‘Frightening’: A historian explains why McConnell’s rules for Trump’s impeachment trial are 'quite unprecedented'

‘Frightening’: A historian explains why McConnell’s rules for Trump’s impeachment trial are 'quite unprecedented'
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After a nearly 13-hour marathon session, the U.S. Senate approved by a party-line vote the rules for the impeachment trial of President Trump. This marks just the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history. The Senate trial comes a month after the House impeached Trump for pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joe Biden. Under the rules, each side will be given 24 hours over a three-day period for opening arguments. Senators also agreed to automatically admit evidence from the House inquiry into the trial record. Republicans rejected 11 amendments from Democrats to subpoena witnesses and documents at this stage in the trial. Democrats were attempting to subpoena documents from the White House, the State Department and the Office of Management and Budget. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke early on Tuesday laying out the Democrats’ case for impeachment. “President Trump is accused of coercing a foreign leader into interfering in our elections to benefit himself, and then doing everything in his power to cover it up,” Schumer said. “If proved, the president’s actions are crimes against democracy itself. It’s hard to imagine a greater subversion of our democracy than for powers outside our borders to determine the elections from within.” For more, we speak with Manisha Sinha, professor of American history at the University of Connecticut and author of “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition.”


The Senate trial comes a month after the House impeached the president for pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joe Biden. Since the House vote to impeach Trump, more evidence has come to light about the administration’s actions, but it remains unclear if any of this evidence will be presented to the Senate. Just before midnight, the Office of Management and Budget released nearly 200 pages of heavily redacted records related to the Trump administration’s handling of aid to Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: During the opening day of the trial, Republican senators rejected 11 amendments from Democrats to subpoena documents and witnesses, including former national security adviser John Bolton. Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke earlier on Tuesday, laying out the Democratic case for impeachment.

MINORITY LEADER CHUCK SCHUMER: President Trump is accused of coercing a foreign leader into interfering in our elections to benefit himself, and then doing everything in his power to cover it up. If proved, the president’s actions are crimes against democracy itself. It’s hard to imagine a greater subversion of our democracy than for powers outside our borders to determine the elections from within. For a foreign country to attempt such a thing on its own is bad enough. For an American president to deliberately solicit such a thing, to blackmail a foreign country with military assistance to help him win an election, is unimaginably worse. I can’t imagine any other president doing this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Democrats repeatedly accused the Republican leadership of orchestrating a cover-up by blocking witnesses at this stage in the trial. This is Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler, one of the House impeachment managers.

REPJERROLD NADLER: Ambassador Bolton has made clear that he is ready, willing and able to testify about everything he witnessed. But President Trump does not want you to hear from Ambassador Bolton. And the reason has nothing to do with executive privilege or this other nonsense. And the reason has nothing to do with national security. If the president cared about national security, he would not have blocked military assistance to a vulnerable strategic ally in the attempt to secure a personal political favor for himself. No, the president does not want you to hear from Ambassador Bolton, because the president does not want the American people to hear firsthand testimony about the misconduct at the heart of this trial.
The question is whether the Senate will be complicit in the president’s crimes by covering them up. Any senator who votes against Ambassador Bolton’s testimony or any relevant testimony shows that he or she wants to be part of the cover-up. What other possible reason is there to prohibit a relevant witness from testifying here? Unfortunately, so far, I’ve seen every Republican senator has shown that they want to be part of the cover-up by voting against every document and witness proposed.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, responded to Judiciary chair, House manager, Congressman Jerry Nadler.

JAY SEKULOW: Mr. Chief Justice, members of the Senate, Chairman Nadler talked about treacherous. At about 12:10 a.m., January 22nd, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, at this body, on the floor of this Senate, said “executive privilege and other nonsense.” Now, think about that for a moment, “executive privilege and other nonsense.” Mr. Nadler, it is not nonsense. These are privileges recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States. And to shred the Constitution on the floor of the Senate, to serve what purpose? The Senate is not on trial. The Constitution doesn’t allow what just took place.

AMY GOODMAN: After Trump’s lawyer, Sekulow, and the House manager, Nadler, went at it, Chief Justice John Roberts admonished them, saying, “Those addressing the Senate should remember where they are,” and talked about a word that was used a century ago, in 1905, called “pettifogging.”

Well, so we thought we’d go to a historian. Yes, we go to Manisha Sinha, professor of American history at the University of Connecticut. She has closely studied the presidency of Andrew Johnson, who became the first president to be impeached, in 1868. She is the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. In November, she wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times headlined “Donald Trump, Meet Your Precursor.”

Well, you know, because this is only the third time in U.S. history that there has been a Senate impeachment trial, it’s really relevant, Professor Sinha, to look at what you’re talking about. Compare. Tell us about Andrew Johnson and why you think President Trump follows in his footsteps.

MANISHA SINHA: Well, Andrew Johnson was a lot like Trump. He was known to rile up racial divisions. He was known to ignore the powers of Congress. He was also known to use this idea of executive privilege to an unprecedented degree, to interfere in the program of Reconstruction in the South immediately after the Civil War, which would have given freed people basic civil and political rights. So both in terms of thinking that the presidency allows its occupant to pretty much do anything he wants and also in terms of really endangering national ideals, national interests, and in flouting the rule of law, Johnson was a lot like Trump.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of his actual trial, could you talk about the length of it and the whole issue of witnesses and evidence, compared to this rush to verdict that the Senate Republicans wish to impose or are attempting to impose on this trial?

MANISHA SINHA: Absolutely. So, Johnson’s trial lasted a long time. Witnesses were called. House managers, led by the wonderful Thaddeus Stevens, a leading radical Republican in Congress, and by John Bingham, who was the author of the 14th Amendment, that guaranteed national birthright citizenship — and these men had enough time to lay out the case in detail. There were many more articles of impeachment against Johnson — 11 articles, to be exact. The first nine had to deal with his violation of the Tenure of Office Act. But the last two were quite similar to the articles against Trump. They accused him of abuse of power, of interfering with an investigation in Congress. So, in that sense, you know, Johnson actually went through a larger, a more fair process, a process that involved evidence and witnesses.

What is happening with Trump’s impeachment is actually quite unprecedented. Even in the Clinton impeachment case, we had evidence and witnesses. So, I think it is important to say that this is not just a matter of form and civil discourse. This is also a matter of the rule of law and justice in the republic. And it’s quite frightening to think that we are going through this in a very rushed manner, when the president is being charged with having committed some serious crimes against the Constitution and the republic.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Sinha, if you can talk about the context of when this took place, after the Civil War? What we haven’t talked about yet is the animus, the racial hatred that motivated Johnson, and the comparisons to Trump. But lay out that period and how he was trying to continue the disenfranchisement of black people and of freed slaves, freed enslaved people.

MANISHA SINHA: Yes, absolutely. You know, there is some misconception, advocated even by Mike Pence in a recent op-ed, that Johnson was simply continuing President Lincoln’s policies towards the South. What Johnson did was basically endanger the result of the Civil War, which was emancipation. He allowed Southern state governments to pretty much issue Black Codes that would put black people back to as close a state to slavery as possible. There was racial terrorism, “outrages,” as they called it then, against a freed people throughout the South. People were being murdered. In one case, Johnson personally intervened to make sure the man responsible for it would get off scot-free. And he kept interfering in the Reconstruction plans of Congress.

Now, under President Lincoln, the federal government had established the Freedmen’s Bureau to oversee this transition from slavery to freedom in the South. When that bill to extend the life of the bureau came before Johnson, he vetoed it. There was another bill, the civil rights law, which — the first civil rights law ever passed in United States history, to ensure the protection of the persons and property of freed people, who were being attacked with impunity by former Confederates and Southern elites. Both cases, Johnson vetoed those laws.

And he was, in a way, really guided by this idea that the United States should remain what he called a white man’s country. And that kind of very crude racism guided Johnson. This notion that if you would extend some of even the most basic citizenship rights to the formerly enslaved, that you were somehow taking away rights from whites, that’s a very pernicious logic that has motivated racists in this country since then. And in that sense, I would say that if you look at the scene immediately after the Civil War in the South, the Republicans in Congress had no choice but to intervene and to rein in Johnson in his very sort of destructive way of completely undermining the results of a very hard-fought war, which was basically emancipation and the end of slavery.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, ultimately, he was not convicted, by just one vote, because the Senate needed a two-thirds majority to remove him, correct?

MANISHA SINHA: Yes. Johnson came very close to being convicted. There was seven Republicans, moderates, who voted to let Johnson go scot-free, if he promised not to interfere in Reconstruction again. And they were given that assurance. But one of those votes belonged to Edmund Ross, a senator from Kansas, extremely corrupt, who had bought his way, literally, into the Senate through bribery. And unfortunately, he was put in John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage as a courageous man who voted his conscience. Now, we know that book was probably ghostwritten, but it went out under JFK’s name. And I think part of it may be to appease Dixiecrats at that time. But it has lent a very — it has sort of propagated a false view of history, especially the history of Reconstruction.

Unfortunately, Mike Pence, in that editorial in The Wall Street Journal that I referred to, picks up on this theme that Edmund Ross was a profile in courage. We know now, through the work of historians like David Stewart, who has written on the impeachment of Johnson, that in fact Edmund Ross was bribed for his vote. So he was not a profile in courage; he was a profile in corruption. And for the Republican Party today to bring up both, you know, a defense of Johnson and portray Ross as an honorable person is astounding for the party of Lincoln, for the party of Thaddeus Stevens and the radical Republicans who led the charge for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

AMY GOODMAN: Which takes us to Donald Trump’s lawyer Pat Cipollone speaking yesterday in the impeachment trial. He incorrectly stated no president had ever been impeached in an election year.

PAT CIPOLLONE: They’re not here to steal one election. They’re here to steal two elections. It’s buried in the small print of their ridiculous articles of impeachment. They want to remove the President Trump from the ballot. They won’t tell you that. They don’t have the guts to say it directly, but that’s exactly what they’re here to do. They’re asking the Senate to attack one of the most sacred rights we have as American — Americans: the right to choose our president. In an election year, it’s never been done before.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Manisha Sinha, in fact, that’s not true. Right? Talk about 1868.

MANISHA SINHA: Yes. So, Johnson is impeached in 1868, the year of a presidential election. So, Mr. Cipollone was obviously inaccurate, to put it politely, when he made that statement. I will let constitutional lawyers talk about his lack of understanding of the Constitution, because the impeachment, of course, is not meant to overthrow an election. It is meant as a check on a corrupt president, and it is in the Constitution.

But historically, too, he is wrong. There was, like in the case of Trump, a momentum growing to impeach Johnson because of the ways in which he flouted the rule of law, the way in which he flouted democratic governance and the separation of powers between Congress and the president. But it was his firing of Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, who was overseeing Reconstruction in the South, that finally led to his impeachment. That was the smoking gun. And that proceeding took place in 1868, a presidential election year. And in fact, Johnson is impeached in 1868. He is also tried in the Senate in 1868. So, Mr. Cipollone — and, you know, there were so many errors, both of law and the Constitution, but as a historian, I was astounded that he could brazenly make that statement, which was completely wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, then President Johnson went on to lose the November election to Ulysses Grant. Manisha Sinha, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of American history at the University of Connecticut, author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. And we’ll link to your piece in The New York Times headlined “Donald Trump, Meet Your Precursor.”


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