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What Sen. Tina Smith expects in the coming impeachment trial of President Trump

Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts swearing in senators during the procedural start of the Senate impeachment trial on Thursday.
Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts swearing in senators during the procedural start of the Senate impeachment trial on Thursday.

Tina Smith has never served on a jury.

But now Minnesota’s junior senator will finally get the chance: In the coming weeks, Smith will serve as one of one hundred jurors overseeing allegations of abuse of power against the president of the United States.

The trial is set to start on Tuesday and Smith is preparing for the long weeks ahead. One thing that is critical for Minnesotans to understand, Smith said, is that there is a significant difference between her own opinion of the president and her responsibility during the trial.

“I don’t think Donald Trump should be president, but that’s a very different question from whether I think that he should be removed from office because he’s committed impeachable offenses,” Smith said. ”And that’s the question that’s before the Senate.”

Can I get a witness

The House passed two articles of impeachment in December. The first article accuses the president of abuse of power, for pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. The second accuses the president of obstruction of congress, for blocking testimony from former White House officials.

The trial began on Thursday, when Chief Justice John Roberts was sworn in to preside.

Prior to the start, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)  named the impeachment managers, effectively prosecutors, that will make the case for impeachment: Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep. Val Demings (D-FL), Jason Crow (D-Co), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and Sylvia Garcia (D-TX).

Sen. Tina Smith
Sen. Tina Smith
But there is a lack of clarity as to how the trial itself will be structured. There are minimal instructions in the Constitution for a Senate impeachment trial. There are some guidelines, Senate standing rules, last revised in 1986. But beyond those guidelines, which primarily set the basic structure the trial around arguments from the president’s counsel and House impeachment managers, the other rules, like if new witnesses are allowed, are decided before each trial.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he aims to have similar rules to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999. Those rules allowed for questions from senators and a debate about whether or not to call additional witnesses. Any senator could make a motion to dismiss the articles or call witnesses.

McConnell has still not made clear what the rules will look like. The Senate plans to vote on them next week. “It’s amazing that at this moment we still haven’t seen it,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday, referring to McConnell’s resolution.

One of the key points of contention for President Trump’s impeachment trial: Democrats want a guarantee that Senate Republicans will allow for additional witnesses.

For example, after the impeachment investigation concluded in the House, former National Security Advisor John Bolton said he would testify if compelled to. Bolton reportedly described the White House’s intention to withhold money from Ukraine as a “drug deal.”

McConnell previously said he had the votes to conduct the trial without witnesses, angering Democrats like Pelosi who’ve said new witnesses may be able to bring about credible information not heard during the House investigation and that Republicans are “are afraid of more facts coming to light.” 

The Republican majority leader made his reasoning clear on the Senate floor: If Democrats have already made a convincing case, there’s no need for new evidence. And if it’s a weak case, there should not be impeachment in the first place.

Pelosi withheld the articles of impeachment from the Senate until this week, saying she would not formally transmit the articles to the Senate until she had more information on how the trial would be conducted. In the weeks since Pelosi announced her intention to withhold the articles, a growing chorus of Republicans have publicly said they would support a full-length trial and hinted at supporting additional witnesses. And all that is required by Senate rules to call witnesses is a simple majority: 51 Senators.

“My view is we should hear the case, ask our questions and then have a vote on whether we need to hear additional witnesses or call for additional documents,” retiring Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican, recently told Politico. 

Smith favors additional witness testimony during the trial: “I think trials have witnesses and we shouldn’t be afraid of the facts that these witnesses might bring forward,” she said.

Talking to reporters on Tuesday, McConnell said that should more witnesses be allowed, he believes both Republicans and Democrats should be able to call them.

“I can’t imagine only the witnesses our Democratic colleagues want to call would be called,” he said.

Reaching conclusions

Smith said there is one difference between the 1999 trial and the upcoming trial that she finds particularly interesting: Now, Senators are constantly on their phones. And during the trial, which is likely to last several hours a day over a number of days, they will be required to put them away.

“All Americans, including United States Senators are very attached to their technology: their phones and their iPads. What’s the latest text? What’s the email? And yet during this impeachment process on the Senate floor, none of us will have our technology with us,” she said.

“In my mind that’s a very good thing. We’ll be less likely to be distracted, more focused and maybe, just maybe, there’ll be a little bit less tweeting and a little bit more listening.”

As to how her Republican colleagues will vote once trial has concluded, Smith said that she finds it impossible to know. Twenty Republicans would have to vote for impeachment in order to have a two-thirds majority, the required amount of votes to convict a president who has been impeached.

“I can’t look into the hearts and minds of my Republican colleagues and know that there are 20 of them that I think might be willing to do that. I would just say that that’s not my job. My job is to look inside my own heart and mind and come to a conclusion about what it is that I think.”

Both Minnesota senators publicly supported the House impeachment inquiry last year, arguing that all of the facts should be laid out. Smith supported an impeachment inquiry in September, at the time saying that “we must fully and fairly open a process to lay out all the facts.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Smith’s colleague, has said much of the same. Both have also pledged to be impartial during the trial.

But Smith was resolute that, while her job is to evaluate the facts during the trial, the facts made clear during the House impeachment investigation seemed to be crystal clear.

“The facts aren’t really in dispute … the President used the powers of his office to ask a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election to benefit his presidential prospects and he conditioned release of foreign aid on Ukraine opening up a public investigation,” Smith said.

“I don’t believe those facts are in question. The question before the Senate, however, is not whether or not the president should be impeached. The question is whether these facts add up.”

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Eric House on 01/17/2020 - 10:47 am.

    I appreciate that Sen. Smith is taking a thoughtful approach to her duty. Taking her at her word I believe she has an opinion about which way she will vote, but that she is also willing to consider any additional information or arguments which could arise. That’s all we can ask of our public servants.

  2. Submitted by Barry Peterson on 01/17/2020 - 11:39 am.

    I, too, appreciate Senator Smith’s willingness to hear the testimony and read the data presented to her. Those who believe that the House impeachment was a charade are looking at the process as partisans who don’t want the president deposed from office. Impartiality is key, and I hope that all senators will take their role seriously.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/20/2020 - 06:43 pm.

      “I, too, appreciate Senator Smith’s willingness to hear the testimony and read the data presented to her.”

      I didn’t realize that she had a choice. If it comes to a vote, I say she votes to impeach. That was easy.

  3. Submitted by Tom Crain on 01/17/2020 - 03:28 pm.

    The Senate should ‘try’ the impeachment like legal case.

    This notion that each side – (R) and (D) Senators should call witnesses is wrong. They are jurors. Instead there should be a prosecution team from the House and a defense team for the impeached – the President – whomever he chooses. Each side could be allowed to call a limited amount of witnesses which the presiding SC judge could rule if they were germain to the case.

    I know this risks a little bit of a circus with Bolton and Biden on the stand, but so what? What does either of them have to hide?

    • Submitted by Barry Peterson on 01/17/2020 - 04:05 pm.

      Mr. Crain,

      Your thoughts on this are excellent. Reminders to both houses, the Senate and the House, should be made that they are constitutionally required to serve as a check and balance against the Executive Branch and the Judiciary Branch of our government. Where there has been wrongdoing by government officials, we should have non-temperamental parties who should not assist members of their political party in another branch of government. People can be replaced if their temperament and behavior is unsuitable and causes problems to the degree that those who framed our Constitution deemed necessary.

      I don’t know if our nation would have to have a constitutional convention to change the rules, or if well-reasoned and trustworthy members of the Legislative and Executive Branches of government can create the necessary changes as a matter of law.

      Ideas like this can be shared with your U.S. senators and Member of Congress. To learn how to reach these parties, a call to your local county or university library will help. Reference librarians are very good at finding resources, as in the metropolitan library systems, they usually have at least a Master’s Degree in Library Sciences. I have found the Hennepin County Library reference librarians to be of excellent help over the pasty thirty years, and I frequently call on them to find information for me. A search for Members of Congress on the Internet is also useful.

      • Submitted by Barry Peterson on 01/17/2020 - 04:20 pm.

        Instead of saying Member of Congress, above, I should have said U.S representative. I’m not certain if the terms representative and senator should be capitalized. Both the Internet and reference librarians if the government/business and science section of the Hennepin County Library have proven helpful to me when seeking this kind of data.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/17/2020 - 05:27 pm.

    The senator has provided the basis, an open mind, Its a trial for the President of the USA, my question is: Why are so many folks afraid of letting all the light of truth shine in? Especially the president.
    My fear we have already turned into a populist run banana republic with lots of fear in the banana party!

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/17/2020 - 09:23 pm.

    Tina who?

    Seriously, she’s been off my radar for weeks & weeks now. But we can now notify her family that’s she’s been located.

    • Submitted by Barry Peterson on 01/18/2020 - 01:10 am.

      Frank, you may not care to hear this, but your flippant response is offensive on so many levels.

      Senator Smith, like most U.S. senators, has entered public life to accomplish good. Has she done anything wrong to you, made enemies for being a woman with a poor character.

      I enjoy a number of your comments, and have for months. I hope your manner regarding this senator was problematic only because you were having a bad day, as we all have.

      Wishing you well.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/18/2020 - 11:39 am.

        Mr. Peterson, thank you for your response.

        I had a great day yesterday, but I do appreciate your concern.

        Sen. Smith is a light weight. Her character is fine, & I’m not sure how you inferred anything otherwise about her from my comment. I’d hope the next time a DFL governor appoints a US Senator, it will be someone with a little more ompf.

        I expect better of DFL women senators. There is important work to do, voting down corporate negotiated free trade agreements, making it easier to join labor unions, and saving the environment among them. We need a fighter.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 01/19/2020 - 07:27 am.

    I expect a Julie Swetnick, Michael Avenatti type BS to try a smear job because there is no first hand knowledge of any wrong doing. Remember Judge Kavanaugh ran a High School rape gang that no one remembered.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/19/2020 - 12:53 pm.

      “Remember Judge Kavanaugh ran a High School rape gang that no one remembered.”

      No one remembered it, because no one said that was what happened. A woman did remember that she was the victim of a rape perpetrated by Brett Kavanaugh, and that was refuted only with petty character assassination, distraction, and a decision that, in the end, it didn’t matter.

      Aren’t you glad you got that example of America’s continuing mistreatment of powerful conservatives off your chest?

  7. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 01/20/2020 - 09:05 am.

    Word on the street is, the removal of Trump is really about an imminent war between Iran and Israel, and the partially bipartisan belief that Trump would not be a reliable Chief Executive in that scenario:

    “Let’s try to remember: It was in September, Bodansky notes, that Netanyahu, speaking to the IDF General Staff, warned that Israel had “hitherto” avoided “a comprehensive confrontation,” but “This might change soon… raising the specter of an all-out war as a distinct possibility.” It was in September, he also notes, that IRGC commanders concluded: “all chances for a diplomatic breakthrough collapsed.” It was in September, three months after Trump called off a strike against Iran at the last minute, that those extremely accurate Houthi drones and/or missiles struck key Saudi oil facilities. And it was ten days later in September that five “badass” freshman congresswomen—plus two men, all CIA or military officers—“changed…the course of history” and “the dynamic for House Democrats” with an op-ed in the Washington Post that called for impeaching Trump, instantly converting a previously recalcitrant Nancy Pelosi to the cause.

    “There followed Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria—modified under pressure, but still “leaving the Kurds high and dry” and serving as another “warning sign to Israel.” And there came considerable teeth-gnashing about how Netanyahu’s “signature Iran policy … was rocked by the president’s reluctance to flex US military muscle,” and left Israel “facing the reality of an unpredictable and transactional president who has deep reservations about using US military might, is afraid of getting involved in another Middle East conflict.

    “But the strategic military balance in the Middle East is changing rapidly, the US is a less reliable partner, and Iran and Israel have reached the zugzwang point where some big move is necessary and every possible one is dangerous. Everyone understands that any war with Iran will be widespread and immensely destructive.”

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/21/2020 - 08:07 pm.

      WHD, I am not reading here that you are suggesting that Trump is an unstable leader whose main skill/objective is to create an unstable world because it fits his view of keeping everyone and everything in a constant state of chaos? Supposedly it makes him look really smart to his minions.

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