Nancy Pelosi is not required to sit back and watch Mitch McConnell violate the Constitution’s core commitment to fair trials under the rule of law.
Jeffrey Abramson Opinion contributor
December 23, 2019
Anyone expecting senators to behave like jurors in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is bound to be disappointed. In ordinary criminal trials, we disqualify jurors if they know the defendant, the witnesses, or even the latest news. If we applied those standards to senators, we’d have to disqualify the entire Senate.
Fortunately, it is possible for senators to be both political and fair. Today’s senators would do well to study the example set by their predecessors in trying Clinton.
Clinton’s trial began on Jan. 7, 1999, before a politically divided Senate of 45 Democrats and 55 Republicans. Nevertheless, by a vote of 100 to 0, the Senate followed procedures outlined in its 1986 resolution entitled “Procedures and Guidelines for Impeachment Trials.” Trent Lott, the majority leader at the time and a fierce Republican partisan, did not stand in the way of this unanimous agreement. In the end, 10 Republicans voted to acquit President Clinton on one article, five on the other.
Politics could displace law
Among other matters, the 1986 rules provided that “the Senate shall have power to compel the attendance of witnesses.” When disagreement broke out about whether to call witnesses, the senators deliberated in private, and then publicly voted to depose witnesses. The senators heard videotaped deposition testimony for three days from witnesses. The trial lasted more than a month.
The 1986 rules are still in force. Yet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has declared his intent to ignore them and to run the trial according to whatever procedures the White House wants. Apparently, McConnell sees no conflict between swearing an oath to do justice according to law and then confessing that “Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with the White House counsel. There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position.”