DANIEL VAUGHAN: The impeachment witness poison pill

Early this week, Democrats found considerable cheer from reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t have the votes to block new witnesses in President Donald Trump’s ongoing impeachment trial. By the middle of the week, however, that storyline was fading quickly — along with Democrats’ chances of extending the proceedings.

The reason being: McConnell has used the prospect of new witnesses as a threat against Democrats, not the other way around.

New witnesses have become a poison pill for Democrats. They cannot demand only one or two of their preferred witnesses testify; they don’t have the political power to do such a thing. On the other hand, Democrats don’t want to hear testimony from witnesses helpful to Donald Trump.

With this in mind, McConnell turned something the media called a weakness into a strength.

A poison pill is a term from corporate law. When one company is trying to attempt a hostile takeover of another company, one of the defenses the business being threatened can take is the strategy of a poison pill; that is, they make the cost of takeover too high for the hostile company. If you’re going to take that step as the acquiring company, it’s going to cost you — and if you get what you want, you may not like the end result.

For their part, Democrats want someone like John Bolton or Mick Mulvaney to testify; they’re looking for any way to extend the trial to put political pressure on Republicans. But as I’ve argued for months now, while Democrats had the power to do whatever they wanted in the House, Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans hold all the cards in the Senate’s trial.

The left and their allies in the media want to make it seem like Republicans are the ones being unreasonable by not allowing new witnesses to testify. You might even hear the nonsense that Republicans have blocked witness testimony altogether.

In reality, the Senate has heard all 100 hours of testimony from each of the 17 witnesses who testified in the House — all of whom were Democratic choices.

Democrats blocked Republican witness suggestions during the House impeachment inquiry. When Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff were questioned about this tactic, they said they had the constitutional power to do whatever they wanted in the House. And that response was absolutely true — but it means that the Senate is now looking over the shoddy work of Schiff’s team, and seeing all the gaps and red flags.

That brings us to the Senate and Democrats’ new demands that additional witnesses are called in the Senate, ones who were rejected or ignored in the House. Democrats claim they want to hear from Bolton or someone like him. Republicans are replying in turn: If you want that witness, they’re suggesting to Dems, then we’d like the chance to call all the witnesses you did not follow through on in the House, when our colleagues there were demanding to be heard.

Republicans have the very simple, but powerful poison pill for Democrats: we’ll give you Bolton if you also agree to hear from witnesses like Adam Schiff, the whistleblower, and Joe and Hunter Biden. Republicans are rightly claiming that if some witnesses are coming forward, then all the witnesses Donald Trump and his team would like to call in his defense can come forward, too.

If Democrats don’t want to hear from those people, then McConnell and Senate Republicans can move immediately to a vote on the merits of Dems’ case, end the trial, and acquit Donald Trump. It’s unlikely that any new witness testimony would change a single vote in the Senate, anyway, and Chuck Schumer and his fellow Democrats know this reality.

I don’t doubt that McConnell lacked the votes to block new witnesses at the beginning of the week. But what he’s done since that story came out is lay out the poison pill he’s built against Democrats, reducing the pressure on battleground state Republicans and eliminating the opposition’s leverage.

Could Democrats call this bluff and accept all the new witnesses? Sure. That’s possible. But the heartburn would be great.

Take the Bidens for example. Do you think the former vice president’s campaign wants Joe or Hunter on the stand in the Senate testifying in the middle of the Iowa caucuses? Establishment Democrats surely don’t want that happening; they’re already terrified of Bernie Sanders winning the nomination.

The politics of impeachment were always against Democrats. There’s no way they could have gone through a long process and done a substantive investigation in the House without giving Donald Trump a shot at winning re-election.

Democrats instead chose the fast impeachment, but that meant skipping witnesses and ensuring that they’d never win a single Republican vote.

Bringing in new witnesses opens a can of worms for everyone involved — but the political cost for Democrats is greater. Democrats are the ones facing the poison pill, not Republicans.

When future historians look back at this moment, they’ll point to this dilemma and note that Democrats didn’t have a good option. If they wanted better politics, Democrats should have called these witnesses in the House, where they could have controlled the questioning and testimony. But they didn’t.

It’s time to wrap up an impeachment process that, while may have had substance (as all of them do), was a political waste of time.