The U.S. Senate is scheduled to convene today to begin the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. We hope all those involved recognize the importance of devoting the time and attention necessary to do a thorough job and render the most objective decision possible. President Trump has been impeached on two counts: abuse of power by asking the president of Ukraine to launch an investigation into then-Vice President Joe Biden and his son who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company; and obstruction of Congress by fighting a House investigation into the former.
The House impeached the president; it’s similar to an indictment, suggesting that enough evidence exists to prosecute the case. The Senate will conduct the trial and decide if he should be removed from office.
Senators are expected to be objective and fair, and on Thursday they took an oath affirming that they would be. Some Senate leaders, however, have said publicly that they will not be impartial, and some senators have tried to stop the trial and discredit the process. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others have said the will try to make the trial as short as possible and vote for acquittal as soon as they can.
We hope that proves not to be the case.
This is just the third presidential impeachment to go to trial. The first two, against Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, clearly were partisan affairs, and so is this. A fourth impeachment was drawn up against Richard Nixon. With conviction and removal from office likely, Nixon chose to resign before the full House voted to impeach. The current case falls between the Nixon case and the other two. As such its full adjudication and resolution is important, and warrants senators’ full attention and commitment.
Trump and his defensive team don’t deny some of the actions upon which his charges are based. Rather, they assert that the president has the authority to take those actions.
They also suggest that impeachable offenses must violate existing law. The Constitution only states that impeachment does not replace criminal prosecution, that an impeached party “shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” Traditionally people have assumed that the vagueness gave Congress the power to establish its own parameters for impeachable acts, but that assumption has never been tested, or challenged.
Thus, this case does much more than determine whether or not the president remains in office. It sets boundaries for presidential power, and establishes precedent that, if necessary, will help future congresses determine what level of offense warrants removal from office.
Of course, if the sense of the Congress differs in that regard from the outcome of the trial, we can expect efforts to define those boundaries through legislation. Given the partisanship at play in the Capitol, and the fact that the president would have to sign legislation that limits his own powers, any post-trial legislation is sure to be interesting.
But it needs to happen, in order to define the limits of presidential power. It’s a debate that is as old as the nation itself, and a valid, thorough trial will help move us closer to the answer.