Republicans have to remember that it will look just a tad fishy when this plays out on national TV. Let’s say Democrats try to introduce a critical witness or incriminating documents from Rudolph W. Giuliani’s henchman Lev Parnas, explaining what the information or witness will prove. Republicans expect to leap to their feet demanding we close our eyes and ears to evidence already in the public domain. The chief justice will rule on admission of evidence (in all likelihood, asking about relevance and the importance of the evidence). If he allows relevant evidence in, only to be overruled by the Senate, it may be the first time a coverup is conducted on live TV with the entire country watching. The optics of a coverup look really bad for Republicans.
Democratic managers should keep in mind five guidelines as they proceed, remembering at all times that they have two audiences, the Senate and the voters.
1. The public must be told Trump and Senate Republicans are hiding critical witnesses and documents. The House managers must put the Senate, as much as Trump, on trial. Trump has blocked nine key witnesses and refused to turn over so much as a scrap of paper. The House managers should remind voters that in every impeachment trial over 240-plus years, there have been witnesses. Managers should feel free to bring an empty chair for the missing witnesses and a blowup of an email entirely blacked out. The image of a coverup should be blasted out to the country.
A House aide authorized only to speak on background said on Friday that 41 witnesses appeared in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, while three witnesses gave depositions in the Bill Clinton impeachment that were recorded and played for the Senate. “There’s no precedent for a presidential impeachment trial in the Senate with no witnesses,” the aide said. “Leader McConnell and other senior Senate Republican officials voted to call witnesses during the Clinton impeachment but now are desperate to rig the process to protect President Trump and deny the American people the truth.”
2. Explain the seriousness of the charges. We have never had a president try to extort a foreign power to get dirt on a rival. We’ve never had a president illegally disable aid to put the screws on an ally at war with a common enemy (Russia) simply to benefit his own political interests. This is not only impeachable conduct but the worst conduct by any president in history — a plain betrayal of his oath and of our national security (which requires Russia be kept in check).
3. Explain the consequences of allowing a stonewall to succeed. There is no power of impeachment if a president can prevent all evidence of his impeachable conduct from seeing the light of day by assertion of bogus privileges. None other than Kenneth W. Starr, testifying in the Clinton impeachment proceedings, agreed:
If the president can block evidence of impeachable acts, he is unrestrained. The system of checks and balances is thwarted.
4. “So what?” helps Democrats, not Republicans. When Trump’s lawyers holler that the House was out to get Trump or that Hunter Biden was trading on his father’s name or that the aid eventually reached Ukraine, it’s Democrats who must say, “So what?” In a trial, there is no whataboutism or ad hominem attacks; there are facts. The only question is what did this president do. Pointing out over and over again that Trump has no facts on his side will be critical in convincing the public that acquittal is simply a whitewash. By contrast, if Republicans want to argue that even if all the facts present are true but that a president can abuse his office and obstruct Congress, the task of Democratic managers is to make certain persuadable Republicans and the public understand Trump is arguing for a monarchy. (See #3)
5. Remind senators of the unknown unknowns. Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said of the Iraq War: “There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. . . . There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
A known unknown here would be the story former national security adviser John Bolton has to tell. Senators know he is out there with a book deal but have no idea just how incriminating his account might be. However, the list of unknown witnesses and documents is vast. Who knows what other civil servants, Ukrainians, Giuliani cronies and Southern District of New York prosecutors’ witnesses have on Trump? The potential for senators to become a laughingstock and be cast as aiding and abetting Trump’s coverup is potentially immense.
In sum, House managers need to make sure the Senate is presented with a case so solid that, first, refusal to allow witnesses implicates the Senate in the coverup, and, second, an acquittal is perceived as non-credible. They cannot force Republican senators to do their jobs, but they can prevent Trump’s exoneration in the eyes of the public. At the end, the public should know that Trump committed impeachable acts and also know that the Republican senators know it — but refused to uphold their oaths.