Republicans will then count on the media’s both-sidesing instincts to treat the story as a conventional Washington tit-for-tat, in which one side wants witnesses, and the other does not, without clearly conveying the core objective realities about the situation needed to appreciate the lopsided absurdity of the Trump/GOP position.
With House Democrats set to send articles of impeachment to the Senate, numerous Senate Republicans are now nixing a proposal — which Trump supports — to change Senate rules to allow for the dismissal of impeachment charges at any time. But how they’re doing this contains a key tell.
Here, for instance, is Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee:
“We’re taking an oath to be impartial,” he said, “and that to me means we have a constitutional duty to hear the case, ask our questions and then decide whether we want additional evidence in terms of documents or witnesses.”
Note the sleight of hand: It’s an “impartial” fulfillment of “constitutional duty” to hear the case, and then decide whether the Senate will allow additional evidence and witnesses. In comparison to outright dismissal at the outset, not allowing for either will magically be transformed into an impartial approach.
“I think our members, generally are not interested in the motion to dismiss. They think both sides need to be heard,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who is part of GOP leadership.
Similarly, this lays the groundwork to portray an eventuality in which no additional evidence or witnesses are permitted as both sides being heard.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claims he has 51 votes for a process in which opening arguments are heard first, after which there will be votes on whether to dismiss the charges and on whether witnesses and additional evidence will be heard. It’s not entirely clear that McConnell has those 51 votes, but it seems likely.
If so, after opening arguments from both sides, Republicans could either vote to dismiss the trial or vote to proceed with zero witnesses and new evidence if 51 GOP senators support doing so, according to this Politico overview. Though Democrats could force tough votes, the bottom line is that Republicans could lose three GOP senators and still pull this off.
Now, if any vulnerable GOP senators do vote for dismissal or against new witnesses, Democrats will work to extract a political price for it. This worries McConnell, who wants to ensure that vulnerable senators can “credibly claim to voters that they took their constitutional duties seriously,” as the New York Times puts it.
And so, if either of those — a dismissal, or no new witnesses or evidence — does take place, the spin would then become that this is a fair and impartial process, relative to the dismissal at the outset that some Trump allies demanded.
Trump’s media allies are also floating another related trick. They are calling for a “one for one” approach: If Democrats get to call former national security adviser John Bolton, then Trump’s defenders get to call, say, Hunter Biden. This is absurd on its face:
Beyond that, it’s doubtful that Trump and McConnell would even want such an outcome. Trump cannot permit testimony from witnesses such as Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, because they have direct knowledge of his actual conduct — his freezing of military aid to Ukraine — even in exchange for Hunter Biden, since Trump’s entire narrative about the Bidens is mostly an invention.
Indeed, the idea is likely an obvious ruse: The goal, again, is to spin a no-witnesses outcome as a fair one. This banks on both-sidesing media coverage playing along: Not hearing from witnesses with direct knowledge of Trump’s extortion scheme will get placed on a plane of equivalence with not hearing from the Bidens. Neither side got its way!
Please get this right, media
It’s true that the structure McConnell wants — opening statements, then votes on dismissal and witnesses — mirrors the one employed for Bill Clinton’s trial. But in this case, glaring realities make the situation very different.
So let’s hope coverage of this standoff includes the following:
- McConnell flatly vowed to run the trial in absolute coordination with Trump’s legal team. This must not be treated as mere tactical or procedural shrewdness. It cannot be squared with impartiality.
- Trump actually called for a trial before deciding he didn’t want one. Notably, he did so when he thought it would include only witnesses he wants, such as the Bidens. Only after Trump realized that a trial could mean hearing from incriminating witnesses did he oppose having one.
- Trump already blocked the witnesses Democrats want from testifying to the House, precisely because they have the most direct knowledge of his freezing of military aid. So a vote against witnesses is a vote to never hear from those with this direct knowledge of Trump’s corruption.
- The witnesses Democrats want have direct knowledge of the conduct for which Trump was impeached, conduct that actually did happen. The Bidens can shed zero light on that conduct, and just about everything Trump claims the Bidens did is invented. So in no sense are the two sides’ demands for witnesses equivalent.
A lot is riding on the coverage getting this right.