In Act III of “Hamlet,” King Claudius is desperate to stop the show that reveals he murdered his brother. He doesn’t want his rank offense — which “stinks to heaven” — exposed to the world. But he also can’t face seeing the truth himself.
Likewise, Senate Republicans have been desperate to preserve themselves by maintaining a semblance of denial about the treachery of Donald Trump.
That’s why they’ve spent the last two weeks trying to shut down the impeachment trial that has made his offenses so glaringly obvious.
Defying all reason, Republican lawyers have claimed the president wasn’t lawfully impeached. (He was.) They hammered the character of the House managers and delivered serpentine, bad-faith arguments that make Iago, from “Othello,” look like a straight shooter.
And, on Friday evening, the Senate voted 51 to 49 against a motion to hear new witnesses in the trial. The vote was mostly along party lines, with only two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah, opting for a fair trial alongside all 47 Democrats and independents.
And so Trump skates. Senate Republicans aren’t merely showing leniency. They aren’t just stacking the deck for the defense. They are blocking a lawful trial, which is the very definition of obstruction of justice.
“A trial without witnesses is not a trial at all,” as House manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-California, observed Friday. No one disagreed; the GOP shrugged.
The night before, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, had spelled it out. Yes, yes, Trump was guilty of pressuring Ukraine to advance his re-election. House Democrats had “proven” their case. That was Alexander’s word: “proven.” But.
Guilty as he believes Trump is, Alexander wouldn’t vote to remove him. He wouldn’t vote to hear witnesses. He wouldn’t consider further evidence. Trump did it, but he shouldn’t have been impeached for it.
Before the Friday vote, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, once considered a principled public servant, also announced she’d refuse to hear witnesses. In her statement, she didn’t even lightly scold the president for impropriety. Instead she savaged the House of Representatives for daring to reveal his misconduct.
And then, as the sun set on Capitol Hill on Friday, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, also folded in ignominy. The president’s actions, his office wrote, were “inappropriate and wrong.” But he too wouldn’t remove. Wouldn’t subpoena witnesses. Wouldn’t hear all the evidence.
And that’s a wrap. The vote to acquit Trump is now nearly inevitable, though that Barnum and Bailey result will in reality convict the GOP of obstructing justice. Fifty-one cowardly senators missed the chance to cast what former Republican Rep. David Jolly of Florida calls a “sleep-well-at-night vote.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer delivered a brief, sorrowful soliloquy after the vote. “No witnesses, no documents in an impeachment trial is a perfidy.” (“Perfidy,” a word Shakespeare also used, quickly shot to the top of the Merriam-Webster’s lookup list.)
“It is a grand tragedy,” Schumer went on. “America will remember this day, unfortunately, where the Senate did not live up to its responsibilities.”
What the perfidious senators couldn’t bring themselves to see and hear will not let them rest. Their betrayal of the country stinks to heaven.
Virginia Heffernan is an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times.