Trump impeachment enters final lap; vote on new witnesses holds key

Donald Trump, Taliban, peace talks
The hope is that the trial phase which will end in a conviction/acquittal will be a relatively short one with the President able to give his State of the Union Address on February 4. Photo: PTI

After nearly four weeks of jostling after the House of Representatives voted on two articles of impeachment of the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, the final process has begun at the Senate where the Chamber over the last few days has finished the initial process and will start in right earnest on January 21. The hope is that the trial phase which will end in a conviction/acquittal will be a relatively short one with the President able to give his State of the Union Address on February 4.

But all this would depend on how Republicans and Democrats would want to address the injection of new material and witnesses. President Trump himself at one time was toying with the idea of an expanded ritual so that his spectacle, theatrics and vitriol could possible assist him in an election year.

Also read: Impeaching Trump… One shouting match ends, another soon to begin

But he seems to have given up this in favour of the Republicans summarily rejecting the charges the moment the impeachment articles are taken up. This is not about to take place if the steps taken by the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell are anything to go by.

Procedurally this impeachment of President is by all accounts going to be quite different than what took place in 1999 when President Bill Clinton was on the mat. There was so much dignity amongst the law makers that the first order of business of how to conduct the proceedings passed unanimously with all 100 Senators agreeing to the framework drawn up. This time there is bound to be rancor as has been evidenced in what has been said by Democratic and Republican law makers. Democrats have called for the introduction of new evidence and witnesses and Republicans like McConnell have maintained that they will be closely coordinating with the White House. Ironically Senate law makers have been administered and signed on to an oath of “impartial justice” by the Presiding Officer, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts.

Also read: US braces for a crisis as Trump faces impeachment pressure

After the opening statements and questions from Democratic and Republican Senators, the first order of business on January 21 would be on setting the framework of the process and voting on new witnesses and evidences. Here although the Republicans are in a majority in the Senate and it only requires a simple majority to determine new witnesses, Senator McConnell cannot take things for granted for the simple reason that there are centrist and moderate Republican law makers who have indicated their desire to get more relevant information in this impeachment process. This is one reason why the Senate Majority Leader did not give much attention to Trump’s latest thinking of the Senate throwing out the Impeachment articles upon arrival at the Senate doorstep. It would have been a huge embarrassment if Senator McConnell’s strategy misfired with four Republicans going along with the Democrats.

Actually an argument is being made that not calling in witnesses in a Senate trial would be setting a precedent of sorts. In the Senate impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, 41 witnesses were called — 25 by the prosecution and 16 by the defense. And in the January 1999 Senate trial of Clinton three witnesses were called: Ms Monica Lewinsky, Clinton’s friend and confidante Vernon Jordan and White House aide Sidney Blumental. These witnesses were interviewed and videotaped by House Managers and then relevant portions played to Senators. And all this is not to forget the four year investigation of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr that started in 1994 who literally interviewed anyone he wanted any number of times including President Clinton. And as many as 75 witnesses had gone through Starr’s Federal Grand Jury depositions. Republicans led by Senator McConnell seem to be forgetting all these when they talk about the “Clinton Model” in conducting the Trump Trial — they only seem to remember the time frame, not the witnesses called in. This time around Democratic Minority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer is insistent that two if not four new witnesses ought to be subpoenaed — former National Security Advisor, John Bolton; the Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney; a White House aide and an official of the Office of Management and Budget.

Also read: Bolton could turn tide against Trump in impeachment trial

At a time when supporters of President Trump both inside the Senate and outside were getting ready to open the champagne bottles, there is now a realization that this would be premature for there is little evidence of Senate Democrats caving in to brazen pressure or through obnoxious comments through tweets. The somber mood has much to do with recent materials surfacing that the Ukraine borne Lev Parnas who is under indictment was in regular touch with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and other Ukrainian officials besides being directly involved in having Voldodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Senator and Vice President Joseph Biden. Some of the latest documents apparently also show Mr. Parnas and Mr. Giuliani talking about removing the American Ambassador to Ukraine Ms Marie Yovanovitch and a nagging suspicion that this top diplomat was put under surveillance. The news of Ms Yovanovitch being put on surveillance has rattled Ukraine to the point that it has started to officially investigate the matter.

If the first trends of the trial in the Senate are anything to go by, members of the Grand Old Party in the chamber have no reason to celebrate. At one point of time people were only talking about how 20 Republican Senators would not abandon their President and join Democrats to throw out their President; some conservatives were even making the point that with a simple majority, the Republicans had everything lined up for themselves from a procedural point of view as well; all that was needed was just show up Monday through Saturday at One pm and sit through the process without talking to your colleague sitting next to you and in the absence of cell phones and i-pads which had to be deposited prior to entry into the Chamber. Suddenly it appears that a new game may indeed open up with new revelations and potential damaging things that witnesses may wish to say that moderate and centrist Republicans have said all along they want to hear.

Also read: Impeaching a President: Fact, fiction and lessons from history

In all the hoopla that is taking place there will be four Senators who will be hoping and silently praying that the Senate trial will come to an end soon—and these are Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachussetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado. Sanders and Warren were amongst the top four in the Iowa Caucus of February 3 along with Joe Biden and Pete Guttigieg; and they both well know that in Iowa and New Hampshire remote controlling a campaign is simply not going to work —people in these two states are more convinced by face-to-face meetings in town halls, diners and street corners than through any media blitz in newspapers and televisions or through proxy appearances on the candidates’ behalf.

Indications are that the Impeachment Trial of President Trump will get into February with Democrats in no hurry for an early closure especially if the odds are beginning to be stacked high afresh and against the President for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The odds of removing President Trump may not be high this time around but Republicans must surely be having another thought at the back of their minds: what happens if Trump gets re-elected in 2020 but Democrats come to Control Congress? Can he be impeached again? American legal scholars have said that the Constitution does not say that a President can go through this process only once. So if the Grand Old Party is looking at the Numbers Game, as many as 23 Republican Senators are seeking re-election as opposed to only 12 Democrats together with an open seat. And many Republican Senators are nervous because they see themselves as vulnerable; and how they play out this impeachment could well determine their return to Capitol Hill!

The author was a former senior journalist in Washington DC covering North America and the United Nations