At 4:32pm on Wednesday, 2/5/2020, the Constitution of the United States was rushed to the Library of Congress and placed in intensive care, suffering from significant assaults against its Principles and Values. Concurrently, the spirits of the 39 Founders who signed the Constitution gathered in an impromptu vigil, waiting to see whether or not the Patient would survive its injuries. The outcome for the Republic is in doubt.
There is much to take away from these past five months of Impeachment and Trial. The specific takeaways will vary considerably depending on the lens of our varying perspectives through which we view these events, shaped by our widely varying life experiences. In many respects, our concerns are not over what was specifically said and done. Instead, our greater concerns should likely focus more around issues of “rules of law and rules of order,” new precedents being established, and our basic assumptions about our government’s commitment and responsiveness to “We, the People.” Space limitations of this essay does not allow for in-depth discussion of these events; that will be left to the historians. Meanwhile, perhaps the following reflections may be helpful.
1. It is a violation of federal law to solicit or receive assistance from foreign entities for a political campaign. All discussion starts with that legal reality. Donald Trump admitted in the notes of his July 2019 call to the new President of Ukraine that he did solicit such election help by demanding a foreign investigation of his primary potential election rival. [Such admission was also consistent with his public call for assistance to Russia in 2016 (“Russia if you are listening…”), his interview with George Stephanopoulos in June 2019 expressing his willingness to accept political dirt from foreign entities (“I would look at it and decide whether to use it…”), and his 2019 request of China made on the lawn of the White House inviting them to “also look into corruption by the Bidens.”] These public/confessed actions broke the law. He reinforced his demands by acts of bribery/coercion in holding up a White House show-of-support meeting, along with illegally (per the General Accounting Office) holding up $250M+ of military aid appropriated by Congress. These actions constituted Impeachment Article 1.
2. The violation of the foreign interference law was not an accidental, one-time event, but was a deliberate campaign authorized and orchestrated by Trump that went on for nearly a year. It involved numerous employees and non-employees of the government to either obtain the Biden investigations, and/or to hide these secretive efforts. As was said, “everybody was in the loop” –cabinet secretaries, department heads, and outside players. It significantly included Devin Nunes (House Intel Committee ranking Republican) and Pat Cipollone (lead counsel on Trump’s defense team) – two significant conflicts of interest. Keeping these secrets hidden included a total refusal to comply with any legal Congressional subpoenas for testimony by participants, along with relevant documents. The defense argued that “there was no first-hand testimony about the president’s actions,” yet Trump refused to let firsthand witnesses testify. If Trump was truly innocent of these charges, why did he not flood the Senate with witness testimony and documents that would rebut the prosecution and prove his case? This, blanket refusal to cooperate with the House investigation constituted Impeachment Article 2.
3. The House Managers prosecuting the Senate trial were well-organized in laying out the detailed course of events underlying Impeachment Article 1. Their presentation earned compliments from a number of senators from both parties. This was in stark contrast to Trump’s legal defense team which never seemed to settle on a consistent line of defense.
4. The facts upon which the impeachment charges were based proved unarguable and uncontestable. This led Trump’s defense team to pursue an evolving line of defense. First: he did not seek a “political favor” from Ukraine. Second: well, he did, but what he did was not wrong. Third: well, his actions may not have been the best to do. Fourth: well, he asked Ukraine for a “favor,” but there was no quid pro quo – in spite of the substantial testimony to the contrary. Fifth: well, he committed no actual crime. Sixth: well, yes, he may have committed a crime, but it is a crime that does not rise to the “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” level of impeachment. Besides, ultimately a) Ukraine announced no prosecutions and b) they got their money. (Is the burglar who doesn’t find the jewels therefore innocent of the break-in?) Various Trump supporters tried to denigrate the significance of Trump’s solicitation of political help from Ukraine (and Russia and China). But for the Constitutional Founders, resisting any interference by foreign entities was a high priority and concern.
5. Twenty years ago in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, Senator Lindsey Graham and constitutional professor Alan Dershowitz separately argued that impeachment does NOT require the commission of an explicit statutory criminal act. In this trial on behalf of Trump, they each reversed course and said that impeachment DOES require a criminal act (an opinion rejected by the vast majority of legal scholars and Constitutional Founders). So which is it? Is legality based upon the law, or who the defendant is (and what political party s/he belongs to? Founder Alexander Hamilton wrote in “The Federalist” that impeachment applied to “the abuse or violation of some public trust” and “injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
Professor Dershowitz went on to offer a painfully nonsensical legal argument that if whatever the president does is for what s/he concludes is in the best interest of the country as s/he sees it, it is not illegal or impeachable. This includes concluding that if s/he is the best person to be president, then whatever s/he does to get elected is permissible. It is a discredited reasoning reminiscent of President Nixon’s statement during Watergate that “If the President does it, it is not a crime.”
6. One example of how far integrity has disappeared from Congress was the abdication of the Impeachment Oath. All one hundred senators swore an oath to their god committing them to approach this senate trial, and review the accusations and defense, from a perspective of “impartial justice.” Nevertheless, some senators from both parties announced their decision and intended vote well before the trial started. In particular, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went even further by stating his intention to shut down and dismiss the trial as soon as possible, and that he was “in total coordination with the White House” (i.e. Trump) as to how the trial would be conducted. Hypocrisy reigned supreme.
7. To justify his decisions about the trial rules, McConnell (and other Republican senators) claimed that this trial was following the same rules as the Clinton impeachment. This was wrong. Clinton’s trial was based on the findings of an “Independent Counselor” (Ken Starr, now a part of Trump’s defense team) appointed by the Attorney General, who spent several years investigating Clinton. Starr turned over boxes of his interviews and supporting documentation – including sealed grand jury testimony – to the House, which formed the basis of the House’s Articles of Impeachment. This was supplemented by three witnesses called to the Senate. No such Independent Counselor or grand jury testimony was allowed for the trial of Trump. Trump’s trial was the first to include no witness testimony or additional documentation (though 70% of the public supported such input).
8. Some Republican defenders of Trump made the argument that this impeachment “was a partisan affair from the get-go in the House, an attempt to reverse the results of the 2016 election; the guilt/innocence of Trump should be left to the voters in November.” First, if it was a partisan affair in the House, would not the country be best served by rising above partisanship in the Senate and conducting a demonstrably model impartial trial– instead of tit-for-tat partisanship? Second, the Constitution assigns responsibility to the Congress for determining whether a president should be impeached and removed. It does not assign that responsibility to election day voters. Congress needed to step up to the job rather than pass the buck. Third, the basis for the Article 1 charge was that Trump sought to illegally tamper with the 2020 election. How does one defer his trial to the very process corrupted by his guilt?
In the end, this entire episode was not a proud moment for an America that has been an aspiration and role model for democracy for the world. Trump broke at least two federal laws, threatened the security of both a European ally and America, and then tried to hide his actions from Congress and the citizenry. Virtually no Republican senator disputed that Trump committed these actions; rather, the trial was reduced to the subjective question of “how important” was it. The Senate “trial” proved to be no trial at all based upon many Americans’ understanding – by their own experience – of what constitutes a trial. In the process, the Senate effectively announced that: a) the President IS in fact above the law; b) House and Senate Republicans will back Trump in virtually whatever he chooses to do; and c) Congress has surrendered its oversight role over the Executive Branch – access to testimony, documents and information will henceforth be limited to only what a President allows.
Where this takes us from here, and what Trump will now feel free to do, is anyone’s guess. Now it is the People’s obligation to speak its impeachment judgment at the polls in November. What will America’s verdict be in November 2020?
© 2020 Randy Bell https://ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com