Breaking with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska told a TV interviewer in her home state this week that the Senate shouldn’t work “hand-in-glove with the defense” on President Trump’s impeachment trial.
Congress as a co-equal branch of government — what a concept. But Murkowski was only half right in her critique.
McConnell’s obeisance to the White House deserves every bit of scorn that it gets, and infinitely more from his fellow Senate Republicans than it appears to be receiving (at least in public). The Senate may be under Republican control, but it should never be under White House control, no matter who occupies the Oval Office.
I know, the party of Trump argues that the House didn’t take impeachment seriously, so the Senate shouldn’t either. Instead, the GOP argues that this impeachment was merely an act of bitter partisanship, and with no House Republican voting for either article of impeachment, it’s easy to sell that idea. But the politics that infuse the process shouldn’t obscure the more important institutional struggle at play.
Presidents have long tussled with Congress over how much their administrations must reveal about internal deliberations. But Trump pushed defiance to a new extreme. Even before the impeachment inquiry began, his administration stonewalled House oversight efforts — most notably, lawmakers’ attempt to get to the bottom of how the Commerce Department decided to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. Then, after special counsel Robert S. Mueller III teed up the question of whether Trump sought to obstruct the Russia collusion probe, the administration blocked lawmakers’ attempts to answer it.
So by the time the White House counsel declared that the administration would not cooperate in any way, shape or form with the House impeachment inquiry because the House wasn’t playing by the rules Trump wanted, a pattern had already been well established. This wasn’t the ordinary give-and-take between branches. Besides, even the White House acknowledged that it would not commit to cooperating with the impeachment inquiry no matter what concessions House Democrats made.
Murkowski elided all that in her interview with KTUU of Anchorage, instead criticizing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for rushing the articles through. If House Democrats believed White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney (who carried out Trump’s order to freeze security aid to Ukraine) and former national security advisor John Bolton (who reportedly characterized the efforts to get Ukraine to launch the two politically oriented investigations as a “drug deal”) had crucial information that was being withheld, Murkowski said, they should have gone to court to enforce the subpoenas for the two men’s testimony.
It’s true that, having gone to court to enforce subpoenas in at least three other investigations (the census, obstruction in the Mueller probe and Trump’s tax returns), House Democrats did not do so with witnesses related to Trump’s Ukraine dealings. But that’s because they built a damning case without Mulvaney or Bolton’s testimony. Waiting for the courts to rule on whether those two could be compelled to testify risked pushing votes in the House and Senate deep into the 2020 campaign, only exacerbating the already superheated partisanship.
Besides, the House had a bigger institutional concern. The Constitution gives that chamber the sole power to determine how to conduct an impeachment. Trump was withholding documents and testimony in a transparent effort to dictate how the House carried out its business. The president is free to complain all he wants about unfair treatment and a rush to judgment. But the Constitution couldn’t be more clear about who gets to set the rules, and it’s not Trump.
I get the political constraints involved, but it’s a little weird to see senators embrace the idea that a president can defy the legislative branch in the extreme and absolutist way that Trump has because the courts will somehow sort out the mess. Trump’s strategy has always been to “deny, deny, deny,” wearing down his critics as he runs out the clock. This time, House Democrats decided not to play along.
The Senate’s top Democrat, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, has called on the Senate to summon the administration witnesses and documents that were withheld from the House. Meanwhile, Pelosi has held off sending over the articles of impeachment until the Senate sets its rules for the trial. Republicans have pointed to these moves as evidence that Democrats are trying to fill the holes in the House’s investigation.
That may well be true, if you believe that truthful testimony from Bolton and Mulvaney would only make Trump look worse. Yet what we’ve already heard from other witnesses makes Trump look bad enough. Whether that behavior is sufficient to warrant removing him from office is something reasonable people can disagree on.
The House has made its case against Trump. If that isn’t persuasive to senators, they’re not compelled to try to make it more so. But if they think the House has raised questions that demand answers about Trump’s behavior, they should try to answer them, regardless of what the White House wants.