February 22, 2020
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Reasons for cautious optimism as Senate impeachment trial begins

Senate Television | AP
Senate Television | AP
In this image from video, presiding officer Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts swears in members of the Senate for the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump Thursday at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

After swearing an oath last Thursday to do impartial justice according to the U.S. Constitution and to the law, members of the U.S. Senate are set to begin the hopefully substantive stages of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. There have been plenty of reasons to wonder whether the Senate will handle this process with the carefulness and soberness it calls for, but we nevertheless head into this week with a few reasons for some cautious — emphasis on cautious — optimism.

We’re optimistic that a handful of Republican senators, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, have not only indicated a willingness to call new witnesses and review new evidence, but also said they would not support a motion to immediately dismiss the impeachment charges. That’s not an iron-clad commitment, but it is a very important open door at this point in the process.

We’re also encouraged that the closely held trial rules Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has developed reportedly do not include a built-in motion for early dismissal, as was included in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton (when all Senate Democrats at the time unsuccessfully voted to dismiss before subpoenaing additional testimony and evidence). Reports of McConnell including a trial “ kill switch” to end debate could prove our optimism premature, but the lack of an initial motion to dismiss would seem to make it more likely that there will, at the very least, be a vote on whether to hear from new witnesses and accept new testimony.

At some point, each individual senator will need to decide whether additional, demonstrably accessible testimony and evidence can strengthen the record and help them cast a more informed vote. The answer, when the time comes, should be an easy yes.

And, finally, it’s promising that Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has proposed the very sort of witness exchange that we’ve been suggesting for weeks.

This offers a clear middle path forward that should satisfy both sides of the aisle while helping to better inform the American public about President Donald Trump’s actions at the same time. Senate leaders should work toward an agreement that trades testimony from certain potential witnesses Democrats would like to see — including former National Security Adviser John Bolton, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and perhaps Lev Parnas — in exchange for Republican-desired witnessed such as Hunter and Joe Biden, the anonymous whistleblower (who should remain anonymous even when testifying) and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff.

However, there is still plenty of room for unease about how the Senate impeachment trial will play out. Our biggest fear is that any positive momentum in the witness discussion will be torpedoed by disagreement and partisan escalation surrounding the new revelations from Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and a decision issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office last Thursday arguing that the Office of Management and Budget violated the Impoundment Control Act when withholding millions in aid to Ukraine.

Both of those recent developments deserve to be considered as part of the Senate trial, but context cannot be lost. Parnas, for instance, has been indicted on several charges including making false statements and falsifying documents, so there should be serious doubt about his credibility.

We can’t underscore enough how important it is for senators, and members of the media, to keep a level head and stick to the facts.

So it’s especially worrying when people such as MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough misuse their national platforms to spread incorrect information. Collins provided a less than encouraging, contextually challenged quote last week about the implications of the new Parnas documents. Scarborough then claimed Collins was arguing that “we don’t need anymore witnesses” and called her remarks “embarrassing.” But it’s Scarborough, and Democrats trying to amplify his comments, who should be embarrassed.

Collins never said more witnesses aren’t needed.

If Collins eventually decides not to pursue additional witnesses and testimony, we’ll be at the front of the line criticizing that decision. But the process isn’t necessarily there yet, and she has clarified that “it is likely” she would support a motion to call witnesses later in the trial, as she did in the Clinton impeachment. Everyone, the media included, cannot lose sight of context, nuance and fact. Those are the very things that matter most in this impeachment.

Unfortunately, the Senate seems poised to make it more difficult for the reporters working in person to help provide those details. Misguided new restrictions on press movement within the Capitol building will limit their ability to question individual senators and keep the public informed.

“It’s a huge mistake,” Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisian told Politico. “U.S. senators are grown women and grown men. If they don’t want to make a comment, they know how to say ‘no comment.’ … We aren’t children.”

That perspective about maturity is spot on, and should extend across the board during this trial. The Senate has an opportunity to rise above unabashed partisanship, focus on the facts and be the adults in the room. The rest of us should try to meet that standard, too.

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