As Trump impeachment trial nears, the battle turns to witnesses

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·5 min read

With preparations for the Senate impeachment trial underway, there are still several days before next week’s opening arguments, leaving a vacuum Republicans and Democrats will fill with debate over whether witnesses will be allowed to testify.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been laying the groundwork for weeks to argue against witnesses in the Senate trial. On Thursday morning he continued that effort, painting the House impeachment inquiry as “slapdash.”

“The House’s hour is over,” he said. “The Senate’s time is at hand.”

McConnell’s case against witnesses is built on a key premise that he has worked hard to establish: the idea that the House is a less serious, more partisan body whose members are more prone to take a short-term view.

“The Framers set up the Senate specifically to act as a check against the short-termism and runaway passions to which the House of Representatives might fall victim,” McConnell said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks on the floor of the Senate on January 16, 2020. (Screengrab via Senate.gov)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Screengrab via Senate.gov)

Historically, McConnell’s characterization of the difference between the Senate and House has been accurate. House members are elected every two years, and so have to worry far more about how each decision affects their chances of reelection. Senators stand for reelection every six years, giving them a bit more independence from the momentary whims of voters.

However, a few things have weakened the contrast between the Senate and House in recent years. Primaries have been increasingly dominated by hard-line extremists, making bipartisan cooperation far less common in the Senate than it used to be. Members now have to run a gauntlet to win election and then must worry far more than in the past about a more conservative or liberal candidate using any sign of cooperation with the other side against them in the next cycle.

And McConnell himself played a significant role in escalating the toxic atmosphere in the Senate in 2016 when he refused to allow a vote on then-President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland.

“That characterization that McConnell made, of how the Framers anticipated the Senate would be a speed bump or a cooling mechanism against partisan passions, is exactly right. But that’s not what he did when he denied Merrick Garland a vote,” Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center, told Yahoo News.

“Now things have been getting more partisan than before,” Rosen said, noting that Democrats filibustered Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch in 2017.

“It's not McConnell alone. And then Garland didn't come out of nowhere. But it certainly was a new frontier in partisanship,” Rosen said.

McConnell’s power play left many observers with the impression that there is nothing he will not do to consolidate power for the Republican Party, all while cloaking himself in the language of an institutionalist.

“We can put aside animal reflexes and animosity and coolly consider how to best serve our country in the long run, so that we can break factional fevers before they jeopardize the core institutions of our government,” McConnell said Thursday morning.

Yet critics see McConnell, largely because of Garland, as being at the very heart of the problem he spoke about in a Dec. 19 floor speech about institutions and norms.

“Historians will regard this as a great irony of this era: that so many who professed such concern for our norms and traditions themselves proved willing to trample our constitutional order to get their way,” McConnell said.

President Barack Obama applauds his Supreme Court justice nominee Merrick Garland in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 16, 2016. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
President Barack Obama applauds Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Rosen noted that McConnell’s blocking of Garland “wasn't unconstitutional, but it is odd to have done that, to have so broken the traditions of bipartisan comity and then give a speech praising the Senate as a backstop against partisan passions.”

But the notion of the Senate as a higher-minded body than the House is key to McConnell’s argument that the lower chamber conducted an incomplete investigation into a whistleblower’s allegation that President Trump directed a pressure campaign on the Ukrainian government to inflict political harm on a rival for the presidency, Joe Biden.

“Previous impeachments came after months, if not years, of investigations and hearings,” McConnell said Thursday. “The House cut short their own inquiry, declined to pursue their own subpoenas and denied the president due process. But now they want the Senate to redo their homework and rerun the investigation.”

Democrats want a few things in the Senate trial: live testimony from witnesses who spoke to the House impeachment inquiry, the ability to display video footage of comments by Trump and others in his administration, testimony from four top current and former advisers to Trump who did not testify in the House process, and documents that the White House has so far refused to turn over.

It’s possible that McConnell will unify Republican senators around blocking most, if not all, of these requests.

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., told CNN that the Senate doesn’t need to hear “new evidence.”

“That’s not our job. The job is to respond to what we’ve been given and the case that was built by the House,” Perdue said. “Our job is to look at what they brought us and decide if that rises to the level of impeachment.”

However, McConnell will need to have 51 votes in favor of any proposal to bar new witnesses or documents. His party has a 53-47 majority, but a handful of Republican senators have signaled that they are open to hearing from at least one new witness: John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser.

National Security Advisor John Bolton in 2019. (Photo by Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images)
Then-national security adviser John Bolton in 2019. (Photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images)

The Democratic case is simple.

"They’re afraid of the truth,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday in a press conference.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that “the president says he wants the truth, but he blocks every attempt to get the facts.”

Schumer called on McConnell to live up to the sentiments he expressed Wednesday evening after Pelosi ended a monthlong stalemate and named impeachment managers.

“The best way for the Senate to rise to the occasion would be to retire partisan considerations and to have everyone agree on the parameters of a fair trial,” Schumer said. “A trial without witnesses is not a trial. A trial without documents is not a trial.”

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