On Wednesday, February 5, 2020, the Senate will vote on two articles of impeachment brought against Donald J. Trump. They will decide whether to convict him and remove him as president of the United States. Or acquit him. 
Trump is only the third U.S. president to be formally impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. And while most political commentators in the mainstream media, and long-term politicians (especially senators) are treating this impeachment trial as if it is like previous impeachment hearings and trials, or as if it is a humdrum yet slightly entertaining “politics as usual” spectacle, it is anything but.
Last Friday night (January 31, 2020), an attempt to allow subpoenas for documents and witnesses for Donald J. Trump’s impeachment trial failed in the U.S. Senate, mainly due to political partisanship. This happened despite 69 percent of Americans claiming that they want to hear from witnesses during the impeachment trial and 50 percent of American voters wanting Trump to be removed from office. And despite there being witnesses at every other impeachment trial in the history of the United States, including the impeachment trials for 14 judges, a senator, a Supreme Court justice, and a secretary of war. [2, 3, 4, 5]
While various polls with different numbers reflecting what Americans believe or think could be referred to here, such polls aren’t even (sadly) what’s most important or striking about the Senate’s vote prohibiting the ability to subpoena documents and witnesses. The failure to follow the previous precedents of all former impeachment trials is. Why?
Failure to follow previous impeachment precedents, to allow witnesses and documents:
- Deteriorates the power of Congress to hold any president or other elected or appointed official accountable in the future, regardless of what the president’s party affiliation is and regardless of whether the future is five years from now or one hundred years from now. These decisions and precedents cannot be undone and will undoubtedly be referred to moving forward.
- Could permit elected and appointed officials to exonerate themselves from participating or cooperating in perfectly legal impeachment proceedings and trials regarding their conduct in the future. In fact, it almost guarantees that the most corrupt officials will refuse to participate or cooperate in future impeachment proceedings. After all, when people are guilty and offered the option to say “no thanks” to participating or cooperating in their own trial, why wouldn’t they? Especially when they know there is an option to prohibit witnesses from testifying? So, it’s most likely that only law-abiding officials being impeached would end up participating or cooperating in their own impeachment proceedings, and not those who should in fact be impeached.
- Makes impeachment an altogether meaningless exercise and congressional power. Most Americans are tuning out from the current impeachment proceedings altogether because they already feel that the proceedings don’t matter due to lack of witnesses and subpoenas and “business as usual” corrupt partisanship, and are convinced that senators will vote along party lines even if they don’t ultimately agree with that approach. 
The question isn’t only: who wouldn’t expect witnesses and documents at a trial, any trial? It is: who would expect that it would even be possible to actively prohibit witnesses and documents at a trial?
It honestly seems mindboggling that a long list of senators voting on Wednesday would forfeit the powers of their congressional office without even slight protest or reluctance. Or without any real consideration of their obligations to their current voters or the U.S. Constitution. Or look beyond immediate party loyalties and getting reelected. Or consider what the precedent they are setting will mean for future senators, the powers of Congress, presidents, judges, and other high-level government officials. Or genuinely weigh what this means for the breakdown of checks and balances across our branches of federal government and the institutions supposedly supporting our democratic republic.
It simply doesn’t make sense why the senators forfeiting their power don’t care about maintaining their own institutionally mandated power, even at a somewhat less intense level. In all sincerity, what kind of odd reality are we living in now, when senators in the legislative branch are treating executive privilege as more important than their own legislative powers? One of their main functions is to check the powers of the executive branch.
Is it true that lines between our branches of government are becoming blurred due to partisanship and private interests? It’s hard to stomach this reality of such deep-seated corruption, but it seems to be the case. And it’s causing voters to tune out altogether, which is alarming and disheartening. Because it’s causing a lot of Americans to forfeit their obligations to hold their elected congresspeople accountable as well.
The precedents being set here are what matter most, much more than whether Trump ends up being removed from office or ultimately acquitted.
The issue of calling witnesses and reviewing documents during a trial is truly not a partisan issue whatsoever. And it truly is a wonder that it has become one in our current political climate.
While we can try to tune out and blame Congress for everything, Americans should not be so quick to give up their right to hold their own congresspeople accountable either. Especially those congresspeople who claim that they want to root out corruption or “drain the swamp.”
While others in the media go about the current “business as usual” of pitting Democrats and Republicans against one another, the true story behind why this trial and the precedents it’s setting is so important for the future of the United States is getting pushed to the background and being drowned out by the contrived spectacle they’re trying to endorse. The simple truth is that Americans no longer have faith in Congress, in the federal government, and the precedents being set in this trial will only make that lack of faith more intense. 
At this very moment what matters most is not whether Trump is acquitted or convicted.
It’s important to note that even if the current charges against Trump aren’t proved officially via conviction, they aren’t being officially disproved via acquittal either, due to the procedures and precedents being set in this trial.
What matters most is whether Congress completes its due diligence in its determination behind such an acquittal or conviction (which would require witnesses and documents), what that means for future impeachment proceedings and trials, and ultimately, whether Americans will hold Congress accountable for their decisions and conduct as well, in the long run.
Is it possible to look beyond the current political moment and its predictable sentiment and immediacy, to sincerely look at this situation and its long-term implications, instead of the in-your-face, juvenile and hostile partisan politics?
- congress.gov. Two articles of impeachment against Donald J. Trump. URL: https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/hres755/BILLS-116hres755rh.pdf
- For details on past impeachments visit: https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Senate_Impeachment_Role.htm#impeachment_trials
- Politifact. Yes, every past impeachment trial included witnesses. Baldwin hits mark with Trump-related claim. By Eric Litke. Jan. 21, 2020. URL: https://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2020/jan/21/tammy-baldwin/Trump-every-other-senate-impeachment-had-witnesses/
- MSN. Microsoft News. Poll finds 69% want witnesses in Trump impeachment trial. By Dean Betz. Feb. 1, 2020. URL: https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/poll-finds-69-want-witnesses-in-trump-impeachment-trial/ar-BBZru76
- Politico. Poll: Support for Trump’s removal remains steady. By Caitlin Oprysko. Feb. 1, 2020. URL: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/02/01/trump-impeachment-poll-110137
- For more insight: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-s-impeachment-trial-being-tuned-out-america-because-no-ncna1126996
- For more insight: https://www.people-press.org/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019/