It’s difficult not to bring your own political biases to the impeachment trial of President Trump.
Difficult, but not impossible.
As we citizens of this constitutional democracy watch the Senate proceedings, step for a moment into a Rawlsian thought experiment aimed at stripping away the political prejudice partisanship imparts.
Rawlsian as in John Rawls, the influential 20th-century philosopher who came up with a mode of thought designed to promote clear, unbiased evaluation: the veil of ignorance.
To Rawls, the best way to design a just society or render a fair judgment was to approach a matter as if you didn’t know your race or sex or socio-economic position. That way, you are most likely to arrive at a conclusion free of personal considerations or biases.
So let’s apply that veil to impeachment.
Pretend for a moment you don’t know either your own political party or that of a president being tried by the Senate.
Assume that this politically anonymous chief executive is credibly accused of withholding foreign aid to a country under siege, and using the prospect of a White House meeting to try to leverage the announcement of an investigation into a political rival. Further stipulate that the president in question ordered the executive branch not to cooperate with the House’s impeachment investigation, the result of which was that agencies declined to produce requested documents and an array of administration officials refused to comply with subpoenas.
Add to the equation a ruling by the Government Accountability Office that in freezing the congressionally authorized foreign aid, the administration had violated the law.
Further note that the president’s personal attorney, claiming to be acting with the “knowledge and authorization of the president,” sought a meeting with the president of the country in question, apparently to push for the aforementioned investigation. Also include that, in a bizarre twist, one of that lawyer’s associates had texted with a man purporting to be surveilling the US ambassador to that country, who was viewed as an impediment to the investigation scheme.
Further posit that the politically anonymous president had shown a disdain for the constitutional norms and political niceties that undergird our governance. Assume he had declared that Article II of the Constitution meant he could do whatever he wanted. And that he had made it clear that, in his attorney general, he wanted not an impartial chief law enforcement officer but rather a loyalist who would protect him and investigate his enemies.
Knowing all that — but again, not knowing your own party affiliation or that of the president in question — how would you view his behavior?
Perhaps none of it would concern you. If so, you might be better suited to be the subject of a king than a citizen in a free republic.
Yet I doubt most citizens would agree with such a president that impeachment was naught but a witch hunt — particularly if it was well documented that this president regularly made false or deceptive claims.
I suspect most citizens, if they honestly applied the terms of this thought experiment, would want everything to come out in this impeachment process, the better to learn the extent of the president’s possible misdeeds.
I expect that concerned citizens — citizens who know that if constitutional norms aren’t protected, a democracy can decay into a mockery — would be outraged if senators contrived excuses to keep from hearing from relevant witnesses.
Do you agree?
If, in this Rawlsian rumination, you would want the United States Senate to use an impeachment trial to resolutely pursue the truth, do you also want that in our real-world situation?
And if not, why not?