02.05.20

Rendering Of A Verdict In Trial Of President Donald J. Trump

. . . Senate Floor

I entered the Senate in the wake of Watergate in 1975, a time when the American people’s faith in our institutions was profoundly shaken.  The very first vote I cast was in favor of creating the Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans – that is, the Church Committee.  Through that Committee’s work, the American public soon learned of years of abuses that had occurred at the hands of the executive branch’s intelligence agencies.  In response, the Senate passed sweeping reforms to rein in this overreach.  In many ways, this represented the best of the Senate: we came together across party lines to thoroughly investigate, and ultimately curb, gross executive branch abuses.

The Senate has never been perfect.  And much has changed in the 45 years I have served in this body.  Yet today we face a similar test: whether the Senate, in the face of egregious misconduct directed by the President himself, will rise again to serve as the check on executive abuses our Founders intended us to be. 

But today, and throughout this “trial,” we are failing this test and witnessing the very worst of the modern Senate.  After being confronted with overwhelming evidence of a brazen abuse of executive power, and an equally brazen attempt to keep that scheme hidden from Congress and the American people, the Senate is poised to look the other way.  To simply move on.  To pretend the Senate has no responsibility to reveal the President’s misconduct and, God forbid, hold him to account.

Indeed we are being told the Senate has no constitutional role to play, and only the American people should judge the President’s misconduct in the next election.  This is despite the Senate’s constitutionally-mandated role, and despite the fact that the President’s scheme was aimed at cheating in that very election.  And now the Senate is cementing a cover-up of the President’s misconduct, to keep its extent hidden from the American people.  How, then, will the American people be equipped to judge the President’s actions?  How far the Senate has fallen.

In some ways, President Nixon’s misconduct – directing a break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters to benefit himself politically – seems quaint compared to what we face today.  As charged in Article I, President Trump secretly directed a sweeping, illegal scheme to withhold $400 million in military aid from an ally at war in order to extort that ally into announcing investigations of his political opponent to boost his re-election.  Then, instead of hiding select incriminating records, as President Nixon did, President Trump attempted to hide every single record from the American people.  As reflected in Article II, President Trump has the distinction of being the only president in our nation’s history to direct all executive branch officials not to cooperate with a congressional investigation.

I want to be clear:  I did not relish the prospect of an impeachment trial.  I have stark disagreements with this President on issues of policy and the law, on morality and honesty.  But it is for the American people to judge a president on those matters.  Today is not about differences over policy.  It is about the integrity of our elections, and it is about the Constitution.

The Constitution cannot not protect itself.  During this trial, the words of Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Lincoln have frequently been invoked on behalf of our Constitution.  Now it is our turn to record our names in defense of our democracy.

In Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton described impeachment as the remedy for “the abuse or violation of some public trust.”  Although that definition has guided the nation for 230 years, President Trump’s counsels would have us rely on a very different definition.

The central arguments presented by the President’s defense team were stunning.  The President argues that we cannot convict him because abuse of power is not impeachable.  He can abuse his power to benefit his re-election, and engage in improper quid pro quos, so long he believes his re-election is in the national interest.  King Louis XIV of France – who famously declared “I am the State” – might approve of that reasoning, but the Senate should condemn it.  The President and his attorneys even argue that a president may welcome and even request foreign governments to “dig up dirt” on their opponents with impunity.  Yet not only are such requests illegal, they violate the very premise of our democracy – that American elections are decided only by Americans. 

The Senate should flatly reject the President’s brazen and dangerous arguments.  But an acquittal today will do the opposite.  If you believe that the President’s outlandish arguments are irrelevant after today, and will have no lasting impact on our democracy, remember this:  The President’s counsel’s claim that abuse of power is not impeachable is largely – and mistakenly – based on the argument of another counsel, Justice Benjamin Curtis, defending another president from impeachment, President Johnson.  That was 150 years ago.  

What we do today will set a weighty precedent.  An acquittal today – despite the overwhelming evidence of guilt, and following a sham of a trial – may fundamentally, and perhaps irreparably, distort our system of checks and balances for another 150 years.

And what a sham trial it was.  The fact that this body would not call a uniquely critical witness who has declared his willingness to testify, John Bolton, is beyond outrageous.  And why?  To punish the House for not taking years to first litigate a subpoena and then litigate every line of testimony?  Or is it because testimony detailing this corrupt scheme, no matter how damning, would not alter the Majority Leader’s pre-ordained acquittal?

The Senate had a constitutional obligation to try this impeachment impartially.  Yet the Senate willfully blinded itself to evidence that will soon be revealed.  Senate Republicans even defeated a motion merely to consider and debate whether to seek critical documents and key witnesses.  The notion that the Senate could retain the title of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” following this charade rings hollow.

It is often said that history is watching.  I expect that’s true.  But in this moment we are not merely witnesses to history – we are writing it.  It is ours to shape.  And let me briefly describe the dark chapters we are inscribing in the story of our republic today.

In his farewell address, George Washington warned us that “foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”  Yet, as a candidate, President Trump famously requested that Russia hack his political opponent’s emails.  Hours later, Russia did.  The President then weaponized Russia’s criminal influence campaign, which resulted in an investigation that uncovered a morass of inappropriate contacts with Russians, lies to cover them up, multiple instances of the President’s obstruction of justice, and 37 other indictments and convictions.  Yet, after the saga concluded, the President felt liberated.  Literally the day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified, the President asked the Ukrainian president “for a favor.”  He has since publicly repeated his request for Ukraine to intervene in our election, and made the same request to China, on national television.

All of us must ask:  If we acquit President Trump today, what will he do tomorrow?  None of us knows.  But two things I am confident of: President Trump’s willingness to abuse his office, and his eagerness to exploit foreign interference in our elections, will only grow.  And, crucially, Congress’s capacity to do anything about it will be crippled.   

While the President’s lawyers stood on the Senate floor and admonished the House Managers for failing to litigate each subpoena in court to exhaustion, he had other lawyers in court making the mutually exclusive argument that Article III courts have no jurisdiction to settle disputes between our two branches.  Such duplicity would put the two-faced Roman God Janus to shame.  Meanwhile, the President’s Department of Justice claims not only that President Trump cannot be indicted while in office, he cannot even be investigated.  

But don’t worry, the President’s lawyers promise us, the President is still not above the law because Congress can hold him in check through our confirmation power and power of the purse.  Neither would come close to checking a lawless executive.  It is well known that the President has effectively stopped nominating senior officials in his administration.  He has now set a modern record for acting cabinet secretaries.  The President has said that he prefers having acting officials, who bypass Senate scrutiny, because they are easier to control. 

More crucially, with this vote today, we inflict grave damage on our power of the purse.  I am the Vice Chairman of Appropriations, a Committee on which I have served for 40 years.  Members of this Committee not only write the spending bills, they are the guardians of this body’s power of the purse, granted exclusively to Congress by the Founders to counter “all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches.”  The Framers, having broken free from the grip of a monarchy, feared an unchecked executive who would use public dollars like a king: as a personal slush fund.  Yet this is precisely what President Trump has done. 

If we fail to hold President Trump accountable for illegally freezing congressionally appropriated military aid to extract a personal favor, what would stop him from freezing disaster aid to states hit by hurricanes and flooding until governors or home state senators agree to endorse him?  What would stop any future president from holding any part of the $4.7 trillion budget hostage to their personal whims?  The answer is nothing.  We will have relinquished the very check that the Founders entrusted to us to ensure a president could never behave like a king.  

The President’s defense team also argued that impeachment is inappropriate unless it is fully bipartisan.  Decades ago, I questioned whether an impeachment would be accepted if not bipartisan.  But this argument has revealed itself to be painfully flawed.  In 1974, Republicans ultimately convinced President Nixon to resign; in 1999, Democrats condemned President Clinton’s private misconduct and supported a formal censure.  In contrast, with one important exception, President Trump’s supporters have thus far shown no limits in their tolerance of overwhelming misconduct; they even chased out of their party a Congressman who stood up to the President.  Indeed, a prerequisite for membership in the Republican Party today appears to be the belief that he can do no wrong.  Under this standard, claiming that President Trump’s impeachment would only be valid if it were supported by his most unflinching enablers renders the impeachment clause null and void.

That said, I do understand the immense pressure my Republican friends are under to support this President.  I know well how much easier it is for me to express my disgust and disappointment that the President has proven himself so unfit for his office.  That is one reason why I feel it is important to make a commitment right now.  If any president, Republican or Democrat, uses the power of his or her office to extort a foreign nation to interfere in our elections to do the president’s domestic political bidding, I will support their impeachment and removal.  It is wrong, no matter the party. And we all should say so.

Before I close, I want to thank the brave individuals who shared their testimony with both the House of Representatives and American people.  Each of these witnesses served this President in his administration.  And they have served their country.  They witnessed misconduct originating in the highest office in world, and they spoke up.  They did not hide behind the President’s baseless order not to cooperate.  Most knew that by stepping forward they would be attacked by the President and some of his vindictive defenders.  Yet they came forward anyway.  We owe them our enduring appreciation.  They give me hope for tomorrow.

Yet today is a dark day for our democracy.  And what frightens me most is this: We are currently on a dangerous road, and no one has any idea where this road will take us.  Not one of us here knows.  But we all know our democracy has been indelibly altered.

The notion that the President has learned his lesson is farcical.  The President’s lead counsel opened and closed this trial by claiming the President did nothing wrong.  The President himself describes his actions as “perfect.”  On 75 separate occasions, including yesterday, he’s claimed he’s done nothing wrong.  Lord help us if the Senate agrees.  The only lesson the President has learned from this trial is how easily he can get away with egregious, illegal misconduct.

If the Senate does not recognize the gravity of President Trump’s “violation of the public trust,” and hold him accountable, we will have seen but a preview of what is to come.  Foreign interference in our elections.  Total noncompliance with lawful congressional oversight.  Disregard of our constitutional power of the purse.  Open, flagrant corruption.  I fear there is no bottom.

This is the tragic result of the Senate failing its constitutional duty to hold a real trial.  We will leave President Trump “sacred and inviolable” and with “no constitutional tribunal to which he is amenable; no punishment to which he can be subjected without involving the crisis of a national revolution.”  As Hamilton warned over two centuries ago, that is not a president; that is a king.  I, for one, will not merely “get over it.”  

I have listened very carefully to both sides over the past two weeks. The record has established, leaving no doubt in my view, that President Trump directed the most impeachable, corrupt scheme by any president in this country’s history.  To protect our constitutional republic, and to safeguard our government’s system of checks and balances, my oath to our Constitution compels me to hold the President of the United States accountable. 

I will vote to convict and remove President Donald J. Trump from office.

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