Whether they’re for presidents, cabinet secretaries, judges or senators, impeachment trials in the history of the United States have always allowed witnesses to testify.
The impeachment trial of Donald Trump is well on the way to breaking with that democratic and judicial norm.
On opening day Wednesday, Republicans blocked several proposals aimed at getting testimony from key administration players.
Since one of the impeachment articles is obstruction of Congress, all the President’s men were disdainfully playing to script.
The stonewalling raised the obvious question: What are the Trump Republicans afraid of? If there’s a defence of the President’s conduct, why not have his top lieutenants make it? Why hide them?
But the Republicans even rejected an amendment that would have permitted the presiding Chief Justice John Roberts – no raving Democrat – to decide on what witnesses to call, while giving senators the right to override him.
The refusals invited charges from the Democrats’ Senate Leader Chuck Schumer that this is a sham trial, that the walling-off of witnesses amounts to a cover-up.
Without witnesses, it may well amount to that. But Democrats are not free of blame. They’ve refused to even entertain the idea of a witness swap, which would have former national security adviser John Bolton testify as well as Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who Republicans want to question about his work in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, there is a chance the witness blockade won’t last. There may be enough rebellious Republicans to turn on the party and demand a fair trial; it would take just four of them to vote with the Democrats to compel witnesses. But getting that many still appears unlikely.
But even if witnesses are allowed to testify, it won’t prevent an acquittal of the President given the breadth of his support in the chamber. It would, however, at least give the trial some credibility.
The opening of the trial has pointed out the weakness of the President’s case. His legal team hardly made any legal arguments. Instead, they poured on invective about how the Democrats were rushing to judgment and going to ridiculous, unfair extremes to get rid of this President.
If Mr. Trump was willing to admit wrongdoing – which he isn’t – the Republicans could make a good case that what he did is not of a magnitude to merit impeachment.
Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s former top adviser, makes a compelling case for this, arguing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed and elsewhere that the Democrats are hypocrites. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, for example, hired the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which assigned someone to solicit dirt from the Russians on Mr. Trump.
If she had won, Mr. Rove asks, would that be worthy of impeachment? As for the Democrats’ bellyaching about a lack of trial witnesses, he points out how during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the same Mr. Schumer argued that “it doesn’t make sense” for the Senate to call witnesses.
While the Trump legal team has ranted and raved, the Democrats have stuck mainly to facts. Taking the floor for 2½ hours on Wednesday, Adam Schiff, who heads up the Democratic team, was particularly impressive. He was calm, rational and persuasive. He became a star of the party on that day.
“If not remedied by his conviction in the Senate and removal from office,” Mr. Schiff argued, “President Trump’s abuse of his office and obstruction of Congress will permanently alter the balance of power among the branches of government, inviting future presidents to operate as if they are also beyond the reach of accountability, congressional oversight and the law.”
In one sense, given the Republican majority in the Senate, Mr. Trump is in a no-lose situation. But a more accurate assessment is that it’s a no-win one. If he’s acquitted on the basis of a sham trial, it will bring on lasting opprobrium and derision. If witnesses and documents are admitted, the evidence could be so damning that acquittal will look risible.
However, the capacity of Mr. Trump to fight back, in combination with his sycophants at Fox News, cannot be underestimated. The impeachment donnybrook is not about to move party support numbers in either direction in a big way.
But Democrats are better positioned to profit. They have a good chance of moving swing voters into their column. And since the coming federal election could well be determined by the smallest of margins, impeachment could in fact end up costing Mr. Trump his job – not now, but in November.
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