The impeachment battle over witnesses
As only the third impeachment trial in American history got off to a tense start this week, Senate Republicans labored to preclude potentially damaging witness testimony and new evidence as Democrats accused them of a cover-up. Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) 11 times proposed amendments to subpoena documents from the administration and summon witnesses such as former national security adviser John Bolton and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. He was voted down along party lines, with Republicans voting to shelve the witness issue until lawyers for the House and for Trump had presented their cases. Schumer called the Republicans’ blocking of new evidence “a national disgrace.” Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) countered that it will create a “level playing field.”
Shortly before Supreme Court Justice John Roberts administered an oath for senators to do “impartial justice,” the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan government watchdog, issued a nine-page report stating that the administration had broken the law by withholding $391 million in congressionally allocated military aid to Ukraine. Democrats want to enter that finding into evidence, along with a trove of documents from Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas that suggests Trump was aware of a campaign to intimidate Ukrainian officials into announcing an investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son. (See Talking Points.) Trump is accused of withholding the military aid from Ukraine for more than two months to compel that investigation. In his opening statement, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), one of the Democratic House impeachment managers, assailed the GOP contention that voters, and not Congress, should decide Trump’s fate, pointing to Trump’s attempt to sabotage a political rival in 2020. “The president’s misconduct cannot be decided at the ballot box,” Schiff said, “for we cannot be assured that the vote will be fairly won.”
The White House previewed its defense, calling the two impeachment articles—abuse of power and obstruction of Congress—“structurally deficient” because they do not include an allegation or evidence of a crime. “Abuse of power isn’t a crime,” the lawyers said. They said the GAO finding of a crime “is not in the articles of impeachment,” and is thus irrelevant to the trial.
What the editorials said
“The Senate must not ignore the new evidence on Ukraine,” said The Washington Post. Since the House voted mostly along party lines to ratify two articles of impeachment on Dec. 18, new information has emerged that “significantly bolsters” the case against Trump. The Parnas cache alone is potentially explosive. The Senate would be derelict in its duty to the country if it didn’t consider this new information and conduct a fair and “thorough trial, with testimony from witnesses in a position to confirm or deny the allegations.”
Republicans aren’t concealing anything, said The Washington Examiner. The trial rules, as ratified by a Senate vote, will allow senators an opportunity to vote to hear witness testimony should they wish once both sides have made their cases. Democrats know their “weak, partisan” case “is flopping” and are now desperate to strong-arm the Senate into hearing the testimony “they could not be bothered to obtain” during the House’s rush to impeach.
What the columnists said
Trump’s claim that impeachment requires an actual crime runs counter to what the Founding Fathers intended, said Ephrat Livni in Qz.com. In fact, Alexander Hamilton “saw this coming” and flatly stated in the Federalist Papers that impeachment should be prompted by “the abuse or violation of some public trust.” The Constitution’s impeachment clause, Hamilton said, provides “a political” remedy for a president who uses his power to promote his own self-interest at the expense of our democracy.
Trump’s choice of lawyers proves he’s not interested “in a substantive defense,” said Max Boot in The Washington Post. Kenneth Starr was once the “overzealous Whitewater independent counsel” who orchestrated Bill Clinton’s impeachment for having lied about sex with Monica Lewinsky. Alan Dershowitz is “a notorious attention seeker” renowned for representing clients such as O.J. Simpson “whose guilt is hardly in doubt.” And both defended notorious sex offender Jeffrey Epstein from charges he trafficked girls. Starr and Dershowitz are regulars on Fox News, and Trump hired them “not because of their legal skills but because of their television skills—which is where the court of public opinion is convened.”
Don’t let the “endless chatter” over witnesses and evidence fool you, said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. Trump’s “bull-in-a-china-shop” excesses with Ukraine were unseemly, but Ukraine eventually got its aid. The Democrats have no proof of the “historically extraordinary wrongs” that should be necessary to invoke “the Constitution’s nuclear option”: impeachment.
Given the Republicans’ 53-47 majority, the Senate’s acquittal is a foregone conclusion, said Lara Bazelon in The Washington Post. The “real jury” is that “skeptical sliver” of swing-state voters who have “yet to make up their minds” about the 2020 election. That’s why Democrats will focus relentlessly on the GOP’s aversion to hearing witnesses and new evidence. “The perception that the Republicans can’t handle the truth” could cost them in November.
The Democrats need four Republican senators to “break with the president” in order to call witnesses, said Burgess Everett in Politico.com. So far, three have indicated a willingness: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. If witnesses are heard, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has said he will force votes on the president’s “preferred witnesses,” including Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and the whistleblower who revealed the Ukraine scandal. Some Senate Democrats are mulling a “witness trade”: one of the Bidens for Bolton, said Rachel Bade in The Washington Post. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) broached the idea at a “private GOP meeting.” But Joe Biden said he would not participate and turn the impeachment trial into “a farce or political theater,” and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Biden testimony was “off the table.”
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from Reuters, MLB, Getty ■