Sen. Joni Ernst attracted national attention on Monday night when she cheerfully suggested President Trump’s impeachment trial might damage Joe Biden in the Iowa Caucus.
“Those Democratic caucus-goers,” Ernst said, standing with a few other Republican senators, following hours of speeches by the president’s defense attorneys. “Will they be supporting pres– [sic] Vice President Biden at this point? Not certain about that.”
On Monday, the defense team had promoted unsupported allegations about Biden and his son Hunter’s activities in, and related to, Ukraine. The attorneys also repeated conspiracy theories embraced by President Trump, but which have described as Russian propaganda by U.S. intelligence agencies.
Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives last month on charges related to an April phone call during which he asked President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to publicly announce an investigations into the Bidens actions in Ukraine. So far, the evidence supports the allegation that Trump wanted the announcement in order to damage Biden’s chances as a 2020 presidential candidate.
Ernst didn’t appear to be troubled by any of that as she spoke to the TV cameras on Monday. Ernst has made herself a fixture of post-trial-session TV coverage, and has established herself as one Trump’s leading defenders in the Senate.
On Thursday, NPR reporter Kelsey Snow described watching Ernst during the trial’s dinner break, as the senator moved from one network TV crew to another repeating the same pro-Trump talking point.
On Monday, after the trial concluded for the day, Ernst joined a group of Republican senators including John Barrasso of Wyoming and Texas’s Ted Cruz in front of a CSPAN camera.
As Barrasso, a fervent Trump supporter with a history of embracing discredited conspiracy theories, spoke, Ernst stood next to him eagerly waiting for her turn to speak.
“Everyone was paying close attention to the discussion about the Bidens — but the four people whose eyes were fully wide-open were Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Michael Bennet and Amy Klobuchar, all leaning forward. I’ve never seen them so attentive as when this discussion was on Joe Biden,” Barrasso said.
(Only one camera — a TV camera focused on speakers — is allowed in the Senate chamber during the trial, so there is no image available of the Democratic senators, but it’s reasonable to conclude Barrasso was lying. All the allegations made by Trump’s attorneys on Monday had already been made by Republican politicians and other Fox News guests over the last several months, and would already be familiar to all four Democrats.)
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 27, 2020
“OK,” Ernst interjected before Barrasso finished.
“Iowa caucuses, folks, Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening, and I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa Caucus voters,” Ernst said, smiling. “Those Democratic caucus-goers. Will they being supporting pres– [sic] Vice President Biden at this point? Not certain about that.”
On Twitter, Walter Staub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, noted the extraordinary nature of Ernst’s statement.
Step 1: Trump abuses his office to pressure a foreign leader to smear a political rival.
Step 2: After he's impeached for this misconduct, his White House and private attorneys use the trial to smear his rival.
Step 3: A senator says she hopes this taxpayer-funded smear worked. https://t.co/KdcuTcu4Gu
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) January 28, 2020
Most of the coverage of focused of Ernst’s political ineptness. CNN, for example, titled its story on her comments, “Joni Ernst just said the quiet part out loud about the Senate impeachment trial.”
Joe Biden’s official Twitter account posted a similar reaction.
Iowa caucus-goers take note. Joni Ernst just spilled the beans. She and Donald Trump are scared to death I’ll be the nominee. On Feb. 3rd, let’s make their day. https://t.co/FKrqfxDW9L
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) January 28, 2020
This wasn’t the first time Ernst has enthusiastically suggested that Trump’s impeachment might hurt a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.
In November, Politico reported,
Republicans are rejoicing at the prospect of the [Senate] trial [of an impeached Donald Trump] disrupting Democrats’ presidential primary. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) literally danced a jig while singing: ‘Pete Buttigieg, is moving ahead!’ ‘It would be horrible,’ Ernst deadpanned on Monday. Elizabeth ‘Warren and Bernie Sanders will be here right before the Iowa caucuses. [Iowans] expect to reach out and shake their hands. And they will be here sitting at their desks. I feel so badly for them.’
Ernst isn’t the first Republican leader to express these sorts of thoughts. In 2015, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, boasted to Fox News that Republican-led congressional investigations of Hillary Clinton would damage her standing as a presidential candidate.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said during an interview with Sean Hannity. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought.”
The Benghazi committee McCarthy referred to was supposed to be a serious investigation, even though, like Trump’s defense, it relied on unsupported allegations and discredited conspiracy theories.
At the time, McCarthy’s statement was considered so politically damaging to both himself and the credibility of other congressional Republicans, he immediately had to claim that there was no political considerations in the Benghazi investigation, despite what he had just said. So far, none of Ernst’s Senate Republican colleagues have objected to her comments.