/2020 Elections: President Trump Deserves a Real Trial
2020 Elections: President Trump Deserves a Real Trial

2020 Elections: President Trump Deserves a Real Trial

2020 Elections:

Mitch McConnell’s plan to rush to an acquittal is an affront to the Constitution and a disservice to the nation.

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Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

With its Wednesday night vote to impeach President Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the House of Representatives — or at least its Democratic majority — fulfilled its duty to uphold the constitutional principle of checks and balances.

On Thursday morning, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, reported that her office had been hearing from Americans who had “a spring in their step” because, at long last, “the president was held accountable.”

If only it were so.

The House’s impeachment vote was far from the final word on presidential accountability. The action is now poised to move to the Republican-controlled Senate, which holds the authority to conduct a trial to determine whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office. Unfortunately, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, appears to have little interest in fulfilling his responsibility to the Constitution or the American people.

Dismissing the House inquiry as “rushed and rigged,” Mr. McConnell warned in a speech Thursday on the Senate floor that taking the House’s case seriously was a risk to the Republic. “If the Senate blesses this slapdash impeachment, if we say that from now on this is enough, then we invite an endless parade of impeachable trials,” he said. “The Senate must put this right.”

This is the kind of through-the-looking-glass logic that is a signature of Mr. Trump’s style, and, like everything else about him, increasingly of his party’s: accuse your rival of the transgression you yourself are committing.

Democrats are understandably disturbed by Mr. McConnell’s stated intent to conduct a trial that is quick and superficial — slapdash, to coin a term — with an outcome not only preordained but pre-announced. Looking to slow the rush to injustice, Ms. Pelosi took the unorthodox step of announcing that she would not send the articles of impeachment to the Senate until she had a clearer sense of whether the trial would be conducted fairly. “The next thing for us will be when we see the process that is set forth in the Senate, then we’ll know the number of managers that we may have to go forward, and whom we would choose,” she explained Thursday, referring to the impeachment managers she will designate to present the case.

The speaker did not hide her lack of confidence in Mr. McConnell. “Our founders, when they wrote the Constitution, they suspected that there could be a rogue president,” she said. “I don’t think they suspected that we could have a rogue president and a rogue leader in the Senate at the same time.”

Ideally, the rules of a Senate trial are negotiated between the leadership of both parties and then voted on by lawmakers, with a simple majority of 51 votes needed to pass. In the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, the basic rules passed 100 to 0. A separate agreement concerning witnesses later passed along more partisan lines, allowing for the presentation of videotaped rather than live testimony.

This time, Mr. McConnell is disinclined to have any witnesses testify at all. His goal is to keep the trial as perfunctory as possible, based on the president’s and the Republicans’ insistence that the process has been illegitimate and should be dispatched as quickly as possible. He has suggested that he will ram through the rules on a partisan vote if he and the Senate’s Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, do not reach an agreement.

Even the president’s legal team has expressed concerns about Mr. McConnell’s approach. The White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, has observed that, by refusing to conduct a proper trial, Mr. McConnell removes the possibility of additional information being presented that could exonerate Mr. Trump. But due process and exoneration are not the majority leader’s concern. A swift acquittal is.

In an open letter to Mr. McConnell on Sunday, Mr. Schumer called for a more serious trial, complete with crucial witnesses and additional documents that, thus far, the White House has refused to provide. Mr. McConnell promptly attacked Mr. Schumer for airing his request publicly in advance of their private negotiations.

It is a central puzzle of the impeachment process so far: If, as the president claims, he did not try to withhold congressionally mandated aid to force Ukraine to meddle in the 2020 election, why won’t he allow any senior administration officials to testify about his actions and clear him? This puzzle only grows more vexing as the case nears the Senate, where Republican control could surely provide Mr. Trump the fair hearing he insisted the House wouldn’t give him.

Democratic leaders are right to shine a spotlight on how the trial will be conducted. The only hope of achieving a thorough (or at least less phony) process is for public pressure to be applied — not on Mr. McConnell, but on members of his conference not yet ready to be written off as presidential puppets.

With the rules governing an impeachment trial set by a simple majority, only four Republicans need to stand up to Mr. McConnell and demand better, if not out of courage then out of the fear of the political costs of going along with his sham proceeding. (As few as three Republicans could do the trick with the help of Chief Justice John Roberts, who will preside at the trial and must break any tie.) Senators facing tough re-election races next year — including Susan Collins, Martha McSally, Cory Gardner and Thom Tillis — might well have an interest in projecting independence and integrity.

To be sure, in withholding the articles from the Senate, Ms. Pelosi is attempting a tricky balancing act. The longer she delays, the more likely it is that Republicans will be able to paint her as playing political games. Already, Mr. McConnell has suggested that the delay stems from her embarrassment over the House’s “shoddy work product.”

But while the terms of the trial are being worked out, there is little downside to Ms. Pelosi drawing attention to the role that individual senators play in securing the integrity of the process — or not.

Throughout the House’s impeachment inquiry, Republicans accused the Democrats of rushing, operating in secrecy, cherry-picking facts, refusing to call key witnesses and denying the president due process. Their objections were without merit. And now they are lining up to do the very thing they claimed to find so appalling.

Refusing to take their impeachment responsibilities seriously promises to stain the Senate and the Republican Party long after Mr. Trump leaves office. Lawmakers who care about their institution and their legacy should not stand for this. If they do, the American electorate should neither forgive nor forget.

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