Today in the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump, senators submitted questions to presiding Chief Justice John Roberts, who read them aloud for either the House impeachment managers or the president’s lawyers to answer.
Over the course of the day, it became obvious that the defense didn’t feel the need to defend the president; they knew they have the votes to acquit him. So Republican senators and his lawyers continued to attack the Democrats and the Bidens, while Democrats and the House impeachment managers tried to shame the Republicans into defending the rule of law. It did not work. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) illustrated the Republican approach when he tried to get the Chief Justice to read aloud the name of the alleged whistleblower and a staffer on the House Intelligence Committee, accusing them of plotting together to impeach the president. At that, Roberts balked and declined to read it. So Paul simply went outside—although he was not supposed to leave the chamber—and read it to reporters.
As pressure mounted for Republican senators to permit testimony, it was not the president on trial today; it was the Senate. Although the Republicans’ initial position was that the president had not done what he had been accused of, the House managers made such a convincing case—and the president’s defense team hardly a defense at all—that by the end of today it was entirely clear Trump had, in fact, tried to steal the 2020 election by withholding vital military aid from Ukraine until its leaders announced an investigation into the Bidens. Indeed, it was so clear that Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander conceded everything. He even said Trump’s behavior was “inappropriate” and “undermines the principle of equal justice under the law.”
Indeed, it was so clear, Alexander said, there was no need for more witnesses, including John Bolton, whose testimony would simply prove what we already know.
But, Alexander went on to say, the president’s actions “do not meet the Constitution’s ‘treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors’ standard for an impeachable offense.” The answer, he says, is in the ballot box. (Since the whole point of the Ukraine Scandal was to cheat in the election, I am hugely suspicious of the Republican insistence on the ballot box as the solution to removing Trump.)
Alexander’s vote against allowing witnesses almost certainly means that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has the votes to reject witnesses and move quickly to acquit the president as soon as tomorrow or very early on Saturday morning, likely while most Americans are asleep. Tonight, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) said she would vote in favor of hearing witnesses, but this is almost certainly what they call a “hall pass,” meaning that because her constituents want witnesses and she is both up for re-election and vulnerable, McConnell is letting her vote yes and will not retaliate for that vote. It is possible, and I would actually guess likely considering the language Alexander used, that McConnell got Alexander to vote no so that Collins could vote yes. While the vote is not yet a done deal-- Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will not announce her decision until tomorrow morning—the outcome looks pretty certain.
This is where we are now. Few people thought the Republican-controlled Senate would convict the president, but I, anyway, thought they would acquit him after continuing to argue he was innocent. Instead, they have done something shocking. They have conceded that Trump did what he is accused of: he tried to smear his rival so he could win reelection in 2020, in a scheme that both apparently broke laws and also looks quite like what happened in 2016. But, they say, his actions do not constitute an impeachable offense.
While this might well have been the only way they could think of to get out from under the evidence the House had mustered, and away from calling witnesses after Bolton suggested he would testify that Trump had, in fact, done what the House alleged, the Senate has essentially said that Congress will not rein in the president no matter what he does. Trump, of course, has already said that the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want,” and Senate Republicans have now agreed. As the president’s lawyers made claims for his expansive power during the Senate trial, House impeachment manager Adam Schiff warned that we are witnessing “a descent into constitutional madness.”
When will Trump ask another leader for a favor? What will he withhold or offer in return? What will he do to cheat in 2020? How will he undercut his opponent? To which countries will he turn for help to win reelection? It is not in his make up to be chastened; rather, he will be emboldened. Trade deals, treaties, the use of our soldiers, cyberwarfare from Russia or Saudi Arabia… it is now all on the table.
And, interestingly, while everyone was watching the trial today, Attorney General William Barr moved to solidify his control over lingering investigations from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election by naming Timothy Shea, one of his chief counselors, as the interim U.S. Attorney for Washington D.C. (Remember Barr also has appointed his own investigator, John Durham, to look into the origins of the Russia investigation.) This office is in charge of the cases against former Trump advisor Roger Stone, former Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, and former national security advisor Michael Flynn. It is also in charge of the grand jury investigation into former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, and of an investigation into former FBI director James Comey, both of whom Trump saw as his enemies.
This means that Shea and Barr will be in charge of investigations that likely will make the news before the 2020 election.
Tonight, Adam Schiff tweeted: “After two and half centuries of our nation’s history, it’s come to this: The President’s lawyers argue on the Senate floor that he can withhold aid, coerce an ally, and try to cheat in an election, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Our Founders would be aghast.”
Our Founders certainly would be aghast. And the president's lawyers are wrong that there's nothing we can do about it. We can continue to insist on a free and fair vote and on the rule of law in America.