With President Trump’s impeachment trial set to begin next week, the Senate faces a stark choice: it can hold a legitimate trial that aims to get to the bottom of the allegations against the president, or it can stage an empty media spectacle like House Democrats did in their sham impeachment inquiry.
The problem for Democrats is that if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opts for the former, it will mean calling not just the witnesses Democrats want, like former National Security Advisor John Bolton, but also witnesses the administration wants, like Hunter Biden and Eric Ciaramella, the anti-Trump whistleblower who first set all of this in motion.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how Senate Democrats can demand to hear only from witnesses they think will bolster their preferred narrative—like Lev Parnas, the Soviet-born associate of Rudy Giuliani who was indicted for campaign law violations, and lately has been making grand accusations about Trump in the media—but not hear from Ciaramella or Biden. At least, they can’t do so while also maintaining the fiction that this impeachment is anything but bare-knuckle partisan politics, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s somber soliloquies about the Constitution notwithstanding.
In any case, Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate might not let them. In an interview with Politico on Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul said he will force the Senate to vote on subpoenaing President Trump’s preferred witnesses—specifically, Hunter Biden and Ciaramella—if four or more of his colleagues join with Democrats in calling for new witness testimony in the impeachment trial set to begin next week.
“My first preference would be to be done with it as soon as possible and not to have any witnesses,” Paul said. “If they insist on having people like [John] Bolton coming forward, my insistence will be not just one witness. But that the president should be able to call any witnesses that he deems necessary to his defense.”
Even if no GOP senators call for new witnesses, Paul’s point is valid: how on earth can the Senate conduct even the semblance of a credible, fair trial without hearing from the whistleblower, the person who started all this? Until he thought better of it, House Intelligence Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff insisted that it was essential to hear Ciamarella’s testimony. Senate Republicans could rightly argue that it still is.
Do Democrats, who are presumably interested in the unvarnished truth, really expect the American people to be content with the testimony of State Department bureaucrats with second- and third-hand knowledge, or law professors with strong opinions? After all, we were told this was serious business, the Constitution itself is at stake.
Moreover, could the American people really stomach the spectacle of an impeachment trial in which Joe and Hunter Biden are at the center of a dispute over whether Trump abused his power, but are never called to testify? Imagine Joe Biden, of all people, campaigning away in Iowa while his rivals are stuck in Washington litigating a show-trail spawned in part by his family’s alleged corruption in Ukraine.
There Are Real Questions For the Senate to Investigate
And what about the substance of the articles of impeachment? House Democrats charge that Trump abused his power when he delayed aid to Ukraine and pressured the Ukrainian president to launch investigations into 2016 election interference and corruption at Burisma, the energy company that paid Hunter Biden astronomical sums while Joe Biden was the U.S. government’s anticorruption point-man in Ukraine.
Clearly, the question about abuse of power is directly related to the question of whether there were legitimate reasons for Trump to delay the aid and ask for these investigations. Yes, an investigation of Hunter Biden’s dealings with Burisma might hurt his father’s presidential campaign, and therefore might accrue to Trump’s benefit. But that doesn’t mean it was Trump’s sole or even primary motivation, especially given Ukraine’s endemic corruption problems.
In the same way, an investigation of 2016 election meddling that, say, revealed Democratic Party officials solicited Ukrainian officials for dirt on the Trump campaign might damage Democrats in 2020, which would obviously help Trump. But was Trump’s only consideration his own personal benefit when he asked for this to be investigated? That’s not at all obvious, and in fact it’s easy to see why any U.S. president would want to get to the bottom of such a matter, regardless of how it affected an upcoming election.
Moreover, the whole question of whether a foreign policy decision might benefit Trump’s reelection bid in some way is misinformed. Any foreign policy move a first-term president can claim as a success will be politically beneficial. Just because it helps the president doesn’t mean he was using foreign policy to advance his personal political interests, as Democrats have alleged. In the same way, decrying a “quid pro quo,” as Democrats did for months about Trump’s July 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, belies an oversimplified—and dishonest—view of American foreign policy, which is by nature transactional.
In other words, Democrats must prove that Trump’s only reason for requesting these investigations was that he believed it would hurt Joe Biden and the Democrats and benefit him personally in the 2020 election. They have to show that there were no other compelling reasons in the national interest for Trump to ask for the investigations. Manically repeating, as the media has, that 2016 election interference is a debunked “conspiracy theory” or that Joe Biden did nothing wrong just won’t cut it.
To do that, they will need to dig into whether there was anything in Ukraine worth investigating. That’s the one thing Democrats are not willing to do, which should tell you all you need to know about this impeachment.