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Opinion Democrats can prevent a sham trial in the Senate if they hang tough

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill on Oct. 15. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. (Eric Baradat and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had a plan to quickly dispose of the articles of impeachment just approved by the House: He would hold a two-week sham trial without any witnesses, and then the Senate Republican majority would acquit President Trump, despite the overwhelming weight of evidence showing that he is guilty as charged of abusing his power and obstructing Congress.

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), acting on an idea suggested by Harvard Law Professor Laurence H. Tribe in a Post op-ed, has thrown a spanner into the works by refusing to appoint impeachment managers until there is some guarantee of a fair trial in the Senate. On Thursday, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) suggested that Democrats were willing to wait “as long as it takes” before sending over the articles of impeachment. “It looks like the prosecutors are getting cold feet,” McConnell shot back on Thursday. To the contrary, the prosecutors are getting smart: They realize there is no need to play a rigged game.

The latest Trump impeachment updates

McConnell’s pose as the defender of Senate traditions and the Constitution against the “partisan passions” of the House is a conceit that only Fox News could take seriously. This is the same Senate leader, after all, who refused, contrary to all precedents, to take up the nomination of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016. And, more to the point, this is the same Senate leader who said that he could not be an “impartial juror,” that he would coordinate the Senate trial with the White House and that he would not call any witnesses. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has also said he would not be an impartial juror — in violation of the oath that all senators must swear at an impeachment trial “to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.”

The House impeached Trump, but it was a victory for alternative facts, Russian disinformation and Fox News, says columnist Dana Milbank. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Susan Walsh / AP/The Washington Post)

The current Republican rush to acquit is a long way removed from the last time the Senate held an impeachment trial. That was in 1999, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle agreed on rules for a five-week Senate trial that were unanimously approved by the Senate. In the middle of the proceedings, a majority voted to depose three witnesses: Monica Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan Jr. and Sidney Blumenthal. Clips of their depositions were then played before the Senate. The testimony did not add much to the case against Clinton, but at least it occurred.

The testimony of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Mulvaney senior adviser Robert Blair, former national security adviser John Bolton and top Office of Management and Budget official Michael Duffey — the four witnesses whom Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants to subpoena — could potentially prove far more consequential, because Trump had blocked his senior aides from testifying during the House proceedings. It seems doubtful that any of them would exonerate Trump. Otherwise, why stop them from telling what they know?

McConnell’s position is thoroughly incoherent. On Thursday, he denounced the House proceedings as “the most rushed, least thorough and most unfair impeachment inquiry in modern history.” But rather than hold a thorough and fair trial with witness testimony — as demanded by 70 percent of Americans in a Post-ABC News poll — he wants a proceeding that Clyburn accurately describes as a “kangaroo court.”

McConnell professes to be unworried about Pelosi’s delay in sending over the articles of impeachment. “Frankly, I’m not anxious to have the trial,” he told reporters. “If she thinks her case is so weak she doesn’t want to send it over, throw me into that briar patch.” McConnell may not be worried about holding a trial, but there is good cause to think that the president is. Although Trump occasionally feigns insouciance about impeachment, his anxiety is evident from the deranged, six-page letter he sent to Pelosi on Tuesday, from his record-setting tweeting and from his unhinged performance at a Wednesday night rally in which he suggested that the late congressman John Dingell is in hell because he is so furious that Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who occupies her late husband’s seat, voted in favor of impeachment.

Trump would dearly love to be acquitted by the Senate, and he will not be happy if McConnell denies him what he desires. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times tweets: “POTUS lawyers are looking at various options for proceeding if House doesn’t send articles of impeachment to the Senate. POTUS doesn’t want it to be left hanging that he was impeached and nothing was done by Republicans to defend him in the Senate.”

This suggests that Democrats have a strong hand to play if they don’t fold prematurely. They can force a fair trial with witness testimony. Trump may be so delusional as to imagine that the proceedings will show that his phone call was “perfect” and that he is the victim of a deep state conspiracy. But McConnell and other Senate Republicans know better, which is why they are so reluctant to fully air the evidence in a way that could engage the attention of the American public.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Here’s how long Pelosi should hold onto the articles of impeachment

George Conway: Republican senators run the risk of being shamed by Trump himself

Greg Sargent: The big, ugly lie driving Trump’s rant about being impeached

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans are outmatched, outwitted and outclassed

The Post’s View: Why the House’s impeachment of Trump was completely necessary

Russ Feingold: Senators have a duty to keep an open mind on impeachment

Tom Daschle and Trent Lott: The Senate can hold a fair impeachment trial. We did it in 1999.

The latest commentary on the Trump impeachment

Looking for more Trump impeachment coverage following the president’s acquittal?

See Dana Milbank’s Impeachment Diary: Find all the entries in our columnist’s feature.

Get the latest: See complete Opinions coverage from columnists, editorial cartoonists and the Editorial Board.

Read the most recent take from the Editorial Board: It’s not over. Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable.

The House impeachment managers weigh in in an op-ed: Trump won’t be vindicated. The Senate won’t be, either.

Stay informed: Read the latest reporting and analysis on impeachment from the Post newsroom.

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