CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – The year in impeachment was a true roller coaster ride: A slow build to a high peak at the time of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report; a deep and fast dive in its aftermath; a rocket-like ascent following the whistle-blower’s report of U.S. President Donald Trump’s call with Ukraine; and now, at year’s end, a harrowing run to an impeachment that itself will likely end in the “pffft” of a Senate vote not to remove the president.
Think back, if you can, to early 2019, when the Mueller investigation was still proceeding in secret, with remarkably few leaks. We all knew that Trump had fired FBI director James Comey because of the Russia investigation (the president himself admitted as much). What we did not know was the more important question of whether the Trump campaign had actively colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election results.
Along the way, we also got various criminal prosecutions, including Paul Manafort (now serving a prison sentence), several Russian intelligence hackers (indicted but unlikely to ever face trial) and most tantalizingly of all, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and all around fixer (also serving time in jail).
Each was a loop-de-loop on the ride, adding drama but not changing its fundamental course. The Cohen investigation, for example, culminated in the man expressly stating under oath in open court that Trump had ordered him to violate campaign finance law. That was a big deal, or should have been. Yet somehow almost no one treated it as rising to the level of impeachment, even though as a matter of constitutional law it pretty clearly included impeachable acts. Perhaps Democrats, remembering the history of the Bill Clinton impeachment, just didn’t want to impeach a president for covering up an illicit sexual liaison.
Or maybe they wanted to wait for what seemed like the main event: the Mueller report, which they knew was coming. When it did come, it began with a false dive: Attorney General Bill Barr “summarized” the report before it was even public and misleadingly claimed that it exonerated Trump. By the time others got to read it, much of its effect had been eviscerated. It seemed the impeachment ride was over.
The report found that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia, but also appeared to lay out a convincing case that the president had obstructed justice: It analyzed his conduct in terms of the statutory definition of obstruction, found that it fit, and yet declined to conclude that Trump had broken the law — at the same time, it did not say that he hadn’t.
Historians will long wonder why the report held back from expressing the conclusions that followed from its own logic. Regardless, Mueller’s testimony before Congress resembled the disappointed chatting of people just off a coaster ride that ended sooner than expected.
Then, just when you though it was safe to go back to the cotton candy booth, the ride suddenly jerked forward again with the first hints of the CIA whistleblower’s report to Congress.
From that point, we were catapulted ahead with terrifying speed. The memorandum of the July 25 phone call was like that moment at the very top of a roller coaster when you know exactly what’s coming and can’t quite figure out how you’ll survive without losing your lunch. It should not escape notice that Trump made the call just after Mueller’s testimony. It was almost like he, too, thought the ride had ended.
Since then we’ve been falling. The steady buildup of facts in the House Intelligence Committee meetings gave us a fuller understanding of how Trump abused the power of his office to gain a 2020 electoral advantage by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden. This was as impeachable as impeachable can get.
The culmination of the 2019 ride is the adoption of articles of impeachment, first by the House Judiciary Committee, followed by the House as a whole. That will do it for 2019.
But the ride won’t end when the year does. January 2020 will see the Senate trial. It’s hard to imagine that the trial will feel like any kind of roller coast ride at all. The outcome is as close to foregone as it gets in U.S. politics. Getting two-thirds of the Senate to vote for Trump’s removal seems close to impossible. There may be a little suspense about whether any Republicans at all vote against Trump, or whether some vulnerable Democrats break ranks and support the president. But compared to the ride we’ve been on, that won’t even have the drama of the teacup ride.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President.