April 04, 2020
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The Senate’s solemn responsibility to be impartial

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

“Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, all persons are commanded to keep silent on pain of imprisonment while the House of Representatives is exhibiting to the Senate of the United States articles of impeachment against Donald John Trump, President of the United States.”

I’ve always been a small-D democrat, but that’s never interfered with the agreeable sense of awe I experience when our institutions turn ceremonial. I enjoy the reserved ritual and formality of the State of the Union address. I appreciate the quaint, old-fashioned phrases that hark back to our nation’s beginnings: “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” for example. Or “Hear ye, hear ye” and “on pain of imprisonment,” which are part of the above proclamation by the Senate sergeant-at-arms that begins each session of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

I was impressed by the formality of the trial’s beginnings, the procession and swearing in of Chief Justice John Roberts. Then it was the senators’ turn to swear their impartiality and to approach the dais in groups of four and then one by one to sign the “oath book,” the public avowal of their determination to render impartial justice.

The goal of the elevated language and simple rituals is to lend the proceedings an air of seriousness, dignity and solemnity. It’s not clear that it’s working.

Last Thursday, my own senator, Ted Cruz of Texas, directed his attention away from the exposition of the case against Trump to deliver this snarky tweet: “Hour 23 of redundant impeachment arguments. For those following at home: Drinking game —every time House Dems say ‘drug deal’ or ‘get over it’…drink a shot of milk!”

Thanks for taking this seriously, Ted.

Reports indicate that other senators got restless, as well. Despite their own rules, senators were talking, passing notes, leaving their seats and even leaving the chamber during the presentation of evidence against Trump, undaunted by the phrase “on pain of imprisonment.” Evidently some of us are above the law, after all.

Some senators were complaining about too much repetition from the Democrats. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said that he was bored. As though the presentation of impeachment articles against a president should be entertaining.

Certainly, 21 hours of argument over three days is a lot. But the case against Trump is complicated and a clear understanding of it is served by repetition. Repetition is essential to learning and persuasion. And as the Republicans build their own defense of the president, we can be certain that repetition will represent a significant part of their presentation, as well. We will hear the words “Biden,” “secret hearings” and “basement bunker” often.

Or count the number of times you hear the term “hearsay.” (This would be a good drinking game for Democrats.) “Hearsay” will be used to undercut the sworn testimony of dedicated public servants who, at considerable risk to their careers and themselves, provided the evidence that brought the president’s misdeeds to light. I call them heroes; Trump calls them “human scum.”

So both sides will establish their arguments with repetition. But the fact that some senators are complaining about repetition, as well as demonstrating inattention, boredom and impatience, implies that among those senators, at least, the chances of being swayed by facts and argument are close to zero.

Republican senators who declined to give the Democrats their full attention will be eager to listen to the arguments this week. The president’s lawyers will be striding downhill. They don’t need to prove or disprove anything; they need only create doubt.

The senators will be listening for what they desperately want to hear, reassurance that they are justified in looking away from evidence that might disturb their consciences or shake their predeterminations to acquit the president.

One hopes that the old-fashioned, dignified language, the solemn ceremonies, the oath book, even the hollow phrase “on pain of imprisonment” would awaken in the senators the transcending responsibility to render truly impartial justice after looking at all of the evidence. At present, this doesn’t look likely. And that will be Trump’s biggest national corruption of all.

John M. Crisp, an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.

 


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