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OPINION

The Senate’s choice: Integrity or servility

The vote on witnesses will be a true test of Senate character.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell exited the Senate chamber during a short recess in the impeachment trial proceedings on Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell exited the Senate chamber during a short recess in the impeachment trial proceedings on Tuesday.Drew Angerer/Getty

Some votes are easy to take but difficult to justify if an elected official cares about integrity, reputation, or legacy. Others are hard to cast but can be defended with integrity intact and head held high.

The US Senate will soon face such a stark choice in the impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump. Will senators travel the low path of least political resistance or the difficult trail that requires rectitude?

They must decide in short order.

Unless this trial takes a strange turn, the opening-arguments phase should reinforce the general sense already abroad in the land. To wit, that Trump abused his power for personal advantage by using US military aid and the prospect of a White House meeting to prompt Ukraine to announce an unwarranted investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter. And that after his tawdry scheme came to light, the president obstructed the House investigation into the matter.

As Trump himself (bizarrely) bragged on Wednesday, the White House has “all the material” — that is, documents that could cast further light here. That’s due to the administration’s multi-front efforts to hide Trump’s tracks through a broad refusal to cooperate with the House investigation. That included everything from agencies rejecting requests for documents to administration officials declining to testify.

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Even before the trial began, most Americans believed Trump had committed an impeachable offense. Look for that majority to grow as the House impeachment managers finish presenting their case, something they have done with compelling clarity and a regular repetition of key points — a repetition obviously designed for an audience beyond the Senate.

So the first question that looms is this: Do senators vote to learn more by subpoenaing witnesses and documents? Or do they say no to witnesses and documents, and then vote to acquit as soon as they can?

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For GOP senators in strongly Republican states, the latter is the course of least political resistance. It keeps them on the correct side of hard-core Trump supporters, which means they can avoid that most terrifying of calamities, a primary challenge, and run safely for reelection.

But that course requires a plentitude of posturing, pretending, prevaricating, and, yes, pettifogging. It means not merely claiming the House hasn’t proved its case but also acting as though the Senate has no role of its own to play in pursuing the truth.

In a body where honor, integrity, and oaths still mattered, senators would reject that avenue out of hand. Sadly, however, this is majority leader Mitch McConnell’s United States Senate.

The more difficult route is for Republicans to insist that the Senate assert independent agency of its own by calling relevant witnesses and requesting pertinent documents.

That means letting the entire truth, no matter how damning, come out.

Mind you, that course doesn’t dictate a vote for conviction. A senator could ultimately argue that Trump’s conduct, however politically sleazy and self-serving, doesn’t rise to the dramatic level necessary to remove a duly elected president. That’s an argument you can easily imagine Democrats making if the tables were turned.

A senator could buttress that stand by noting the American people will have a chance to decide for themselves on removing this president in fewer than nine months. The latter argument works, however, only if senators first pursue the full facts through witnesses and documents. Otherwise, it’s an exercise in hypocrisy.

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So one way is difficult but defensible.

The other is a craven course that shows no respect for truth or superseding responsibility to the Constitution and nation.

It will soon be time for senators to choose their impeachment path — and with it, their own political legacy.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh