Jan. 29, 2020

Not calling witnesses would set a disastrous new precedent

Media contact: Sean Nealon, 541-737-0787, [email protected]

Source: Chris McKnight Nichols, 541-737-3530, [email protected], @CMcKNichols

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Christopher McKnight Nichols, an associate professor of history and Director of the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University, is available to comment about the latest developments in the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump.

Nichols can be reached at [email protected] or 541-737-3530.

Oregon State University is equipped with on-campus television and radio studios that can be used by journalists. Live or live-to-tape broadcast television studio interviews can be conducted using Vyvx. For radio, Oregon State’s ISDN phone line provides a broadcast-quality audio feed.

McKnight Nichols has these initial thoughts:

“As the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump moves into the question and answer stage, new revelations emerge almost daily. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton's firsthand account of Trump's actions regarding Ukraine has blindsided many in the GOP. Bolton’s allegations appear to directly contradict the President’s defenses and legal arguments. The latest news has shifted the ground on which Republicans were trying to stand firm regarding not calling witnesses and moving forward with a rapid vote to acquit the president. 

“History, too, suggests calling witnesses is essential to having a fair and full trial. In U.S. history, there have been 15 impeachment trials in the Senate that have gone to completion. Every one of those trials involved witnesses and the introduction of evidence.  As with the Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton impeachments, where there were witnesses and evidence produced, both the process and the outcome will be highly partisan. Still, optics matter. Seeming to be hyper-partisan can backfire. And the precedents being set clearly matter a lot. In the Trump Senate trial every vote thus far has been a party line affair. But now it seems the partisan walls may be fracturing. As we turn to a new trial stage, and in the subsequent voting, Senate Republicans (and their allies outside) will need to make a compelling case why this impeachment should differ from all past precedent. If the Senate votes to summon witnesses and fresh evidence, by simple majority vote, the flood gates very well might open.

“Like past presidential impeachments, obstruction, noncompliance, and cover-up have exacerbated the charges. They make the entire process more unwieldy, more politically fraught and thus, more partisan. Unlike past presidential impeachments, however, this one is not about policy differences, specific crimes, or questions of character, but, rather, about national security and the president's ability to use leverage over other nations for personal and political domestic benefit. And it is also about whether the President must provide what Congress requests in terms of oversight. 

“In light of the looming Democratic contest in the Iowa caucuses many are asking about what impeachment portends for the president and his party. If we turn to the past for insights it seems clear the historical precedents are not good for Trump or the Republicans. The party of every President who faced impeachment lost the next presidential election.

“Yes, the likely result of the trial is acquittal. But it isn’t all about the outcome here. The process may be more important in the long term. It is therefore all the more reasonable for Senate Republicans to embrace at least the fig leaf of honest gathering of evidence by calling a few witnesses and seeking out some new relevant testimony and evidence. Not calling witnesses and not gathering new evidence would set a disastrous new precedent. Turning against even hearing or seeing fresh, firsthand evidence is likely to establish an even more partisan pattern for future impeachments, but, perhaps more significantly, it may well represent a new low. This impeachment trial has all the hallmarks of turning point in U.S. history: right now it seems that legislators are poised to acquiesce to limiting Congress’ oversight of the executive branch.  

“When Nixon and Clinton faced impeachment, members of Congress—from both parties—eventually rejected the president’s excesses (at least in part). In contrast, we are at a crucible moment for American democracy. The increasingly unchecked power of the office of the president seems likely to be reaffirmed, excesses and all, at least by Congressional Republicans, but how much they so do so remains to be seen in the days and weeks to come. Not calling witnesses will set a disastrous new precedent.”