Why Senate Republicans should eagerly call witnesses to testify
With impeachment framed as an exercise in moral nihilism, Republicans and Democrats have now entered the field of battle over witnesses, with each side bafflingly defending the political interests of the other. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi withheld delivery of the impeachment articles in an effort to secure witnesses during the Senate trial, including former White House national security adviser John Bolton. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sees absolutely no need for new witnesses. He said, “This is a political process. There is not anything judicial about it.”
However, with acquittal certain, the president actually needs witnesses to testify. How else can he justify his tweets of “total exoneration,” as he did after the special counsel investigation? Witnesses would give his acquittal the patina of legitimacy. Without any witnesses, the president and Senate Republicans up for reelection become vulnerable to claims of a sham trial or, even far worse, an orchestrated coverup rooted in a fear of the truth.
The absence of witnesses during the impeachment trial of Donald Trump would only draw unwanted attention to this particular lack of openness. One could almost hear the chants of “what is he hiding?” reverberating loudly from the steel rafters at the Democratic National Convention this summer. Denying witnesses is also off brand for the president himself, as his primary defense for nearly all of his transgressions in office has been transparency. Trump brazenly obstructed justice in full view of the public during the special counsel investigation and openly called on a foreign power to investigate his domestic political rivals from the White House.
With the outcome not in doubt, the wisest move by the president would be to promote witness testimony, not of Hunter Biden, but of those who participated in carrying out his “perfect” call directive precisely because of its damning nature. Just get everything out. No more drips and drabs of tantalizing details to extend the Ukraine story closer to the election. By contrast, although Democrats desperately claim that they need witness testimony from those involved, such as Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, their testimony will not result in conviction.
Taking the effects of past testimony as prelude, further testimony will not sway the hearts and minds of independents, much less the Trump base. But it could make Democrats seem ineffective, in the way that repeated failures to defeat ObamaCare did to Republicans such as Eric Cantor and John Boehner. Extending the impeachment process could also hamper the several Senate Democrats vying to be the party nominee this year.
In an actual court of law, it takes but one witness to establish a fact if the jury finds that witness credible. So five witnesses are no more compelling or persuasive than one. If Republicans could buy the time to drag out the impeachment trial into the Democratic primary season by interviewing redundant witnesses, why would they not do so? If Democrats could end the trial with questions left unanswered and hanging over the reelection campaign of the president, why would Republicans acquiesce to that?
The facts are known. The truth is obvious. Trump personally orchestrated the pressure campaign against the newly elected president of Ukraine to secure an investigation of his political rival in the election. That pressure campaign included the quid quo pro in the form of a prized White House visit and holding up nearly $400 million in vital American military aid that Congress had already appropriated and that the president had approved.
However, with Senate Republicans grotesquely eager to simply acquit the president, the strategy of Pelosi holding out for witnesses in the trial was politically counterproductive, even if it was morally, ethically, and legally correct. Without witnesses, Trump will have to play defense on the issue of impeachment and Ukraine in 2020, especially if one assumes more and more information will find its way into public view in the coming months.
With witnesses in the trial, the claims of exoneration by the president will find little credible resistance in the public. So with a nihilistic tip of the hat to the political spectacle that impeachment has turned into, but given the damning state of the record to date, on the question of witnesses, here is to hoping McConnell is successful in orchestrating a Senate whitewash.
Chris Gagin is an attorney and adviser to Republicans for the Rule of Law.
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