But the Iran situation shouldn’t distract us from the fierce urgency of the Senate holding a real impeachment trial — the type Senate Republicans are refusing, the type with honest-to-goodness witnesses such as Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, who on Monday announced that he’s prepared to testify if subpoenaed. Instead, Trump’s Iran provocation shows that the legitimacy of his presidency has become impossible without precisely such a trial. That’s because Trump has lost too much trust in Congress, with the American people and overseas for him to do the job required of a president. In the dynamic crisis that will unfold in the months to come, Americans need a president who the people believe has their interests — not his own — at heart.
Since news broke of the U.S. killing of Soleimani, the Trump administration has said, in effect: Trust us. Trump, his national security adviser, his secretary of state and his secretary of defense have, in justifying the widely criticized military action, told various audiences in various ways that Trump deserves their trust. On television, they’ve told the American people that some sort of threat — perhaps imminent, perhaps long-standing — justifies the strike, but they won’t say what that threat was. Yet reports indicate that Trump’s military advisers were “stunned” that he took the intelligence reports and then ordered the attack. In providing Congress with the 48-hour notification required by the War Powers Resolution, the Trump administration has taken the “highly unusual” step of making the entire notification classified (reminiscent of how he has tried to hide all witnesses and documents in his impeachment trial). And in reporting on their engagement with foreign partners, Trump and his team haven’t conveyed what they told those partners but, nonetheless, reported that most partners have “been fantastic” in supporting Trump’s actions. In all of these actions, the message is that they can’t tell us why Trump did this, but, well, trust us.
We have both served in senior national security positions. Tough national security decisions often demand trust. The strategy and policy calls that presidents must make often rely on classified information and internal discussions. And even the legal justifications frequently require applying legal tests to facts that remain secret. While the Trump team’s approach over the past week takes secrecy to a whole new level, the basic point remains that justifying presidential national security decisions does demand some baseline level of trust in a president.
And that’s where Trump falls woefully short — and why he needs a real Senate trial if he is to continue as president. Trump’s team has been asking for trust from Congress, the American people and foreign partners, but they’re not getting it. There’s widespread disbelief in the precise nature of the threat that suddenly justified a major policy escalation, in the soundness of the decision-making that led to that escalation, and even in whether the intelligence community’s analysis informed that decision-making. That’s unsustainable for a president — but entirely understandable for Trump.
After all, Trump’s credibility — especially on national security matters — is in tatters now that the Ukraine extortion scandal has been exposed. Thanks to the whistleblower complaint, testimony from his own administration officials before Congress and internal emails that the Trump administration fought to keep secret and even then redacted selectively, the world knows that Trump has, simply put, lied. He has lied about having a “perfect” phone call with Ukraine’s president, when in fact Trump invited foreign interference in a U.S. election. And he continues to lie about it. That is why about half of the country supports his impeachment — because he lied about a national security matter.
Trump’s lies have been specifically focused on covering up his abuse of public trust for private gain. That’s what the Ukraine call was all about: Trump abused the public trust bestowed in him to manage American relationships with foreign partners like Ukraine for the private gain of getting Ukraine to dirty Trump’s leading political rival, Joe Biden. And that’s what energized the two articles of impeachment approved last month by the House of Representatives.
So it’s no surprise that people don’t believe Trump now when he says to trust him. Instead of acting innocent, Trump has acted like a guilty man — hiding the evidence and attacking the investigators. Trump has been accused, in duly approved articles of impeachment, of abusing that trust before; it’s more than possible to imagine he’s abusing them again in his justifications for a decision to kill Soleimani that, all too conveniently, has shifted the spotlight away from Trump’s impeachment.
But there’s a way for Trump to clear his name, if he has been wrongly accused (as he claims). It’s for the Senate to hold a real impeachment trial. That means a trial with real witnesses, including witnesses like Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, whose testimony Trump blocked before the House, as well as Trump’s testimony. It means a trial with real evidence, including critical Office of Management and Budget emails that Trump continues to fight in court to keep secret. And it means a trial with real adjudicators — senators who’ll live up to the oath they’ll swear to listen impartially and then, only after hearing the facts, make a judgment. If Trump is so sure what he did was perfect and beautiful, go tell the American people that. Under oath.
Trump has the legal mechanisms to rebut the strong claims that he has abused the American people’s trust. All it takes is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) providing what the vast majority of Americans demand: a real Senate impeachment trial, not a sham. Or all it takes is four Republican senators to insist on it. If Trump’s action toward Iran is justified, the nation would benefit immensely from having the president cleared of wrongdoing by a trial.
The Soleimani saga shows how desperately our country needs a president we and the world can trust. The Ukraine scandal explains why we don’t have one. The two are intimately linked. And a genuine Senate trial is what both demand — urgently.
Correction: An earlier version of this article quoted Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) out of context. Meadows did not say the strike against Soleimani should shield Trump from impeachment; he contrasted Trump's actions against Iran with Democrats' moves on impeachment.