In front of thousands of boisterous supporters at a hockey arena in Iowa’s capital Thursday evening, U.S. President Donald Trump derided his impeachment as a nefarious plot to overturn the past election.
“Congressional Democrats are consumed with partisan rage and obsessed with a deranged witch-hunt hoax,” he declared to a chorus of boos. “They want to nullify your ballots, poison our democracy and overthrow the entire system of government.”
The next morning, Joe Biden held up Mr. Trump’s actions as a totem of Mr. Biden’s own electability.
“The President had to go and ask for help from a foreign leader … to try to malign me,” he said at a campaign stop in a community hall in Burlington, an industrial town of 25,000 in eastern Iowa. “How scared must Trump be if he thinks he has to do this?"
As the Republican-controlled Senate in Washington hurtles towards acquitting the President, on the campaign trail both parties are convinced the entire episode will work to their advantage in the long run-up to the November election.
It’s a hallmark of the U.S.'s stark political polarization that a historic constitutional event reads completely differently to each side of the spectrum: While Democrats see Mr. Trump’s efforts to tarnish Mr. Biden by pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation into him as a grievous abuse of power, Republicans view impeachment as a partisan exercise and all the more reason for the base to rally around the President.
The Senate wrapped up deliberations in Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial Friday, deciding against calling any new witnesses in a 51-49 vote that was split largely along party lines. Only Republican Senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine sided with Democrats.
The vote all but assures that Mr. Trump will soon be acquitted on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The Senate voted Friday evening to start closing statements in the trial on Monday morning and hold a vote on acquittal on Wednesday afternoon.
Democratic leaders lashed out at Republican Senators for what several said was an unfair trial. Among those who had been willing to testify was former national security adviser John Bolton. The New York Times reported that Mr. Bolton in an unpublished manuscript confirmed that Mr. Trump had ordered US$400-million in military aid to Ukraine withheld to put pressure on that country to investigate the President’s political rivals.
Calling the decision not to call witnesses “a grand tragedy on a very large scale,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Friday’s vote sets a dangerous precedent. “If the President is acquitted with no witnesses, no documents, the acquittal will have no value, because Americans will know that this trial was not a real trial.”
On the sidelines of the Des Moines rally, Mr. Trump’s supporters offered a litany of reasons for why they believe he should be acquitted.
Scot Lindley, a technician for a telephone company, argued that it was Mr. Biden who had done something wrong. “It’s a cover-up in Ukraine,” he said.
Amy Lindgren, a 50-year-old nurse, said she didn’t necessarily agree with Mr. Trump’s actions, but that it was all part of the cut and thrust of politics. “I don’t think he did anything worse than anything anyone else has done. All politicians do things,” she said.
Susan Tilley, a 52-year-old owner of a hot-tub company, contended that any president should have the power to ask for investigations into their political opponents. If Barack Obama had done the same, she said, that would have been above board in her view. “The President needs to have some authority,” Ms. Tilley argued.
Others acknowledged that they weren’t familiar with the details of the case, but trusted Mr. Trump had not done anything wrong. “If it happened, he would have been voted out, so it must not have happened. It’s all hocus pocus,” said Grant Mead, 28, a salesman for a mobile-phone repair company, who sported an American-flag bow tie.
The Republicans seem intent on proving Mr. Biden’s point ahead of Monday’s Iowa causes, the first contest of the Democratic nominating process. In addition to Mr. Trump’s rally, Florida Senator Rick Scott is running an anti-Biden attack ad in Iowa. And one of the state’s senators, Jodi Ernst, suggested this week that she hoped efforts by the President’s legal team to tarnish Mr. Biden would influence Democratic caucus voters.
Barbara Ann Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia, said Mr. Trump’s trial has ironically been “an oppo research bonanza” for the President’s re-election campaign, allowing his legal team to air the anti-Biden conspiracy theories that Mr. Trump wanted Ukraine to push.
“This is both reflecting the polarization, but it also ratchets it up,” she said.
Some, however, held out hope that voters’ minds could be changed in the other direction.
Genia Wyatt, a 47-year-old independent voter, has supported politicians from both parties in the past – she even has a magnet with a picture of the late Republican senator John McCain on her toolbox. At Mr. Biden’s Burlington event, in a historic building on the town’s main street, she said the impeachment process was worth it whatever the outcome because it had put Mr. Trump’s actions on the public record.
“It’s important for the electorate to be hearing all this,” she said. “Maybe people will look at this and see the joke it has become.”
Wayne Gerdes, a 63-year-old factory worker who came to support Mr. Biden, was one person to have seemingly escaped the partisan divide: A Republican, he said he has grown disenchanted with the party because of Mr. Trump.
“It stinks that the Republicans will not allow for witnesses to be called,” he said. “It’s so obvious that something’s wrong there and they don’t want it revealed.”