Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, December 13, 2019 4:30 pm

Want to know how crooked the Senate Republicans are? Here’s how crooked the Senate Republicans are.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear that Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial will be a sham. That would mean that Republican senators would be violating the Constitution, their existing and upcoming oaths to support the Constitution, and the Senate’s own rules. When that happens, Democrats must hold not just Republican senators but all Republican candidates accountable across the board.

With the full House of Representatives scheduled to vote Wednesday on the two articles of impeachment against Donald Trump, The Washington Post has reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republicans plan on “holding a short impeachment trial early next year that would include no witnesses,” with an immediate vote to acquit.

That would mean that all the witnesses who testified before the House Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs committees in recent weeks would not be able to repeat their testimonies in a Senate trial. It also means that Donald Trump would be unable to call witnesses in his own defense; he has said he wants to call House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, former Vice President Joe Biden, Biden’s son Hunter, and possibly other witnesses. This would be to create a narrative suggesting that rather than abusing his office to try to get Ukraine to announce a corruption probe of the Bidens, as one article of impeachment alleges, Trump actually was urging Ukraine to investigate alleged corruption on the part of the Bidens, the younger of whom sat on the board of a Ukrainian business.

But Republicans, the Post says, would rather just reject the articles and go home.

Can they do that? Probably; Article I, Sec. 3, clause 6 of the Constitution gives the Senate the sole power to try cases of impeachment. Chief Justice John Roberts would preside, but unless an actual lawyer wants to argue otherwise, it looks to me as if the Senate can do as they damned well please in this regard. (That said, I think Roberts would be fine with the Republicans’ plans anyway; he almost always is. His reputation for caring about his and the Supreme Court’s places in history have always struck me as overblown.)

But there’s something else that affects this dynamic, something Senate Republicans really hope you don’t know about: the Senate Rules in Impeachment Trials. This article in The Bulwark helpfully explains how and why the Framers decided that the Senate, rather than the Supreme Court, should try impeachment cases, and how those rules come into play:

Hamilton reported that the Court lacked the political fortitude to weather the storm that would attend any verdict: the Court’s legitimacy as a final tribunal for ordinary legal disputes would be undermined if it took on the issue of high politics as well. The Court might be able to mitigate partisanship, but it would risk its own legitimacy in doing so.

The Senate, on the other hand, was a more promising venue because it was a political body, but not as tightly tethered to factionalism and political passion as the House. It was designed to take a longer view and was therefore a promising site for such extraordinary trials.

But, you say, today’s Senate is tightly tethered to factionalism. And you’re right. But the Framers thought about that, too:

The idea was that rather than lowering the Supreme Court down to high politics, the Senate would be raised up. To raise the Senate up to the demands of high politics, the Framers decided that the Senate would need to recompose itself into a new institution—an impeachment court. (Emphasis in the original — Lex)

This transformation was serious enough that senators would have to take a new oath of office.

According to Article I, section 3, clause 6 of the Constitution, senators, when sitting on a trial of impeachment, “shall be on Oath or Affirmation.” When they are elected to the Senate, all senators swear a general Oath to uphold the Constitution.

But the Oath taken in an impeachment trial is different. It is a juror’s oath and a judge’s oath—not a legislator’s oath. Rule XXV of the Senate Rules in Impeachment Trials provides the text: “I solemnly swear (or affirm) that in all things appertaining to the trial of ____, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God.”

For an impeachment trial of a president, the chief justice of the Supreme Court presides. He can be overruled by a majority vote of the other judges/jurors—which is to say the senators. But it is vital to remember that the Constitution asks them to remember that they are not sitting as senators, but now as judges and jurors.

So much so that for this brief period the senators are all equal. For the course of the trial the roles of Majority and Minority Leader, President Pro Tem, Committee Chairs, Whips, and so forth no longer exist. For the duration of the trial the Senate is a literally new institution with new rules, new norms, and new responsibilities.

The more people who understand that, the more people will see that any attempt by Senate Republicans not to have a full and fair airing of the facts — or to acquit Donald Trump in the face of these facts — is constitutionally flawed and violates the Senate’s own impeachment rules. Democrats need to point that out in real time during the trial as well as afterwards.

And afterwards, Democrats in every 2020 race, from president down to dogcatcher, need to hang that corruption, that violated oath, like a putrescent albatross carcass around the neck of not just every Republican senator, but every Republican running for office in 2020, from Dump down to dogcatcher.

I am not optimistic that Democrats will win the White House in 2020. I think it’s entirely possible that the Democratic nominee can win the popular vote by 5 million and still lose the Electoral College through a combination of Russian sabotage, hacked voting machines, and GOP vote suppression in key swing states including North Carolina. But if there’s a way to win this election by a margin too big to steal, this is it.

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