way in secret, with notoriously few leaks. All we knew was that Trump had fired FBI director James Comey for his investigation into Russia (the president himself had admitted it). What we did not know was the most important question about whether the Trump campaign had actively conspired with Russia to influence the results of the 2016 elections.
Along the way, we also had several criminal charges, such as those of Paul Manafort (who is now serving a prison sentence), several Russian intelligence hackers (accused but probably never face trial) and probably the most promising of all, Michael Cohen , Trump's outgoing staff and who fixed everything (and is also in prison).RELATED
Each of them was a complete turn of the mountain, which added drama, but did not change its fundamental course. The investigation to Cohen concluded with the man declaring openly and under oath that Trump had ordered him to violate the electoral campaign financing law. That was important, or it should have been.
However, somehow, no one treated it as something of the level of a political trial, although as a matter of constitutional law it clearly included prosecutable acts. Perhaps the Democrats, aware of the history of the political trial of Bill Clinton, simply did not want to judge a president for covering an illicit sexual bond.
Or maybe they wanted to wait for what the main event looked like: Mueller's report, which they knew would come. When he arrived, he began with a false exit: Attorney General Bill Barr "summed up" the report before it was made public and deceptively assured that he exonerated Trump. By the time others read it, most of the effect was gone. It seemed that the adventure of political judgment was over.
The report found that there was not enough evidence to conclude that Trump's campaign had conspired with Russia, but it seemed to present a compelling case that the president had obstructed justice: he analyzed his behavior in terms of the normative definition of obstruction, he found that he agreed , and yet he declined to conclude that Trump had broken the law – and he also didn't say he hadn't.
Historians will wonder why the report refrained from expressing the conclusions derived from its own logical reasoning. Beyond that, Mueller's testimony before Congress resembled the conversation between people disappointed by a roller coaster ride that ends earlier than expected.
Then, just when we thought it would be safe to return to the cotton candy stand, the trip suddenly continued with the first signs of the CIA informant's complaint to Congress. From there we were catapulted at full speed.
The memorandum of the July 25 call was like that moment just above the roller coaster where you know exactly what will happen, but not how to survive without losing lunch. It should not go unnoticed that Trump had made the call just after Mueller's testimony. It was almost as if he had also believed that the journey was over.
Since then we have been falling. The constant accumulation of facts at the meetings of the House Intelligence Committee has allowed us to better understand how Trump abused the power of his office to gain an advantage in the face of the 2020 elections, pressing Ukraine to announce investigations to Joe and Hunter Biden. This is prosecutable by definition.
The culmination of the 2019 trip is the adoption of the articles of political judgment, first by the Judicial Committee of the Chamber, then by the plenary. That will be enough for this year.
But the trip will not end with the year. In January 2020 we will have the trial in the Senate. It's hard to imagine that the trial looks like a roller coaster at all. The result is most predictable in American politics. Getting two thirds of the Senate to vote for Trump's impeachment seems almost impossible. Perhaps there is some suspense about whether a Republican votes against Trump, or if a vulnerable Democrat breaks ranks and supports the president; but compared to the trip we've had, that won't compare to the drama of tea cups.
By Noah Feldman