There was plenty of theater, but no drama.
Wednesday’s impeachment of President Donald Trump in the House has been a foregone conclusion for weeks. The final vote coming along party lines was equally predictable.
The stage now moves across the Capitol to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been working closely with the White House to set up a quick, quiet and equally scripted end to this process.
It’s a narrative that former Utah Rep. Chris Cannon has seen play out before. Cannon was one of the House managers, essentially the Republican’s prosecutors, who made the case to the Senate for the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton.
“What the Senate did in the Bill Clinton impeachment is destroy any relationship between what a trial meant in Anglo-American thinking and what the Senate had to do in impeachment,” Cannon told me Wednesday.
Over three days, the managers presented their case to the Senate, three days for Clinton’s defense, followed by written questions for the managers, read to them by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
It wasn’t much of a trial — no testimony from witnesses (depositions were taken in private and excerpts were released publicly) and no direct argument between the two sides. The Senate then delivered a “not guilty” verdict. As far as process, it set a precedent.
“That gives McConnell enormous power to do just about anything he wants now,” Cannon said.
He’s right, and McConnell is not doing much to hide the cards in his hand.
“We will be working through this process, hopefully in a fairly short period of time, in total coordination with the White House counsel’s office and the people who are representing the president in the well of the Senate,” McConnell told Sean Hannity last week.
“This thing will come to the Senate,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., “and it will die quickly, and I will do everything I can to make it die quickly … I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.”
If one shares Trump’s view that he was the victim of a partisan witch hunt in the House, maybe it’s a fitting end and nothing will change your mind.
For the rest of the country — the majority, according to polls — there are serious concerns about the president’s withholding of aid to Ukraine unless they agreed to announce a corruption probe that would have benefitted Trump politically.
Among those troubled by Trump’s actions is Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who said, “By all appearances, the president’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”
Romney, unlike the rest of us, is in a position to do something about it.
The rules that will govern the Senate trial are decided by a majority, 51 of the senators. Republicans hold 53 seats, meaning a small group of four Republicans could unite to assure the allegations against the president are treated with the gravity they deserve.
Unlike McConnell, the freshman senator isn’t tipping his hand.
“On that and all matters relating to impeachment, I’m talking with colleagues; we’ll continue deliberations,” he told my colleague Thomas Burr, this week. “I don’t have anything for you on that now. But I will eventually.”
“Eventually” is coming.
Romney said he plans to be a careful, deliberate juror, and we should take him at his word. It seems unlikely that Romney will vote to remove Trump from office and it’s more unlikely it will matter — it takes two-thirds of the Senate to achieve that.
But he can stand up for the process the Constitution set out to check a president’s conduct and the integrity of the Senate as it embarks on that duty.
He can also stand up for his constituents who, according to a recent Utah Policy poll, are essentially divided on the issue — 43% supporting removing the president, 47% opposing it. It shows they are taking the matter seriously and deserve to see their lawmakers do the same.
If, as Romney has said, he considers the president’s actions “troubling in the extreme,” it’s time for him to back up those words with actions and not stand by why Republican leaders coordinate with the White House to stage a sham trial to whitewash that conduct.