Teszler: Time for a Fair Trial

Rob Portman needs to do better.

by Max Teszler | 1/30/20 2:25am

If a juror declared the defendant innocent before the trial even began, would you consider that fair? Of course not — but that seems to be a perfectly acceptable standard for Sen. Rob Portman ’78 (R-OH), despite his “moderate” bona fides when it comes to impeachment. Explosive reports that former national security adviser John Bolton can provide firsthand confirmation of the President’s corruption have yet to yield any definitive statement from the Senator. 

Back in December, Portman declared, “I don’t see the evidence that leads to an impeachable offense” — after the testimony of several ambassadors corroborated Trump’s pressure campaign to get political dirt on his opponents. After proclaiming the President innocent before the trial even started, Portman suggested instead that voters be allowed “to take this into the election” — a reasonable-sounding statement which masks Portman’s dereliction of one of the Senate’s most sacred roles in upholding American democracy.

Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution could not be more clear: “The Senate shall have the sole [p]ower to try all [i]mpeachments,” with each senator serving “on [o]ath or [a]ffirmation” as a fair juror. The impeachment process was intended specifically to remove public servants who abused their office and warranted swift removal. Portman seems willing to punt on that job, saying the American people should simply be content to sit around with a corrupt president, who, by the way, Portman considers unquestionably innocent. If this is the “reasonable” position, it only shows how far the standards have fallen.

Even the most basic standards of fairness at this trial have been hard-won. At the start of the trial, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has promised “total coordination” with the President on the impeachment issue, wanted to compress the House’s presentation to just two days. To his credit, Portman helped lead a group of senators to instead space out the testimony over three days. Such a step was vitally necessary — many senators have expressed discomfort with the long hours and tight rules, which includes a ban on snacking, talking and drinking caffeinated beverages.

McConell’s proposed two-day timeline would have made each day of the trial 12 hours long, further taxing the senators and pushing hearings into the late hours of the night, long past primetime coverage. It was an open attempt to suppress the fair functioning of the Senate. Portman hardly deserves praise for opposition to something so nakedly biased. Really, his actions were the bare minimum.

Compare this to Portman’s zealousness during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Like Trump, Clinton abused the power of his office, taking advantage of a young intern and lying about it under oath. Portman voted to charge Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice, declaring, “...the President, by the very nature of his office — has a special responsibility to set an example.” Mr. Portman, does a president who asks a foreign leader for a personal political favor meet this high standard? Does illegally withholding foreign aid and being rebuked by it for by the Government Accountability Office “set an example”?

Polling demonstrates that a strong majority of Americans rightfully take the President’s conduct in Ukraine very seriously. Fifty-eight percent of respondents in a CNN poll thought the President abused his power; 74 percent of Americans in a recent AP poll thought the President had done something illegal or unethical in terms of Ukraine. Strong majorities also support additional testimony, with about seven in 10 in both polls in favor of the Senate calling more witnesses. Admittedly, the numbers narrow on the question of Trump’s removal — the most recent Fox news poll finds removal favored 50 percent to 44 percent, similar to CNN’s 51 percent to 45 percent, suggesting a narrow majority in favor of removal. These numbers demonstrate that any senator, Portman included, should give Trump a fair trial. Americans are rightly convinced that Trump abused his power, and they deserve serious consideration of removal.

Even many Democrats will admit that they think nothing will come out of the impeachment process. Republicans like Portman will stand by the President no matter what the trial reveals, leaving Trump in office. I am not denying that very strong possibility. But this is a matter of principle.

No matter what the Senate does, we as American citizens cannot let apathy and low standards define the political process. The senators are our elected representatives, and if they purposefully and proudly neglect their essential duties, they deserve to be voted out.

There remains one hopeful possibility: Portman has not ruled out calling additional witnesses after the conclusion of oral arguments. Such a step is obviously necessary. Trump associate Lev Parnas recently outlined a coordinated White House effort to shake down the Ukrainian government, with details corroborated by damning tapes of the President’s “take her out” demand regarding his own Ambassador to Ukraine.

Sen. Portman, vote for new witnesses, especially Bolton. Oppose a coordinated cover up. Fulfill the basic responsibilities of a thorough investigation and a fair trial. Perhaps that isn’t a popular position to take right now as a senate Republican, but it is the only justifiable one. Portman has a chance to take a stand — now let’s see if he has the courage to do so.