Littwin: The Trump Senate impeachment trial, Day Nine

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) is trailed by reporters as she at the U.S. Capitol before the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill on January 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. Collins has stated she wants to hear from witnesses in the trial. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) is trailed by reporters as she at the U.S. Capitol before the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill on January 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. Collins has stated she wants to hear from witnesses in the trial. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

(Update January 31, 11:20 a.m. Lisa Murkowski announces she will vote against witnesses.)

In what may be his last significant vote in a long political career, Lamar Alexander, who is retiring after this term, showed us what the rot at the core of circa-2020 America looks like. For that, I guess, we can thank him.

Lamar! — as some of us will always remember him — represented the last hope that the Senate would vote to force a legitimate impeachment trial. That he voted against witnesses and documents says more about us, probably, than it does about him. 

It didn’t require much courage to vote yes. His vote wouldn’t determine Trump’s future or, more importantly, the future of the country. This wasn’t a vote to convict or to remove Trump from office. It was a vote merely to hear the full case against Trump. Alexander was one of the four potential swing votes, and, as of this writing, two Republicans — Mitt Romney and Susan Collins — said they were voting yes and Lisa Murkowski remained undecided. If three Republicans joined the Democrats, it would put the vote at 50-50, which would mean the motion fails — unless, that is, Chief Justice John Roberts surprises the world by deciding to break the tie himself. I feel confident in suggesting that will never happen.

(By the way, Alexander explained his vote by saying he thought the Democrats had proven their case in showing Trump’s “inappropriate” behavior, but that he didn’t need to hear from witnesses because the behavior didn’t rise to the level of impeachment. In other words, sending out knee breakers to threaten a foreign leader in order to get dirt on your potential political opponent comes in on the scale of horrors as simply “inappropriate.” You could almost laugh. I’m sure somewhere misunderstood Alan Dershowitz was screaming his approval.)

Whatever his vote, Alexander wasn’t going to go out like his Tennessee predecessor, Howard Baker, who, in a much-remembered show of conscience, helped lead Senate Republicans to finally abandon Richard Nixon, forcing him to resign. What Alexander could have given us was maybe a week or two more of a trial and then a wait as the Senate moved on to certain dismissal, which doesn’t get your name in the history books with or without an exclamation point.

But thinking about it, maybe that vote is about the future of the country. The genius of Trump — unstable as it might be — is that he’s a constantly moving target. One scandal bleeds quickly into the next. He is never held accountable for anything because, by the end of the week, you can’t remember what provocation he was guilty of at the beginning. He’s the mass murderer of American norms and he always gets away with it.

This impeachment trial, which never rose to the level of a real trial, was never about removing Trump. In this hyper-partisan time, there were never going to be 20 Republicans sufficiently bold enough to vote to remove the president. At the beginning of the trial, I put the over/under at one Republican voting to convict. Maybe, although I doubt it, Democrats will get as many two Republicans — and they might well lose a few votes from their own party.

But the scheduled vote Friday to hear witnesses was to be a referendum on what may be the last best chance to get the country to focus on just one Trumpian provocation, on just one corrupt moment, on just one opportunity to hear those who work directly with Trump explaining, under oath, how he once again saw his main chance to smear Joe Biden and went after it with both undersized hands. 

If witnesses were to be allowed, former National Security Advisor and stalwart neo-con Republican, John Bolton, would lead the list. As we know from the New York Times reporting on the draft of his new book, Bolton was ready to tell all. His book is called “The Room Where It Happened”, written by someone who was in the room and who knows all. 

The draft version reportedly confirms that Trump’s only interest in Ukraine was in getting dirt on the Bidens. The book is now under review for possible classified material by the National Security Council, which is threatening to hold up its publication or possibly quash it. Does that threat remind you of anyone?

Bolton, who has written six books covering his career in foreign affairs, knows what’s classified and what isn’t. It’s one more threat that, for now, goes unanswered. It’s a witness who begs to be heard from. There is no rationale not to hear him, except for the damage he would do to Trump and, especially, to his enablers, who actually get damaged either way.

What Trump did in Ukraine is thuggery, plain and simple. It’s extortion, plain and simple. And it would be entirely believable even if you’d never seen the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call because it’s exactly the way Trump operates. This is, after all, the same Trump who pays off porn stars, who trades on his office, who spreads lies without a hint of conscience, whose defunct foundation was found to be corrupt, whose defunct university was found to be corrupt, whose bankruptcies and stiffed employees are legion, whose life story is a history of the longest of long cons.

In this case, Trump completely stonewalled the House impeachment process, never handing over a single document or allowing a single witness. The argument is that all future presidents will now have license to do the same, and the argument holds.

In trying to explain Trump’s lack of cooperation, his lawyers argued the House failed to follow precedent, as if Trump gets to determine how the House goes about its impeachment. As we all know, Trump  didn’t cooperate because he rightly believed he didn’t have to — and the Senate Republicans, including Cory Gardner, confirmed the notion. Gardner had already announced he would vote against witnesses, and unlike Alexander, he couldn’t even bring himself to comment on Trump’s level of inappropriateness.

If Nixon had been working with the same Senate, his plumbers could still be on the job. It was Nixon, of course, in his post-presidency interview with David Frost, who infamously said, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” And it’s Trump who has said, in his typically uninformed take on Article II of the Constitution, “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” 

But maybe he’s right and the constitutional scholars have it all wrong. If he is re-elected, he’ll be assured, as he has long supposed, that he can, in fact, do whatever he wants.

At one point in the sham of a Senate trial, lead House manager Adam Schiff summed up the situation while quoting King Lear: “That way madness lies.” And so it does. So it does.

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He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


  1. This one of the BEST commentaries I have read on this whole, abysmal event. Please keep up the excellent work.

  2. The question Warren asked – about whether the chief justice has hurt the credibility of the Supreme Court by participating in a trial with no witnesses or evidence – was a great, pointed, question. Chief Justice Roberts always claims to be concerned about the Supreme Court’s perceived legitimacy.

    And Schiff could have hammered the point by saying “If the ‘witnesses vote’ is 50/50, House Impeachment managers will be making a formal written motion to you, Mr. Chief Justice, asking you to break the tie. You are going to be given the opportunity to chose your place in history, Sir. You will either be remembered as the Chief Justice who ruled that “no President is above the law,” or you will be remembered as the Chief Justice who presided over a Kangaroo Court that gave rise to ‘the Imperial Presidency.'”

    Sadly, Schiff did not say any of that. He dodged Warren’s pointed question, and gave the following response – “I would not say that it contributes to a loss of confidence in the chief justice. I think the chief justice has presided admirably.”

    If the Democrat House Managers DON’T ask Roberts to vote to break the tie, Schiff’s obsequious response will be a telling epitaph for our democratic republic.

  3. Niggling detail .. . I doubt the update came at “July 31, 11:20 a.m. Lisa Murkowski announces she will vote against witnesses.”)

    Thanks for following the process, then writing about it in such a clear fashion.

    I’m hoping the House managers extract the specific details of the process steps the Senators insisted were missing, and then go back to the House to begin a process EXACTLY as described. The House ought to proceed to find out if the Court will support their subpoenas. The House ought to re-visit inherent contempt prosecution with a full House vote for the trial, and bringing witnesses to justify their stance. Ukraine can be brought back as a minor, separate article. The topics of the other on-going investigations should be included. As additional details drip out (Bolton had another NY Times bit today), incorporate them.

    Start the process now. Push it along so that if disaster strikes in November, and Trump is elected again (or he isn’t, but refuses to leave), the lame duck session of the House can be used to pass a new version of the articles, and push it to the Senate to for trial at the start of the 117th Session of Congress.

  4. Ha. John in Denver, thanks for the update on my update. My July notation — since fixed — must have reflected my wish for winter to end.

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