This is what impeachment looks like when the president's party wants it all to go away
Democrats and Republicans spent much of Tuesday clashing over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed rules for the impeachment trial. McConnell proposed a set of rules that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and California Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager for the Democrats, claimed are designed to stymie evidence from being presented. The outline calls for the trial to take place over just three days, and for the question of whether witnesses should be called to be subject to a vote. Most Republicans have indicated that they will vote against doing so, ignoring potentially crucial testimony from central characters like John Bolton.
This is what impeachment looks like when the president’s party is able to game the system to reduce his legal exposure. The most likely outcome, based on what Republicans have been saying about their intentions to acquit, is that people following along casually will see that Trump hasn’t been convicted and will think he’s been vindicated. That’s perfect for Republicans, who are counting on the American people not looking too closely at the details.
In his opening statement Tuesday, Schiff claimed that McConnell’s intent is to “just have the trial so we can all sweep this under the rug.” McConnell meanwhile has defended his plan for the impeachment by claiming it’s modeled off of President Bill Clinton’s 1999 trial, the only other modern-era impeachment. “What was good enough for President Clinton in an impeachment trial should have been good enough for President Trump,” McConnell said at a press conference, according to The New York Times. “And all we are doing here is saying we are going to get started in exactly the same way that 100 senators agreed to 20 years ago.”
In short, the entire argument phase of the trial would happen without evidence — which seems to call into question how it can even be considered much of a trial at all.
Late Monday, McConnell released a draft of his resolution laying out the trial’s rules, and it does in fact share some broad similarities with the 1999 trial. But the differences are critical. Crucially, McConnell wants the pace of the trial to be rapidly sped up. Both the Clinton impeachment and McConnell’s proposed trial rules for Trump establish the same order for proceedings: opening statements, questioning, and then a vote on allowing evidence and witnesses. This time around, though, McConnell wants the entire thing to take place over the course of three days. In 1999, there was no limit as to how long the trial could last — not to mention the fact that calling for 24 hours of opening statements plus 16 hours of questioning over a three-day period inevitably means much of the trial will take place late into the night.
McConnell’s plan means that this entire bleak affair could be wrapped up by the end of the week. The White House liaison to congress, Eric Ueland, said in a statement that the White House legal team was “gratified that the draft resolution protects the president’s rights to a fair trial.”
After the initial three days of opening statements, arguments, and questioning are concluded, the Senate will debate whether or not to allow witnesses. Most Republicans have claimed that they aren’t interested in hearing from witnesses, as they believe that the entire impeachment effort is illegitimate. If most Republicans vote not to allow witnesses or evidence, as is expected — only a simple majority is required to decide this vote — then the entire impeachment trial will be concluded by the end of the month. The key question is whether enough moderates will defect in order to force McConnell’s hand, thus opening the door for potentially critical witnesses like Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, to be subpoenaed.
Schumer claimed that the rule changes are evidence of a “cover up” by Senate Republicans eager to make the entire thing go away. McConnell’s rules will push the trial into “the wee hours of the night,” he added, implying a desire from Republicans to hide the proceedings from public view. The Senate already voted Tuesday afternoon against subpoenaing documents from the White House in a strictly party-line vote, with all Republicans voting to not seek the additional information.
Adding fuel to the fire of Democratic frustrations, McConnell’s initial draft of the rules would not have permitted the evidence gathered by the House to be used in the trial without a vote first. In 1999, all of the House’s evidence was printed out and shared with all senators right at the outset of the trial. Per McConnell’s draft, though, the evidence would have only been formally admitted if a majority of senators voted to allow it. Not only that, but the vote would’ve come only after the Senate voted on whether to interview witnesses, and would have separately required a majority. Given that McConnell said repeatedly that he would not allow further subpoenas for the Senate trial because Democrats should have to stand by the case made by the House, it was a maddening proposal to then declare that the House’s case would not be automatically admitted.
In short, the entire argument phase of the trial would happen without evidence — which seems to call into question how it can even be considered much of a trial at all. Democrats deemed McConnell’s plan to be an attempt to conduct a trial without allowing the American people to hear what sparked impeachment in the first place. “Under this resolution, Senator McConnell is saying he doesn’t want to hear any of the existing evidence, and he doesn’t want to hear any new evidence,” Schumer said.
On Tuesday, with the beginnings of the trial just underway, McConnell backtracked, allowing two concessions to the Democrats to be hand-written into a new draft resolution. The first change was to extend arguments to three days, rather than the original two-day allottment — although each side will still only have 24 hours to make their case. Furthermore, all of the House evidence will be automatically admitted at the start of the trial so that the proceedings track more closely with the Clinton precedent.
All told, though, these are trivial concessions, considering that most Republicans appear to have already made up their mind about dismissing the case before even considering evidence. Even three days, rather than two, might still not be long enough to present the evidence that the House spent weeks gathering. And the lack of witnesses means that critical additional evidence may never come to light. Still, the compromises are an indication that McConnell is feeling at least some degree of pressure to give the appearance of a fair trial. Whether that will lead to justice for the American people remains to be seen.
On Tuesday, Schiff urged that the Senate allow a fair trial in his opening remarks. "You have all now sworn an oath,” he said. “Not to each other, not to your legislative leadership, not to the managers or even to the chief justice. You have sworn an oath to do 'impartial justice.' That oath binds you … and that oath requires a fair trial."