Last Thursday as the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began, 99 of the 100 US Senators-John Inhofe R-OK was absent due to a medical issue-who will function as the jury were administered an oath by Chief Justice John Roberts. In that oath they pledged “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws” during the trial. Among those who took the oath were several Republican Senators including Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham who have already stated publicly that they see their role not as conducting a fair trial, but as ensuring that Trump is acquitted. It is possible that these senators were lying when they made those public statements, but it is much more likely they have no intention of being impartial and instead will indeed do what they can to get a fast and clean acquittal for Trump and thus are already in violation of that oath.
That conflict is an expression of the broader paradox of the impeachment trial. The trial is, in one respect, a somber and important Constitutional rite. The question of whether or not a president should be removed from office is a significant and grave task that should force senators to earnestly consider evidence and testimonies ask difficult questions and make their decisions accordingly. The presence of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the need for a second oath of office and the other rituals surrounding the impeachment process, including the way it is generally portrayed in the media, underscores this.
The senate impeachment trial is both a powerful and sober Constitutional process and, at the same time, a complete sham
The impeachment trial is also something very different. It is a trial where the outcome has already been known for months and where more than half of the jurors have been actively engaged in ensuring this is a trial without witnesses. Many of the Republican senators have spent the last months repeating the President’s untrue and implausible position that he has done absolutely wrong and have resorted to repeating Kremlin sourced lies in their efforts to defend Donald Trump. In other words, the senate impeachment trial is both a powerful and sober Constitutional process and, at the same time, a complete sham.
This tension has been on display in the debates in the US senate during the opening days of the trial. One side is pushing for more witnesses, a lengthier trial and other related rules that would be appropriate for a somber Constitutional process. The other is seeking to craft rules that will get the trial over quickly with as little admissible evidence as possible. The Republicans who are taking this position are, in fact, making little effort to conceal their efforts to make the trial a sham, but seem to want to get it over with as quickly as possible to avoid even more embarrassment.
A key dynamic of this conflict is that there is no meaningful tension. The paradox, while real, has also already been resolved because of the partisan math of the senate. The Republicans have 53 votes, the Democrats 47. Not all votes about procedure and rules will fall on precise party lines, but the important ones have, and will continue to do so. Ultimately, the notion that there are anywhere near the 67 votes required to convict remains laughable.
While the impeachment trial is a major political event it is essential both to have expectations that are grounded in reality and not to get too drawn into the admittedly compelling political theater of the trial
This is not good news for American democracy or rule of law but it is, at least for now, a political reality. Accordingly, while the impeachment trial is a major political event it is essential both to have expectations that are grounded in reality and not to get too drawn into the admittedly compelling political theater of the trial. While an impeachment trial is never good for a sitting president, the lack of suspense about the outcome has worked well for Donald Trump. Trump, whose political profile remains a disturbing hybrid of Chauncey Gardner and a buffoonish authoritarian strongman, sees virtually everything, and much of his presidency, through the lens of reality television. Amazingly, with regards to the impeachment trial, Trump is right. That is why his decision to hire television lawyers Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz, which would be a disastrous mistake if this were a real trial, is in fact quite brilliant. Starr and Dershowitz are celebrities who are no longer practicing attorneys, but they are very much what a Fox News addicted member of the Cult of Trump imagines a good attorney looks like, so they are perfect for the role.
As the impeachment trial continues the media will cover different angles regarding rules, witnesses, the president’s legal team’s inane defenses, the case that the Democratic House managers make and the like. Much of this will be compelling, fascinating and dramatic, but none of this will be as important as preparing a strategy for reigning in the post-acquittal Donald Trump and defeating him in November.
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