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A Dishonorable Senate

A Dishonorable Senate

Republican legislators abdicated their duty by refusing to seek the truth.

By The Editorial Board

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.

  • Jan. 31, 2020

Credit...Illustration by The New York Times; photographs by Getty Images

Alas, no one ever lost money betting on the cynicism of today’s congressional Republicans. On Friday evening, Republican senators voted in near lock step to block testimony from any new witnesses or the production of any new documents, a vote that was tantamount to an acquittal of the impeachment charges against President Trump. The move can only embolden the president to cheat in the 2020 election.

The vote also brings the nation face to face with the reality that the Senate has become nothing more than an arena for the most base and brutal — and stupid — power politics. Faced with credible evidence that a president was abusing his powers, it would not muster the institutional self-respect to even investigate.

The week began with such promise, or at least with the possibility the Senate might not abdicate its constitutional duty. Leaks from John Bolton’s forthcoming book about his time in the White House appeared to confirm the core of the impeachment case against Mr. Trump: his extortion of Ukraine by explicitly conditioning hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid on the announcement of investigations into his political rival.

For a moment, it seemed that enough Senate Republicans would come to their senses, listen to the overwhelming majority of Americans, and demand to hear testimony under oath from Mr. Bolton and maybe even other key witnesses to Mr. Trump’s Ukraine scheme.

How could senators cast such a consequential vote — how could they call what they were doing a trial — without hearing from the people with the most direct knowledge of the actions that led to impeachment? Every impeachment trial in American history had included witnesses.

Some Republicans made a show of concern before throwing up their hands. “I have come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate,” Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said on Friday in explaining her refusal to vote to hear from any witnesses. “I don’t believe the continuation of this process will change anything. It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed.”

On the one hand, this statement was a suffocating tautology: Ms. Murkowski was saying that because the trial would be unfair, she would vote to prevent witnesses, ensuring that the trial would be unfair. On the other hand, her statement was such a searing indictment of the institution’s capacity to perform a critical constitutional function that one wonders how she can bear to work there.

In any case, Ms. Murkowski has it partly right. But it’s not Congress as an institution that has failed; it’s Senate Republicans. They didn’t refuse to hold a fair trial so much as they refused to hold any trial at all. Of course, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader for whom bipartisanship is a dirty word, had promised no less. He announced in December that he planned to work in complete coordination with the White House in protecting the president from any accountability, and that he had no intention of honoring the oath he would take to be an impartial juror.

The irony is stifling. For months, Mr. McConnell and other Republicans complained that the impeachment process was being rushed, that the president was being denied basic procedural protections, and that there was no testimony from those with the most direct knowledge of Mr. Trump’s actions and motivations. Then they refused to hear from a single witness and refused to demand a single document from the White House.

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There’s an obvious explanation for this cover-up: With the exception of Mr. Bolton and a few other key figures, everyone who has provided incriminating evidence about Mr. Trump has done so in public and under oath; and everyone who he claims would exonerate him has either refused to testify or been blocked from testifying by Mr. Trump. Mr. McConnell, calculating that any testimony would be very bad for the president and thus for the Republicans’ Senate majority, persuaded his colleagues to take their lumps and vote no on witnesses.

The precedent this sets is alarming enough: the Senate abandoning its role as the ultimate guard against a dangerous president. Just as bad is the rationale on which most Republicans have settled for refusing to hear from witnesses — that whatever you think of Mr. Trump’s behavior, it wasn’t impeachable, and there is no evidence that could change their minds.

Given the seriousness of the charges against Mr. Trump, it’s hard to envision anything that this president could do that would require Republican senators to vote for his removal.

There is one apt criticism leveled by Republicans, even if they have made it in bad faith: Democrats in the House of Representatives moved too fast in the impeachment process, voting before they could hear from key witnesses like Mr. Bolton. They justified this by pointing to the urgency of the situation. Mr. Trump has accepted foreign assistance to win one election, has actively sought it out for another and has given no indication that he plans to stop doing so. He also pledged to stonewall any congressional inquiry into his behavior, which could have led to months or years of litigation over witnesses and documents.

But would that have been worse than where we are now? Had the House kept the impeachment inquiry open on the grounds that it could not vote until it had completed its investigation, the spotlight would have remained on Mr. Trump and his corrupt behavior. Evidence would have continued to come out, and the American people would get the fullest possible picture of the president’s behavior.

Instead, with the Senate’s blessing for his scheming to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens, Mr. Trump now poses an even greater threat to the next election.

Senate Republicans’ indifference to the overwhelming public support for calling witnesses was of a piece with the party’s minority politics. Its president lost the popular vote by three million votes. Its Senate majority represents 15 million fewer Americans than the Democrats’ minority. In states like North Carolina, it rigs the maps to turn popular-vote losses into legislative majorities, then strips power from duly elected Democratic leaders.

And just in case Americans want to register their unhappiness with Republican leadership, the G.O.P. passes laws across the country to make voting harder and discourage turnout. “I don’t want everybody to vote,” Paul Weyrich, a leader of the modern conservative movement, said in 1980. “Our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

That is becoming the rightful slogan of today’s G.O.P. leaders, who are in thrall to a would-be autocrat, fearful of their own constituents, desperate to lock in control of the courts and the nation's legal system before a diversifying nation can pry their political authority away.

That was the game Mitch McConnell was playing in 2016, when he blocked any consideration of Judge Merrick Garland, the Supreme Court nominee picked by Barack Obama, a popularly elected president, and held the seat hostage until it could be filled by Mr. Trump. That’s the game Mr. McConnell played again this week.

Make no mistake: The Senate may acquit Mr. Trump, but it will not, it cannot, exonerate him. Mr. Trump is the most corrupt president in modern times, a reality Americans will continue to be reminded of — by continuing investigations by the House, which should immediately issue a subpoena to Mr. Bolton; by a trio of cases in the Supreme Court that seek to reveal Mr. Trump’s shady finances; and, of course, by the behavior of the man himself.

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