On impeachment witnesses, GOP accused of 'cringing abdication'

The Capitol building at dusk.
The Capitol building at dusk.

A week ago at this time, the political world was coming to terms with a bombshell report: former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton had evidence that the allegations against Donald Trump -- charges the president and loyalists spent months denying -- were all true.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who's leading the House impeachment effort, said a week ago this morning, "They've just learned there's a key witness going to the heart of the allegations. The question they have to answer is: Do they want to hear the truth? ... I think all the senators are now really hard-pressed to turn him away."

That night, the Associated Press' headline read, "GOP lacks votes to block trial witnesses, McConnell concedes."

By Friday, however, the prevailing winds had shifted direction, and proponents of a fair and complete trial were stuck with 49 votes. The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne was unrestrained in his new column.

It was painful to watch 51 senators vote away their power to hold the president accountable by rejecting a demand for witnesses and documents in the impeachment trial. The Senate calls itself "the world's greatest deliberative body." Those words will now provoke only derision and sorrowful laughter.This was no ordinary roll call. It was a direct assault on American democracy and our core freedoms. Whatever the flaws of our system, we could once believe that a president who tried to bring down a political opponent by conspiring with a foreign government -- and using American taxpayer dollars in the process -- would be punished. The Trump 51 told us that such faith is for suckers.The moral and intellectual bankruptcy of a party that once crusaded against slavery and led the fight to amend our Constitution to guarantee equal protection under the law was exposed by the tortured rationalizations offered for its capitulation to absolutism.

The Post's editorial board lamented the "cringing abdication of Senate Republicans." The New York Times' editorial board added that Friday's vote against witness testimony "brings the nation face to face with the reality that the Senate has become nothing more than an arena for the most base and brutal — and stupid — power politics. Faced with credible evidence that a president was abusing his powers, it would not muster the institutional self-respect to even investigate."

These assessments are more than fair, though a recent comment from former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly also comes to mind.

"If I was advising the United States Senate," Kelly remarked last week, "I would say, 'If you don't respond to 75 percent of the American voters and have witnesses, it's a job only half done. You open yourself up forever as a Senate that shirks its responsibilities.'"

It's a relevant detail: having a complete and fair trial, including witness testimony, wasn't just the right thing to do. It also wasn't just the principled thing to do. For that matter, it wouldn't just keep senators in line with their solemn oath to pursue "impartial justice." It was also really popular.

By some measures, two-thirds of Americans wanted the Senate to hear from witnesses during the impeachment proceedings. Other polls showed support reaching three-quarters of the public.

In a time in which political divisions run deep, there aren't many contentious issues in which 75% of Americans are on the same page, but in this instance, the vast majority expected senators to do their duty during the presidential impeachment trial.

And 51 Senate Republicans effectively replied, "We don't care what you think."

This raises the possibility of GOP incumbents facing some irritated voters in the fall, but in the short term, it also makes the idea that Republicans will claim that Trump was "exonerated" as part of a "fair" trial that much more ridiculous.