A Just Impeachment Trial Must Include Witness Testimony

It’s true what people say: impeachment is an inherently political process that doesn’t mirror a judicial trial. But that doesn’t mean that impeachment is a valid electoral strategy for a political party. A president should not be charged with impeachable offenses as part of some scheme to win or retain legislative seats. Similarly, a president should not be acquitted of impeachable offenses for reasons of political self-preservation. To drive home this point, the Constitution says: “The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation.” Essentially, the senators (who serve as the jurors in an impeachment trial) are told to swear to deliver impartial, nonpartisan justice.

Using this standard in our present circumstances can get a little tricky. What if, for example, a politician or an entire political party brazenly and unapologetically refuses to do impartial justice? Does that free up the other side to highlight this fact for their political benefit?

While Senate Majority Leader [Mitch] McConnell has locked up enough Republican votes to ignore demands for a bipartisan framework for President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, his Democratic counterpart is readying a counteroffensive. [Chuck] Schumer will force a series of votes designed to squeeze vulnerable Republicans and harm them on the campaign trail if they side with Trump.

Democrats argue the half-dozen at-risk GOP senators will need some daylight between them and Trump to get reelected. And if they vote against Schumer’s motions to hear new evidence and witness testimony, they’ll be seen as Trump sycophants — undermining their bids and boosting Schumer’s odds of becoming majority leader.

If the argument is framed this way, it’s not a great look for Chuck Schumer. What I don’t understand, however, is why the story is being presented this way and why there is not more pushback from the Democratic side.

After all, what’s under discussion here is not a bunch of poison amendments intended solely to cause the other side political pain and embarrassment. Schumer’s motions will get right to the heart of what it means to have a fair trial and do impartial justice. There’s no reason why he would refrain from offering these motions simply to avoid causing political pain to his opponents.

What the Democrats should be arguing is that they are asking for evidence that is important to establishing the guilt or innocence of the president, as well as what the proportional or appropriate response should be from the Senate. What they should not be emphasizing is this:

“If the Republicans ram through process that ultimately leads to no witnesses, I think they do it at their own peril,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a former chairman of the party’s campaign arm. “Some of these members: They have an audience of one. But I think they forgot that there’s a broader audience that they’re going to have to face at election time.”

Or this:

Support for obtaining new documents at the trial is “even stronger than we thought, with large numbers of Republicans supporting it,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview. “And when you go against what the American people feel strongly about, on an issue they’re paying attention to, it’s not a good idea.”

What Senator Bob Menendez and Minority Leader Schumer are saying is possibly good political advice for some Republican senators, but it isn’t what they should be emphasizing. When they fall into this trap, it makes Senator Lindsey Graham look almost credible:

“Everybody believes Sen. Schumer’s going to play a game with impeachment to try and get back the Senate,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is also up for reelection. “He wakes up every day trying to be the majority leader.”

The most vulnerable Democratic senator up for reelection in 2020 is Doug Jones of Alabama, and he gets the message correct:

“It’s a popular issue across America. I’ve not heard any blowback from it. Why wouldn’t someone want to hear from witnesses with firsthand information?” asked Doug Jones of Alabama, the most vulnerable Democratic senator facing reelection. He said not a single constituent “has said that’s an unreasonable position.”

I don’t think vulnerable Republican senators need the benefit of being warned about the potential fallout of signing off on a sham trial. As a pressure technique to convince them to do the right thing, it’s probably counterproductive because it makes them look like they’re afraid and caving in to Democratic demands. As for helping to bring more public pressure on these senators, it’s not helpful to make it look like the point here is to win seats in the next election.

So, yes, you can never take the politics out of impeachment, but you can still get the politics all wrong. The goal here is to remove a president who is seeking foreign assistance in his reelection bid and politicizing our foreign aid in the process. Getting witness testimony at the trial is an absolute prerequisite for that happening if there is any possibility of it happening at all. The best argument for witnesses is that they’re required to get to the full truth. The American people agree with this, so why not stick to those talking points rather than talking about the political benefit that will come if Republicans refuse to do what the American people want?

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com