Republicans succeeded in keeping witnesses out of the Senate impeachment trial on Friday—maybe Democrats should count their blessings.
Which is a better position to run with going into November: that the Senate held an open, fair impeachment trial complete with witnesses, was unconvinced, and acquitted Trump? Or that the Republican controlled Senate held a “show trial” and kept witnesses out?
The Senate voted 51-49 against witnesses, with Senators Susan Collins and Mitt Romney the only Republicans voting with Democrats.
An impeachment trial without witnesses is “a job only half done,” charged John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, on Friday. “In my view, [senators] kind of leave themselves open to a lot of criticism. It seems it was half a trial.”
That’s a view that most people appear agree with—polls taken before the vote found that 75 percent of Americans were for witnesses in the trial.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the Democrat House impeachment managers could not have been more insistent on the need to hear from witnesses, like former national security advisor John Bolton, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or other officials with first-hand knowledge of the events surrounding Trump’s freezing of lethal aid to Ukraine.
But would witnesses really have helped Democrats?
If they got their way, they’d still face a monumental task, having to convince two-thirds of the GOP controlled Senate to vote against their president, a president who famously values loyalty above all else, with a vast war chest topping $100 million, a mere months ahead of the general election.
That’s not all. Assuming that the Senate voted to allow witnesses, they would then have to hold a vote on which witnesses and documents to allow. In response to the potentially-damaging testimony of former administration officials like Bolton, whose unpublished manuscript reportedly states that Trump directed him to help extract damaging information on Democrats from Ukraine, Republicans would want to call some witnesses of their own. Witnesses like Vice President Biden and his son Hunter, who made over $80,000 a month to sit on the board of a Ukrainian oil company. They’d want to hear from the whistleblower whose complaint got the impeachment rolling, as well as any of Congressman Adam Schiff’s staff that the whistleblower spoke to.
This would have allowed Republicans to air grievances and give Guiliani’s theory on Biden’s Ukraine corruption scheme a prime-time audience. It could poison voters’ minds on establishment favorite Biden. That’s not what Democrats want—which is why they’ve been so insistent that under no circumstances will they make a trade for witnesses: a Bolton for a Biden, if you will.
Plus, anything that Bolton could testify to has already been said by House witnesses like Jennifer Williams, aide to Vice President Mike Pence, and former national security advisor Fiona Hill. So the supposed “revelations” in Bolton’s book are not actually new. It was reasonable to believe that Republican Senators weren’t going to be swayed by the testimony of officials like Williams, Gordon Sondland, or Hill anyway, so addding Bolton would not have been the ace in the hole the Democrats were seeking. Ditto for Mulvaney.
It’s far easier for GOP senators like Marco Rubio to punt the decision to the American people at the ballot box in November.
Most Americans outside the Beltway bubble aren’t paying attention to impeachment. And they can be forgiven for not having a working knowledge of impeachment procedure—fortunately, we’ve only been through this divisive process a handful of times in our nation’s history. But the witness issue could linger.
Going forward, Democrats will have to find a way to use this loss to their advantage. They have no choice. In politics, as in storytelling, a simple narrative with a kernel of truth is best. “The Democrats have been trying to undo the election since the day Donald Trump was sworn in” has been a very effective line for Republicans; and they were able to make a lot of hay out of the fact that their witnesses were kept out of the House inquiry. Since they weren’t able to convict him, Democrats may find that “a fair trial has witnesses” will serve them equally well going into November.