The trial of President Trump began amid unnecessary drama on Tuesday, with senators bickering for long hours about how to conduct proceedings that could result in the president’s removal from office. Trump has been impeached by the House of Representatives for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, triggering only the third Senate trial of a president in the 231 years since the Constitution went into effect.
Previous presidential trials provide some guidance on how senators should proceed, but common sense provides even more: Trials need to be, well, trials. For the proceeding to be fair — and perceived as fair — the Senate needs to hear all the evidence of misconduct compiled by the House; it needs to hear sworn testimony from witnesses; it needs to hear a full defense from the president. It doesn’t matter how senators take all those steps, as long as they do.
The House, meanwhile, can put some pressure on the Senate by making clear that if the Senate doesn’t call witnesses like Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, then it will subpoena them. Someday, the country will know the full story about the president’s efforts to use US military aid to extort Ukraine into helping him politically. Senators should want those revelations to happen during the trial they conduct, and not later. The credibility of the institution is on the line; if later developments show the Senate trial was a farce, that’s a legacy that senators won’t be able to erase — and even one that could cost some of them their seats.
The rules proposed by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on Monday night, and amended slightly during debate on Tuesday, don’t guarantee that outcome — but don’t preclude it either. Basically, the GOP leader proposed to punt the tough decisions until later in the trial, while providing GOP senators plenty of opportunities to grandstand for their base. For instance, the rules allow senators to move to dismiss the case; they lack the votes to get that done right now, but calling for it can generate grist for their TV ads.
The rules could portend a sham, as Democrats fear, or a compromise to straddle the divisions within the GOP. Democrats tried to change the rules Tuesday to include subpoenas of White House documents and calls for witnesses, and expressed outrage when Senate Republicans turned aside those amendments. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who is perceived as one of the Republicans most interested in a fair trial, said Democrats were overreacting, since witnesses could still be called after the trial begins. “If everything is an outrage, then nothing is an outrage,” he said.
Maybe. But now that the trial has begun, the Senate and the presiding officer, Chief Justice John Roberts, must ensure that witnesses and evidence are actually heard. It’s up to them to now prove this trial is not the outrage that Democrats fear. If they do, then Americans will quickly forget about these procedural skirmishes. But if McConnell’s rules are the prelude to a travesty, then Romney and the rest of the senators who approve them will have abdicated the responsibilities they swore an oath to uphold. If that happens, House leaders should make good on their threat to summon witnesses and evidence — and make sure the country learns the truth about its president, and the Republicans who enabled him, before the election.
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