The presidency of Donald J. Trump will always have an asterisk next to it denoting impeachment. So too will the Senate trial resulting in his acquittal, in the minds of millions of Americans. Friday’s vote to call additional witnesses failed 51-49, largely on along party lines. The two Republican Senators (Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine) were not enough to sway to two additional defectors in ensuring that the Senate trial featured witnesses. Trump’s defenders clung to his talking point that there were no firsthand accounts of President Trump tying Ukrainian military aid to investigations into the Bidens in an effort to boost he reelection bid.
According to former National Security Adviser, John Bolton’s forthcoming book, The Room Where It Happened, Trump told him he desired to block military aid until the country announced an investigation into his political rival. With Friday’s vote, 51 Senators made it clear they didn’t want to hear from Bolton in a public forum.
15 impeachment trials of government officials have occurred in United States history. Each has featured witnesses in public or private. Early last week it looked as though that precedent was to remain intact. Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, speaking to reporters on Monday night acknowledged he didn’t have the necessary votes to block witnesses. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, Romney and Collins were considered to be the most likely ‘’yea’’ votes to call witnesses, which needed only a simple majority to pass. Alexander, 79 and retiring, announced on Wednesday night that he had decided to vote against calling witnesses. Perhaps most disheartening was his rationale, that Democrats have proven their case, but he needn’t hear more because Trump’s offenses are not impeachable.
A Quinnipiac poll prior to the vote found that 75% of Americans favored hearing from more witnesses in the trial. After Alexander towed the party line, it hardly mattered. Lisa Murkowski followed suit and the GOP had the votes it needed to prevent further, likely very incriminating, testimony against Trump. Only Romney and Collins broke rank in favor of an exhaustive trial.
Acclaimed writer and muckraker, Upton Sinclar, once said ‘’it is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding.” That’s likely the simplest explanation for the anti-witness vote. In a Republican party co-opted by Trump, Senators representing states where he remains popular take great political risk just criticizing Trump, let alone advocating for his removal from office. It’s little wonder GOP members haven’t contemplated (at least publicly) the danger in enabling this type of behavior from the Executive Branch.
John Bolton has expressed a willingness to testify after threatening to sue the House of Representatives if subpoenaed. The one missing piece from the House Manager’s compelling case for removal is first-hand testimony from someone who heard Trump express his intentions towards Ukraine and the aid. Bolton is in a position to fill in that remaining blank according to reports about his memoir. As former National Security Adviser, Trump confidant and conservative icon, his testimony would be difficult to dismiss as unreliable or politically motivated. This undoubtedly occurred to the 51 Republican Senators who voted for a trial without witnesses. This would not prevent the House from subpoenaing Bolton independent of the trial, or Bolton holding a press conference to announce Trump attempted to enlist him in putting the squeeze on Ukraine, but it will keep the bombshell revelations from the official record of this trial.
The vote against further evidence may have been taken with Bolton in mind, but his is not the only relevant information to be deliberately omitted from the proceedings. Indicted Giuliani/Trump associate Lev Parnas has hurled a bevy of accusations at the president publicly and submitted numerous documents to the House. If the bare crux of his assertions are to be believed, he was involved in the scandal in a fundamental, catalytic fashion and positioned to be the fall guy. He kept insurance in the form of documents and text messages detailing his nefarious activities, allegedly at the direction and to the benefit of the president of the United States. Parnas is no doubt an unsavory and self-serving character, but his allegations should deem them worthy of consideration. If this trial were held in the interest of justice, they would be.
In perhaps the most brazen instance of obstruction, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice stated just hours after the vote to quash additional witnesses and documents that it had two dozen redacted emails related to his role in the freeze on security assistance to Ukraine. The Center for Public Integrity requested the emails through the Freedom of Information Act. Lawyers for the Office of Management and Budget argued that the emails are protected by presidential privilege as they relate to ‘’decision-making about the scope, duration, and purpose of the hold on military assistance to Ukraine.’’ Since the impeachment inquiry began, many defenses of Trump in lieu of hard evidence, have involved not knowing what the president was thinking. By the Executive Branch’s own lawyers reasoning, those emails could clear up a lot of questions of intent. Perhaps the aforementioned emails are what Trump had in mind when he bragged two weeks ago that ‘’We have all the material. They don’t have the material.’’
American democracy, and our system of checks and balances was dealt a significant blow with Friday’s vote. Donald Trump is not the first Executive to act corruptly and abuse his authority. He certainly won’t be the last. With what feels like a neutralization of the Constitution’s impeachment clause, it begs the question of if and how a similarly misbehaving president will be held to account. In the future, if a corrupt president enjoys the support of the majority of the House or Senate, will impeachment even be viable given the precedents set in this trial? Richard Nixon resigned in the face of certain removal from office largely stemming from crimes intended to aid his reelection chances. Trump and his cohorts may not have committed any statutory crimes, but the president did invite foreign interference in the 2020 election in an effort to boost his chances of remaining in office; just as he did in 2016, just as he said he would do again on national television in the summer of 2019. A number of Trump’s enablers have acknowledged that he acted inappropriately in regard to Ukraine, but that his conduct doesn’t warrant impeachment. Such an admission is tantamount to saying ‘’yes he attempted to cheat the voting box in the upcoming election by blackmailing a vulnerable ally, but he can’t be removed for it.”
To hear previously renowned Constitutional Scholar Alan Dershowitz tell it, a president who believes his reelection is in the national interest, is acting in that interest in furthering his prospect of reelection, and thus cannot be corrupt. By that rationale, any demagogic incompetent occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, need only lack enough self-awareness to realize his reelection is to the benefit of the nation and he is not acting corruptly. As House Manager Adam Schiff said numerous times in response to asinine defenses of Trump this is ‘’dangerous nonsense.’’ Trump’s lawyer’s and numerous allies in Congress implored the Senate to let the people decide in November. Yes the people should decide, but should the next President go off the reservation, what mechanism will we use to hold him or her accountable.