The Senate impeachment trial process began Tuesday with debate concerning the rules that will govern the proceedings in the coming weeks. At the discussion’s center was a conflict over subpoenaing witnesses and additional evidence from government agencies.
Democratic senators put forth 11 amendments to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed rules resolution, many of which were predictably rejected by their Republican counterparts.
By doing so, Republicans are abusing their majority to insulate their party leader from eviction and consequently foreclosing important lines of communication. In fact, their refusal to allow more evidence suggests a lack of confidence in President Trump’s innocence and reads as a possible acknowledgement of concrete or incriminating evidence against him.
To legitimize their decision, Republicans turned to the Clinton impeachment for historical precedent. In that case, the Senate passed a resolution at the beginning of the trial to set rules and only considered witness testimony procedure later in the trial. However, the Clinton trial is markedly different from this one along multiple dimensions — most notably in the bipartisan tone of the current situation.
Because of these differences, the Republicans’ nod to precedent is flawed. It is a logic that has very little to do with legal precedent and a lot to do with re-election. Even if they were sincerely using the Clinton proceedings to guide their strategy, McConnell’s plan for a speedy trial and alignment with Trump eliminates the suspense.
The public effectively already knows the outcome of this trial.
This moment’s extreme political polarization and distinct administration make this trial a watershed moment in American history. If witnesses are not called to testify, a defective process will be permitted to take root in our legal system.
The possibility that a Democratic president could end up in the same sort of contentious and gridlocked impeachment proceedings fueled by Republican resentment means we have no choice left but to ask why and how our governing institutions have become so flawed. The lack of a sustainable justice framework or even a long term vision of what one would look like is crippling our political system.
Even if Trump is successfully acquitted, Republican refusal to immediately accept additional evidence is undermining the purpose of impeachment.
One of the country’s most influential lawmakers is acting as the president’s lackey. What does a fair trial even look like in this case? How can we have confidence in the people we have elected to be our proxies? What will become of the balance of powers in this age of extreme polarization?
But our political institutions may not be the only parties to blame for the politicization of a legal process. At the moment, it is difficult to find any coverage of the trial that does not have some version of a partisan slant.
The New York Times and Vox do not hold back their critique of Senate. Fox News leaps at every chance to tear down the House of Representatives. Yet, we cannot be sure whether polarization precedes these slants or vice versa. What we can be sure of is that the media and politicians are egging each other on in a fight that cannot and will not end well for either.
Trump may not be removed. That does not mean we can move on and leave our law-making organizations unexamined after such a trying time. Fifty years down the line, legal scholars, Democrats, Republicans and the American public will recognize this as the blunder that it is.