President Donald Trump’s allies in the Senate want to move forward to an impeachment trial without a commitment to calling witnesses. They insinuate that precedent is on their side, but they’re wrong.
The Senate has heard testimony from witnesses at every trial it has completed in its 231-year history. If the current Senate takes seriously its constitutional responsibility to conduct an impeachment trial of Trump and the oath its members will take to “do impartial justice,” then it must not depart from this unambiguous body of precedent. It must hear from witnesses to the president’s misconduct.
Only 19 other individuals besides Trump have been impeached by the House of Representatives. The Senate completed a trial in 15 of those cases, and in every single one of them, it heard testimony from witnesses. Those cases include the only two prior instances in which a president was impeached. At the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, the Senate permitted House managers to obtain trial depositions of three witnesses — Monica Lewinsky, Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan and White House aide Sidney Blumenthal — and the full Senate viewed video excerpts of those depositions. At the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, the Senate heard testimony from 41 witnesses.
The Senate has obtained testimony from a large number of witnesses in every impeachment trial conducted in the last 50 years:
• 21 in the 1986 trial of Judge Harry Claiborne;
• 55 in the 1986 trial of Judge Alcee L. Hastings;
• 10 in the 1999 trial of Judge Walter Nixon, and 26 in the 2010 trial of Judge Thomas Porteous.
Although at least one senator has suggested that the Senate has no duty to go beyond testimony obtained by the House, that has happened on multiple occasions. The Senate heard from seven witnesses at Walter Nixon’s trial who had not testified before the House; three at Clinton’s trial who also had not testified before the House; and 17 at Porteous’ trial who had not testified before the House.
Four other individuals were impeached but did not face a full Senate trial because the case was abandoned before witnesses could be called. The impeachment trials of three U.S. District Court judges — Mark Delahy, George English and Samuel Kent — were called off after each resigned from the bench. In each case, the judge’s resignation achieved the same result that conviction would have: his removal from office.
Sen. William Blount’s impeachment in 1799 was the fourth case that was abandoned before witnesses could be called. Blount, a senator from the newly admitted state of Tennessee, was engaged in land speculation. According to an official Senate history, Blount feared that the French would gain control of Spanish-held territories in Florida and Louisiana and thus further damage his financial interests. To prevent this potential loss of money, Blount “concocted a scheme for Indians and frontiersmen to attack Spanish Florida and Louisiana, to transfer those territories to Great Britain.” After proof of the scheme emerged, Blount was expelled by the Senate and impeached by the House. At the trial, the Senate ultimately determined that Blount, as a former senator, was not an “officer” within the meaning of the impeachment clauses of the Constitution, a precedent that has little bearing on Trump’s impending trial.
Senate precedent, therefore, is astoundingly clear: In every single case in which the Senate has completed its constitutional obligation to conduct an impeachment trial, lawmakers have heard from fact witnesses before reaching a verdict. The only individuals who were impeached and did not face a full Senate trial with witnesses were individuals who resigned or were expelled from their position before trial.
There is no good reason for the Senate to depart from this unambiguous body of precedent now. The chamber takes great pride in referring to itself as the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” and an impeachment trial of a president is one of the most important responsibilities that it can undertake. Given the stakes for our democracy and for the Senate, it is alarming that any member of the institution would consider voting on the question of whether to remove a president from office without taking every available step to fully get to the bottom of what he did.
The Senate trial represents the last opportunity for Congress to get all relevant information about the Ukraine affair before it renders a verdict. If Trump’s conduct was as perfect as he claims it was, he and the witnesses he has withheld from Congress should have nothing to hide.
At least one witness has already said that he will cooperate: On Monday, former national security adviser John Bolton said he would testify before the Senate if it subpoenaed him. A simple majority vote in the Senate is all that stands in the way of him doing so. There are other witnesses, including acting chief of staff and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who have knowledge of Trump’s misconduct but have yet to provide testimony. The Senate should subpoena them as well.
It is time for each and every senator to decide whether they will uphold their solemn oath to do impartial justice at Trump’s impeachment trial. Departing from Senate precedent by refusing to hear from witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the president’s abuses of power would be a betrayal of that oath. It would also be a betrayal of the American people, who are counting on them to uncover the truth — the whole truth — and to act on it.
Noah Bookbinder is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former federal corruption prosecutor. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.