Jurisprudence

Senate GOP: It’s Too Late for Impeachment Witnesses and It’s Also Too Early

Sen. Mitt Romney speaks to reporters as he arrives for the Senate impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 21, 2020.
Mitt Romney biting his lip as he prepares to do Mitch McConnell’s dirty work for him.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Every time we witness a gun tragedy in this country, Republicans who live in thrall to the death cult that is the National Rifle Association make the same argument: “It’s too soon.” It’s too soon to politicize whatever the existing tragedy might be, and we must all wait until the appropriate time and politicize it then. Two weeks later it is always, always too late. Ten minutes later, it would also be too late. This is the long-standing procedural deflection for remediation of any exigent political problem: Berate your opponent for intemperate and unseemly haste, then run the heck out of the clock. There are, evidently, always only twelve seconds in which the time for action is ripe.

Throughout this first day of the historic Senate impeachment trial for Donald Trump on Tuesday, this was the standard play for Trump’s legal team. Scoff at Democrats for being hasty, reckless and intemperate as they moved impeachment through the House, then insist they were now simply too late to do anything. The Republicans, as has been noted, will have to rely exclusively on such purely procedural contortions throughout the Senate trial in order to obstruct testimony and evidence that was already ably obstructed by the White House throughout the House inquiry. But there is a laughable argument being advanced in these opening hours that should now be, well, laughed at. In tabling Chuck Schumer’s various motions to call witnesses and subpoena documents and records, Trump’s defenders are somehow claiming both that it’s too late to obtain such evidence, and also, of course, that it’s far too early.

Time and time again Tuesday afternoon, we heard Trump’s lawyers disparage House Democrats for fast-tracking this impeachment process: The Democrats recklessly refused to allow their subpoenas to linger for years in the federal courts; they insulted poor Charles Kupperman, a deputy to national security adviser John Bolton, by refusing to wait for him to litigate his subpoena in the courts; when the president declined to participate in any aspect of the House Inquiry, they rudely didn’t include him. And so it went: Stupid, stupid Democrats were so hellbent upon impeachment that they didn’t follow all the rules and processes that would have made this impeachment impossible. And then, faced with the opportunity to amend Mitch McConnell’s rules that are designed to short circuit any meaningful trial, those selfsame Republicans claimed on Tuesday that it’s far too soon to decide anything of the sort. What’s the rush? They inquire, wide-eyed and ingenuous, why do we need to decide on these witnesses now, when we have all the time in the world? As Sen. Susan Collins said in explaining her own votes to tables Schumer’s amendments, she “need[s] to hear the case argued and the questions answered” before she could make any meaningful determination about witnesses.

Which is it then, too early or too late? Did Democrats fast track the House impeachment and then demand that the Senate do their clean-up work for them? Or were they simply too slow and poky, and now they have to wait some more? Reader, it will surprise you to learn that it’s both! And if it sounds familiar it’s because it’s always the case that Democrats are too early and too late for all the things, and that they should just get out of the way and stop trying. There were 12 vital seconds in which to properly call for witnesses and evidence, and the Democrats missed them again!

Trump lawyer Patrick Philbin gave voice to this on Tuesday when he managed to simultaneously condemn House Democrats for rushing to conclude their impeachment investigation and also insisted that there was no reason to vote today on calling witnesses. He sneered at House Democrats who had failed to try to accommodate White House counsel’s Oct. 18 letter refusing to participate in any part of impeachment. “Did the House take any steps to remedy that? Did they try to dispute that? Did they go to court? Did they do anything to resolve that problem?” said Philbin. “No.” He then accused the House Managers of having shown up at trial unprepared. “First thing they have done is to say, ‘Well, actually, we need more evidence. We’re not ready to present our case,’” Philbin stated. “This is stunning. It’s a stunning admission of the inadequate and broken process that the House Democrats ran.” He added: “If the House has not done the investigation and cannot support its case, then it is not the time that once it arrives here to start doing all of that work. That is something that is the House’s role.“ Moments later, Philbin pivoted to the claim that there was no need to hear from witnesses now; it could all happen after opening statements.

In his rebuttal, Impeachment Manager Adam Schiff bristled at the implication that the Democrats were both too early and too late. “We are ready. The House calls John Bolton. The House calls John Bolton. The House calls Mick Mulvaney. Let’s get this trial started, shall we? We are ready to present our case. We are ready to call our witnesses. The question is, will you let us? That is the question,” Schiff said, moments before a vote on subpoenaing documents. The vote was 53–47 not to do so, with Republicans uniformly voting to table the amendment and Democrats united in opposition.

Based on the first day alone, it’s clear that there will be a whole lot of process directed at obstructing the Senate trial. There will be overt lying, as was the case with White House counsel Pat Cipollone’s claim that “not even Schiff’s Republican colleagues were allowed into the SCIF,” the secured facility where House committees conducted initial impeachment depositions and Republicans had equal time to ask questions as Democrats. There will be gaslighting, as was the case when Cipollone claimed that Schiff released “a fraudulent version of the phone call” between Zelensky and Trump, when he had actually paraphrased that call, after its substance had been released. Most of all, there will be attacks on Senate Democrats, in lieu of defenses of the president, who has no defense on the merits. We will hear that all testimony is hearsay, unless the president himself says it. The president, of course, has refused to testify, unlike President Bill Clinton during the last impeachment. But do pay attention: because when you hear Republicans claim that Democrats are both too early and also too late to participate in a process, it’s a good sign that there is no process at all.

The problem for Senate Republicans colluding to obstruct the same facts and witnesses that have been obstructed by the White House? Many of those facts are out. More will come out. This isn’t going to stay in the can forever. Schiff closed a portion of his remarks this afternoon with this precise caution: “The facts will come out in the end. The documents, which the president is hiding, will be released through the [Freedom of Information Act] or through other means over time. Witnesses will tell their stories in book and film. The truth will come out. The question is, will it come out in time?”

It’s already too late for the Senate to obstruct that truth. It’s simply too early for history’s judgement.