Does the impeachment trial need witnesses?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

What’s happening

Ever since the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump last month, a key point of contention has been whether the impending Senate trial would include witness testimony.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he prefers a swift trial with no new witnesses. Democrats in the Senate want to hear from administration officials at the center of Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton. On Monday, Bolton said he’d be willing to testify if subpoenaed by the Senate. 

All procedural rules for the trial are decided by a majority vote. With 53 Republicans in the Senate, only a handful of GOP senators would need to break party ranks to force McConnell to call witnesses. So far, Mitt Romney is the only Senate Republican to publicly call for testimony. 

On Tuesday, McConnell said he has the 51-vote majority needed to start the impeachment trial but would postpone a decision on whether to call witnesses.

Why there’s debate

Democrats have accused McConnell of trying to rush through a rigged trial without properly investigating allegations that Trump abused his power by withholding military aid from Ukraine. “A trial without all the facts is a farce,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said. The public would be denied the opportunity to fully judge the president's actions without hearing from the people closest to him, Democrats have argued. Bolton’s willingness to testify means Republicans have “run out of excuses” for refusing to call witnesses, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. 

McConnell and many Republicans say they’re under no obligation to call witnesses, given that the Senate trial will almost certainly end in an acquittal that allows Trump to remain in office. They argue that Democrats had the chance to pursue testimony from anyone they wanted when they controlled proceedings in the House, but chose not to pursue legal channels that could have compelled reluctant administration officials to appear.

The president has reportedly advocated for a made-for-TV spectacle of a trial, with witness testimony from those he sees as political enemies — like Joe Biden and Adam Schiff, who led the House impeachment inquiry. Trump has recently shifted his thinking on the matter, according to reports.

What’s next

Nancy Pelosi announced on Friday that she plans to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate next week. Once the articles have been received, McConnell can start the trial — with the question of witnesses still unanswered — as soon as he likes. 

Perspectives

Witnesses are necessary

Witnesses are necessary to fully judge Trump’s guilt or innocence 

“A standard requiring proof of corrupt motive beyond a reasonable doubt is unworkable without witnesses. Testimony of witnesses who spoke directly with the president can raise or dispel doubts about motive and should be given the chance to perform that essential function.” — Evan A. Davis, The Hill

A witness-free trial would be illegitimate 

“The Senate impeachment trial will be a sham unless top administration officials testify.” — Editorial, New York Times

Witnesses would make the trial more fair for all parties

“A trial with witnesses would be both fair to Trump, whose lawyers should be able to cross-examine them, and in the national interest.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times

The impeachment trial would be incomplete without hearing from Bolton

“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was dreadfully wrong from the start to say he might hold a trial without witnesses. Now, though, his excuses have run out. … With Bolton now available to the Senate without the need of a separate court fight, it would be unconscionable for McConnell not to hear his witness.” — Quin Hillyer, Washington Examiner

The Senate has power to compel testimony that the House lacks

“If the Senate wishes to conduct a fair trial and provide the American people with the witnesses and evidence that heretofore has been hidden by the Trump administration, there is no need to interrupt a Senate trial to go to court to obtain relief.” — James Robenalt, Bulwark

No witnesses needed

The Founders gave the majority party the right to dictate procedures

“The Constitution gives virtually no guidance about what an impeachment trial is supposed to look like, and the courts have also said they can’t weigh in. … So just as Republicans had little control over the impeachment inquiry in the House, Democrats are now faced with a process where a majority of Republican senators can set the rules of the road.” — Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, FiveThirtyEight

Democrats had the chance to hear from more witnesses and chose not to

“House Democrats could have gone to court to get a ruling on the president’s claim of executive privilege, possibly compelling the testimony. But once the Democrats voted to impeach, they lost any chance of having federal courts order Trump’s staff testify.” — Betsy McCaughey, Fox News

The Senate should only consider evidence presented in the House inquiry

“The goal seems to be to turn the Senate trial into a second impeachment investigation ad infinitum. Keep the machinery running, and who knows what else might turn up that pressures Republicans to convict. This isn’t what the Founders intended for the Senate trial, which is supposed to judge the President based on the charges in the House articles.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

The House should solicit Bolton’s testimony

“Given the fact that McConnell has already conceded he is not willing to be an impartial juror in these proceedings and is in fact coordinating with Trump’s legal team, the public would be better served if any testimony provided by Bolton is conducted in the Democrat-controlled House.” — Kurt Bardella, NBC News

Bolton’s testimony is unlikely to move the needle on impeachment 

“The idea that Bolton’s going to cooperate in any meaningful way, and that his testimony will advance the case against the president in any meaningful way, requires a suspension of disbelief that rivals that of the Brooklyn Bridge.” — Charles P. Pierce, Esquire

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