Can a divided Senate do its constitutional duty?

The country now waits to see if senators, in this badly divided nation, can live up to their oath.

Presiding officer Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts swore in members of the Senate for the impeachment trial against President Trump on Jan. 16.
Presiding officer Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts swore in members of the Senate for the impeachment trial against President Trump on Jan. 16.Associated Press

The historic impeachment trial of President Trump for “high crimes and misdemeanors” in the Oval Office is about to begin on Tuesday, only the third such proceeding in the nation’s history. All Senators, regardless of party affiliation, have sworn to deliver “impartial justice according to the Constitution and the laws.” In a tradition-bound ritual last week, the senators signed a ceremonial “oath book,” one by one, certifying their pledge for posterity.

The country now waits to see if senators, in this badly divided nation, can live up to their oath of impartiality and conduct the sober process envisioned by the Founders. At the conclusion of the trial, they must decide whether to remove the president. That would require a two-thirds vote. The conviction and removal of a president has never happened in American history, but by including that possibility in the Constitution the Founders made clear that they thought that someday it might become necessary.


To live up to the judgment of history, and the expectations of the Founders, means opening up the trial to witnesses with direct knowledge of the allegations against Trump, including, at minimum, John Bolton, the president’s former national security advisor; Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s private attorney; Attorney General William Barr; and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. It also means allowing the president and his lawyers to mount whatever defense they feel is appropriate.

Trump stands accused of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The two articles of impeachment approved by the House of Representatives in December relate to the president’s withholding of nearly $400 million in military aid and a White House meeting as a way to pressure Ukraine, an Eastern European country that is reliant on American security assistance to fend off Russian aggression. Trump wanted Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden, one of the president’s main Democratic challengers, and his son Hunter Biden, who worked for a Ukrainian company when his father was vice president. Using taxpayer money as leverage, the president sought to prod a foreign country into meddling in American politics. That’s an astonishing betrayal of his presidential oath to work on behalf of the nation, not himself. As Representative Adam Schiff of California, the lead House prosecutor in the trial, put it, “President Trump used the powers of the presidency in a manner that compromised the national security of the United States and undermined the integrity of the United States democratic process.” In addition to an abuse of power, the Government Accountability Office has concluded that withholding the Ukraine aid was also illegal.


During the House’s investigation, the Trump administration blocked witnesses, some with direct knowledge of the president’s actions, from speaking to House investigators. The administration also refused to turn over documents subpoenaed by the House. The president’s stonewalling led to the second charge against him, of obstructing Congress from exercising its constitutional duty. It also left a question: If Trump is as innocent as he tweets, why not cooperate with the inquiry? If there are witnesses who can truly exonerate him, why not call them?

Bolton has said he’s willing to testify under oath. That should happen. As an ad campaign launched by Republicans for the Rule of Law, declares, “Americans deserve the truth. Let Bolton testify.” Giuliani associate Parnas, now under indictment for campaign finance violations, also told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that Bolton was a “key witness" to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. He said Bolton knew “100 percent” about the administration’s efforts to pressure Ukraine.


Based on his MSNBC interview, Parnas should also be called as a witness. Pressed by Maddow, he called this out as the main lie being perpetrated against Americans: “That the president didn’t know what was going on. President Trump knew exactly what was going on,” Parnas said. Mulvaney and Barr appear to have direct knowledge of the extent of Trump’s involvement as well, and should be called to testify.

Last week, the president added Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr to his legal team. The president has every right to defend himself against the charges, but the Senate and Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial, mustn’t allow him to turn the proceedings into a circus. For instance, some Republicans are fixated on calling Hunter Biden as a witness. Unless he has direct knowledge of Trump’s actions toward Ukraine in 2019, Biden’s testimony would add nothing to the case for or against the president.

The charges against Trump are serious, and how the Senate responds to them will shape the legal and ethical restraints on future presidents. If senators decide that presidents can divert taxpayer money for their political benefit, it is our system of government that suffers. The Constitution is only as good as our willingness to defend it, and now is the time for the men and women of the Senate to live up to their oaths.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.