In a brief moment Saturday morning, President Trump’s legal team managed to sharply delineate the stark dilemma facing any senator of conscience.

“They’re asking you to remove President Trump from the ballot in an election that’s occurring in approximately nine months,” said White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. “They’re asking you to tear up all of the ballots across this country on your own initiative, take that decision away from the American people.”

That should be a daunting prospect for any senator. Forty-four percent of Americans view Trump favorably, according to a recent poll, matching his highest rating ever. They have that view even knowing (if they choose to know) everything in the case put forward by House managers last week.

To deprive those Americans of the opportunity to vote for their favored candidate has to raise questions for any believer in democracy.

President Trump's impeachment defense could create a dangerous precedent, says constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley. (Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome, Jonathan Turley/The Washington Post)

But just before raising that specter, the White House lawyer told senators this: that after hearing the facts of the case, they “will find that the president did absolutely nothing wrong.”

In other words, to side with the president and allow Americans their choice this November, senators must endorse the preposterous — and also threatening-to-democracy — notion that the president’s behavior is entirely acceptable.

That means, first, accepting propositions that any senator should find insulting to his or her intelligence: That because the president of Ukraine said last fall that he did not feel pressured by Trump in their July 25 telephone call, it must be true — when every senator must understand why, to maintain relations with the United States and save face at home, he would not speak truthfully.

That Trump was concerned about the broad issue of corruption in Ukraine, when there is nothing in the phone call or the larger record to substantiate such a proposition.

That when Trump himself insisted, after he knew his behavior had come under suspicion, that he wanted no “quid pro quo,” that it must be true — because Trump said so.

All that ought to offend any senator.

But it’s not only their self-respect that is in danger.

If they accept the White House defense, senators will accept as precedent for all time that a president may use the powers of his office for personal political gain and against the national interest. This is not a question of a policy dispute; the record is crystal clear that Trump withheld a White House meeting with Ukraine’s leader, an ally who very much needed the meeting to help stand up to Russia, to pressure that leader to announce an investigation that would smear Trump’s possible 2020 rival.

Senators, if they accept the White House formulation, also would enshrine as precedent that the executive branch may decide, without any limit or rebuke, when to cooperate with a congressional investigation and when to defy it. That, too, would upend democracy as the Founders imagined it when they adopted our Constitution.

Of course, the stark choice presented by Cipollone is not the only one open to the Senate. It could convict Trump and remove him from office, but not bar him from competing this fall. That would prevent him from any further abuse of the powers of his office to manipulate the election without depriving Americans of their choice.

The Senate could vote to leave the president in office but censure his behavior.

It could, at a minimum, insist on reading documents relevant to the case and hearing from the firsthand witnesses who, if Trump has his way, would remain muzzled.

All attention is focused right now on a handful of Republican senators who are thought either to have retained a shred of well-hidden independence from the president or to have electoral factors pushing them to pretend to a shred of independence.

But why should they be the only ones under pressure? Every senator has an equal responsibility before history.

A senator of conscience might conclude that Trump’s abuses were so grave that he should be removed and barred — but senators should at least have to confront, as Cipollone said, “the consequences of that for our country.” Democrats shouldn’t be allowed to treat this as a free vote, base-pleasing but inconsequential because they know they are going to lose.

Or a senator of conscience might deem Trump’s behavior wrong but not grave enough to merit impeachment — or wrong and grave, but better judged by the people than by the Senate.

But Republicans no more than Democrats can dodge the consequences of such a vote — and history will not accept kindly as explanation that they feared the wrath of a dishonest president who would accept no verdict other than “perfect.”

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