Pop quiz: Who said, “It’s not unusual to have a witness in a trial. It is certainly not unusual to have a witness in an impeachment trial.”

“The House managers have only asked for three witnesses. I think that’s pretty modest.”

“There have been 15 impeachments in the history of the country. Two of them were cut short by resignations. In the other 13 impeachments there were witnesses.”

Was that (a) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (b) Sen. Elizabeth Warren, or (c) House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff? Sorry, trick question. The answer is (d) None of the above.

That was actually Sen. Mitch McConnell. Surprised? He made those common-sense statements 21 years ago — long before he became Senate Majority Leader — back when the impeached president was Democrat Bill Clinton. Now that it is Republican President Donald Trump who has been impeached, is McConnell singing a different tune?

Indeed he is. As one report explains, “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday knocked talk of calling additional impeachment witnesses….” In fact, just a week prior McConnell signed onto a Senate resolution that would dismiss the impeachment articles against President Trump altogether — and that was after the president’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton offered to testify.

What gives? Unless McConnell is afraid of what these witnesses might say, there is no objective reason for treating one impeachment trial differently from the other on a question as basic as witness testimony. McConnell’s posture in Trump’s trial is suspect not least because the American people already have a darn good idea of what a trial is supposed to look like.

Think about it. Courtroom dramas have dominated the news and pop culture, on television and in movies, for decades. People in America who have never stepped foot in a courtroom are well-acquainted with the scene. First, there’s something like an indictment. That’s when the prosecutor convinces a grand jury or even a judge to declare that enough evidence exists to formally accuse someone of committing a crime. Then there’s a trial — with lawyers, a judge, a jury, and… yes, witnesses! That’s just how it works. Everybody knows this.

No wonder, then, that 70% of voters recently polled in key states — including Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and North Carolina — say that at his impeachment trial, “the Senate should insist on seeing relevant documents and call witnesses who can provide direct, first-hand evidence about President Trump’s actions.” A Republican lawyer who prosecuted President Clinton at his trial agrees. It’s a given.

To be fair to McConnell, a Senate impeachment trial isn’t entirely like a typical trial. The framers explicitly decided not to lodge impeachment trials in the Supreme Court or some other body. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton discussed “the judicial character of the Senate,” describing it as “a court of impeachments.” Among other virtues, the framers believed the Senate is large enough to share the weighty responsibility of judging impeachment — and is composed of the right kind of officials, i.e., politicians — to evaluate “the abuse or violation of some public trust,” what Hamilton described as a “political” offense. That makes the Senate a sort of hybrid of judge and jury in an impeachment trial, which is not what we’re used to seeing on TV.

Still, the basic format of this trial, and whether it is fair or not, will be clear to most who watch it. Someone — in this case, the president of the United States — has been accused of, in Hamilton’s words, “the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Prosecutors from the House of Representatives, where the president was impeached (similar to an indictment), will argue to the Senate why he should be convicted. The president’s lawyers will present his defense, arguing why he should be acquitted. The Chief Justice will preside over the trial to keep order, issue potentially important procedural rulings, and ensure to the extent he can that it runs fairly. All that is missing now for such a trial is the promise that we’ll hear from relevant witnesses, like John Bolton and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, as well as see documents including emails now being blocked by the president.

Will Republican Senators show independence from McConnell and Trump and vote to include these witnesses and documents in the trial? That is the question facing senators.

Ultimately, as Hamilton wrote, “the security to the society must depend on the care which is taken to confide the (public) trust to proper hands.” He meant the care taken by the people in choosing their leaders. When it comes to hearing from relevant witnesses and seeing documents in Trump’s impeachment trial, no senator should forget: That is exactly what We the People want.


This piece also appeared in the Nashville (TN) Tennessean.