The Senate is now in charge of impeachment, but we might be missing the larger story
Posted January 16, 2020 12:01 a.m. EST
CNN — The Senate is now in charge.
The House of Representatives sent the articles of impeachment over to the Senate Wednesday evening. There was a signing ceremony -- known as the "engrossment ceremony" -- a march across the Capitol building and a bit of legislative theater. It was interesting to watch. Read more on the historic day.
Thursday at noon the House impeachment managers -- those are the Democrats chosen to present the House case during the Senate trial -- will read the articles out loud in the Senate. Here's the list of managers.
At 2 p.m. ET Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who will preside over the trial, arrives to swear senators to "do impartial justice." The trial actually starts next Tuesday.
Stop and read this carefully: A US ambassador appears to have been under surveillance by an ally of the President
The impeachment trial of Donald John Trump has felt like a foregone conclusion since the inquiry wrapped up in November. Amid all the procedural drama, the facts of what Trump's allies did on his behalf in Ukraine, which the Democrats chose not to pursue in full before impeaching him in the interest of speeding to a conclusion, were almost forgotten.
Turns out the one thing we know without a doubt is that there's more of this story to tell. New text messages released by Lev Parnas -- an associate of Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani -- suggest Trump's former Ukraine ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch (refresh your memory on her testimony here), was under some type of surveillance in Ukraine as Giuliani was acting directly on Trump's behalf to get investigations into his political rival. You cannot make this stuff up.
Trump and embassy security
Trump nearly started a war with Iran earlier this month and said, without offering evidence, that threats to US embassies were the reason.
While the imminence and specificity of those threats has been called into question, here is direct evidence of a US ambassador being watched by an ally of Trump's. But you won't hear anything from the White House about this threat to a sitting ambassador, who was a career employee of the federal government.
Be it impeachment or Iran, the public and Congress are increasingly cut off from being able to ask questions of their government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo skipped a congressional hearing on Iran earlier this week and then the administration abruptly cancelled three more scheduled hearings, including one on embassy security.
On impeachment, the administration has tried to squash as much information as possible. Specifically on Yovanovitch and whether she was under surveillance and what they're going to do about it, there has been no comment from the State Department.
Is Trump involved?
That's not at all clear. This is not Trump texting about Yovanovitch's whereabouts. But it is certainly a US ambassador, supposed to be under Trump's protection, being watched by people working on the President's behalf. It is, to say the least, disturbing and indicative of the murky and paranoid world where he's comfortable, where congressional candidates act like third-rate spies and answer up to the businessman who is working with the President's personal attorney.
The messages were turned over by Parnas, who is facing campaign finance violations. More documents were released Wednesday and they show just how close Parnas felt to Giuliani and his pride at being an official member of "Team Trump."
At another point, in April, Parnas receives a message from Trump attorney Victoria Toensing requesting an update for "the big one." More details here.
The kicker: It's not at all clear the Senate, during its trial, will even consider any of this.
Susan Collins isn't that interested in finding out more details
Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who has made a big production of advocating for witnesses at the Senate trial, wasn't that interested in the new information provided by Parnas.
Speaking to CNN's Phil Mattingly, she threw cold water on the new Parnas evidence.
"I wonder why the House did not put that into the record and it's only now being revealed," she said.
After it was pointed out the documents were only just turned over to the House, she said, "Well doesn't that suggest that the House did an incomplete job then?"
Collins has been instrumental in the effort to subpoena witnesses and, perhaps, additional documents at a Senate trial. But that effort, clearly, seems to be more about appearing to be open to witnesses than it is about pursuing leads. The idea that the Senate should have every single piece of information presented to it gives lawmakers like Collins a lot of leeway to ultimately make this inquiry go away.
Rule No. 1: Senators will be barred from speaking during trial
The Senate has drafted a document on decorum guidelines for the impeachment trial, including rules senators — who will be serving as jurors — must follow.
Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, will preside over the trial, and senators have been told they must be in attendance for all proceedings. (Ahem, presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet).
Here are a few of the rules mentioned in the guidelines:
They must be quiet: "Members should refrain from speaking to neighboring senators while the case is being presented."
They can't have their phones: "No use of phones or electronic devices will be allowed in the Chamber."
They have to call Roberts by this title: During the course of the proceedings the Chief Justice should be referred to as "Mr. Chief Justice."
When they vote, they must stand: "Should votes be required during the proceedings, Senators will stand and vote from their seats."
Read more here.
Did Democrats make a mistake by going fast?
This impeachment has proceeded without so much of the information it should have. There's been no testimony from key White House and other officials. There is a document trail that could tell us so much.
Democrats went quickly in order to get this done before the election and because the allegations involved Trump's effort to use Ukraine to impact the 2020 election.
If he's acquitted (which is almost assured) and reelected (very much an open question), one of the great "what if" questions will be whether Democrats should instead have slowed down, ignored the election, exhausted things in the courts and gotten as much information as possible.
That, arguably, is the Nixon model. He was impeached after he was reelected and after Watergate had been thoroughly investigated over a very long period of time. Read more about that here.
Congress has become 'mewling pussycats' who 'live to get reelected'
Not impressed by this impeachment or this President is former Rep. Chris Cannon, who is no longer in office and therefore a little more free to speak his mind. He was one of the Republican House managers during the Clinton impeachment.
"Congress has given up its power," he said to CNN's Brooke Baldwin, adding that lawmakers used to have more power. "Now we've got these people that just live to get reelected."
He added: "We're seeing the weakness of Congress in this -- pardon me, it's a silly process, and I'm deeply frustrated by it because the American people are not represented by a government that has a balance of power. They're represented by a President and people who whine about the wall and whine about budgets, and then they impeach him instead of trying to create an environment that's better for all Americans. Very frustrating to me and I think your viewers."
'Future generations will look back at this trial'
CNN's Jake Tapper wrote an interesting thread on Twitter, which I've excerpted here, capturing the type of things we're likely to see during the trial. This is a capsule from the Clinton impeachment, during which senators bristled at being called jurors. They're more than that.
January 15, 1999: Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, interrupted GOP House impeachment manager Bob Barr to object to his use of the word "juror" to describe the role of Senators in the impeachment of President Clinton. This was the first objection in the trial.
Harkin: "Regular jurors are not supposed to know each other. Not so here. Regular jurors do not decide what evidence should be heard or the standards of evidence, nor do they decide on witnesses or what witnesses shall be called. Not so here... Regular jurors do not decide when a trial is to be ended. Not so here.''
All eyes turned to the man presiding over the trial, Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Partly Harkin was trying to undermine the effort by the House GOP impeachment managers to call witnesses (it didn't work).
But partly Harkin was also trying to channel Hamilton in Federalist 65: "There will be no jury to stand between the judges who are to pronounce the sentence of the law and the party who is to receive or suffer it."
Harkin: "It may seem a small point, but I think a very important point. I think the framers of the Constitution meant us, the Senate, to be something other than a jury and not jurors. What we do here today does not just decide the fate of one man... what we do here sets precedence. Future generations will look back on this trial not just to find out what happened, but to try to decide what principles governed our actions."
Rehnquist ruled: ''The chair is of the view that the Senator from Iowa's objection is well taken, that the Senate is not simply a jury. It is a court in this case. And therefore counsel should refrain from referring to senators as jurors.''