By definition, the impeachment trial of President Trump that began in earnest Tuesday was a historic occasion, only the third such proceeding since the adoption of the Constitution. What remains unclear is whether the Republicans in the Senate will allow a fair and full trial, one that would enable them, if they chose, to seriously consider the allegations against the president and render a careful, impartial judgment.
It was a somewhat hopeful sign that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to some changes in the overly restrictive rules he originally proposed to govern the trial. McConnell, for instance, abandoned his plan to give each side only two days to complete their arguments in the case. Now each side’s 24 hours of arguments will be spread over three days, avoiding the possibility that some arguments would stretch into the wee hours of the morning, when few Americans would be watching television.
But the Senate on party-line votes blocked Democratic motions to issue subpoenas for government documents related to Ukraine. Under McConnell’s proposed rules, the Senate could vote on whether to subpoena documents and witnesses, including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security advisor John Bolton, but only after the House’s impeachment managers finished presenting their case, Trump’s attorneys had offered their defense and senators were done posing questions to both sides. That seems awfully late in the process to be getting new information. For it to happen, at least four Republican senators would have to join Democrats in voting to call witnesses.
Given the gravity of the allegations against Trump, every Republican senator should be willing to hear those and other witnesses, and to gather evidence early enough to weigh it appropriately. Contrary to claims by president’s lawyers, the two articles of impeachment approved by the House are not a partisan attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election. Trump has been accused, with substantial evidence to back up the charges, of abusing the power of his office to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a prospective opponent in this year’s election. That Trump was impeached without a single Republican vote isn’t the fault of House Democrats. It’s a reflection of the lockstep support Republicans in the House gave to a president who remains overwhelmingly popular among the party’s voters.
The question now is whether Senate Republicans will approach their duty with greater independence than their Republican counterparts in the House. So far, the signs have been discouraging. McConnell has made it clear that he wanted a quick trial to dispose of allegations that he called “the thinnest basis for any House-passed presidential impeachment in American history.” But that’s a woefully cramped reading of the allegations underlying the impeachment: that Trump used his office to further his political interests to the detriment of U.S. national security interests, and that he defied Congress’ legal authority to obtain testimony and documents related to that abuse of power.
In his argument to the Senate, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone assailed the House for approving articles of impeachment without taking the time to challenge Trump’s presumed assertion of executive privilege in the courts. Given Trump’s refusal to waive privilege and the length of time required by a court dispute, the Democrats acted responsibly in moving to a vote on impeachment based on the substantial record created by witnesses who did agree to testify. But even if one thinks the Democrats moved too fast, it’s appropriate — and necessary — for the Senate to subpoena witnesses and documents at the trial stage.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the leading House manager, told the Senate: “We’re ready. The House calls John Bolton to testify. The House calls Mick Mulvaney. We’re ready to present our case, ready to call witnesses, ready to see the documents. The question: Will the Senate let us?”
Senators must call and then listen to witnesses, but their responsibility doesn’t end there. The defining test will be whether they are willing to act on that evidence if it justifies conviction and removal of the president, in keeping with their oath to “to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.” The Senate is also on trial.