Let the Senate Impeachment Trial be Swift

The Constitution says that the Senate, “shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.” The immediate question before us is when? Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially said that she will hold up delivering their two articles of impeachment to the Senate until the democrats know what the rules will be. Reality is that the rules will be what the Republicans want, no matter how long Pelosi hangs back.

In Bill Clinton’s Presidential Impeachment Senate Trial, leaders of both parties met and hammered out an agreement on the rules, which the Senate passed unanimously even though the Republicans had two more Senators than they do now. It’s not the number of Republicans in the Senate that is shaping this trial, it’s the intensity of loyalty to Trump that is endangering any bi-partisan path forward.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel told Fox News he was “taking my cues” from the White House and “There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position …” in shaping the trial. Trump has tweeted that the effort to remove him from office is an “attempted coup.” That is a pretty strong cue that McConnel will not be reaching an agreement with the Democrats on the Senate’s trial procedures.

If no agreement is reached, McConnel only needs 51 Senate Republicans to pass a resolution governing the proceedings, as long as they do not alter the current established Senate rules, which were applied to the Clinton Impeachment. Changing those rules would take two-thirds, or 67 votes, to pass.

Defining the difference between the two sets of rules is up to the trial’s Presiding Officer, which would be Chief Justice John Roberts. According to Adam White, a director at George Mason University’ Law School Chief Justice, John Roberts “is very, very wary of the courts being seen as being brought into a political process” and will keep a low profile. But will he be pulled into the spotlight given the probable intensity that the trial could ignite over any of his rulings?

An example of how this conflict played out in the last impeachment was when a senator wanted the Senate doors open during their deliberations. The presiding officer then, Chief Justice Rehnquist ruled that 67 votes would be needed given “consistent practice of the Senate for the last 130 years in impeachment trials.” The motion failed to get the 67- vote majority. And the doors remained closed. What would happen if Chief Justice Roberts makes a ruling that a certain motion requires 67 votes and the Republican’s strongly disagree? They could insist that only a majority vote is needed to overrule his decision, contending that their motion could be reasonably reconciled with the Senate rules. Would Roberts choose to simply defer to whatever 51 senators wish to do, even if it changes an establish Senate rule?

The current Senate rules according to Hilary Hurd and Benjamin Wittes, in a Law Fare Blog this December, are weirdly detailed, even specifying speeches and specific times of day when things must be said and done, and yet it offers no rules of evidence or standards of proof, which could be determined solely by the Republicans. That leaves them controlling the trial’s content used to determne if Trump violated his oath of office.

Although the word “trial” is used, this is not a criminal or civil trial. It is a political trial. There does not need to be a violation of a criminal code, only the belief by two-thirds of the Senate members that a president is guilty of the House’s charges. With Republican leaders repeating Trump’s “this is a witch hunt” description of the House impeachment, there is no likely outcome that two-thirds of the Senate will remove Trump from office.

So why have a trial, that isn’t a real trial? Because the real jury is the public not the Senate. In fact, the Senate is not a jury so much as an active player in the trial. While they cannot speak and must sit and listen, any member can submit written requests to the Chief Justice, to ask questions of those testifying or make motions to change procedures. More importantly, the majority of Senators (51) can introduce new procedures at any time, as long as they do not change established rules.

Unlike common trials, this historical event will be to televised, with the exception of the deliberations, assuring that this will be a “show” trial. Each party will have to calibrate their strategies based on how the public perceives their honesty and diligence in pursuing a just conclusion. The facts supporting or dismissing the two articles of impeachment, will influence a far smaller portion of the public than the behavior of the parties.

And the public has been watching. Throughout the weeks of congressional impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, 62% of adults in a December Washington Post-ABC News poll said they had closely or somewhat followed it. The respondents were not asked if they were registered voters or if they voted recently, so it is possible that among that set of people there could be a higher percentage who followed the hearings.

McConnel seems to understand this dynamic, even if he did make a critical mistake telling Fox News, he was going to run the Trial in accordance with Trump’s interests. That lost him creditability. He tried to salvage it, in his reply to Senator Minority Leader Democrat Chuck Schumer’s request for live testimony from White House staff that Trump refused to allow to appear before the House Committees. Rather than just swatting Schumer down, he said in essence not at this time, leaving open the possibility of it occurring later. Although that would most likely not happen, he was aiming to project an image of fairness.

In that same frame of mind, he has opposed some of his Republicans suggesting that the Senate immediately dismiss any impeachment articles they receive. That would be a gift to the Democrats and would serve to amplify their characterization of the Senate Republicans as abandoning their responsibilities. Particularly since the Senate has never declined to hold a trial in the 19 previous cases in which a federal officeholder was impeached, In similar fashion, Pelosi could overplay her hand by indefinitely withholding the delivery of the impeachment articles to the Senate. That would work to the Republican’s benefit for the same underlying public perception; the Democrats would be shirking their duty.

The stakes are high for both parties in how this trial is seen. According to the above December poll, the public is just about evenly divided. Those favoring impeaching Trump and removing him from office are at 49%, those opposed are at 46%.The numbers didn’t move from October’s poll. So, the hearings had practically no influence. A short Senate trial would seem to have the same result. However, could a longer one with testimony and additional evidence move the dial either way? I doubt it. Unless there is a strong testimony quoting Trump delivering a straightforward command to get information to influence the 2020 election, each side will rely on the same arguments that they have been making for the last three months.

That poll also revealed a critical difference in the public view of Clinton versus Trump. It showed that only 33% believed Clinton should have been impeached and removed from office, with 64% believing he should not have been . That comparison is comparable to Clinton’s 70% approval rate at the time of his impeachment, with Trump’s steady low 40% approval rate.

Trump is not popular. However, a lengthy trial, without a damning quote from Trump, will allow him to play the victim, which he is a master of portraying himself as. The sympathy vote could turn out the critical independent voters, who are less ideologically oriented than either republicans or democrats, to vote against the “mean” democrats and hurt their chances for winning the Senate and retaining their majority rule in the House.

Bottom line is to let the Republicans run a quick phony trial. They will satisfy their base, but not sway the independents, because they will be repeating the same boring points they have been making. That will deny Trump the victim role he desperately needs to play. And it will allow the Democrats to characterize the Republicans as being subservient to an ineffective leader who is more concerned with his political future than the country’s needs.

Nick Licata is author of Becoming A Citizen Activist, and has served 5 terms on the Seattle City Council, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials.