Observations of an ex pat: Who’s on trial?

It is not just Donald John Trump who is on trial in the US Senate. In the dock before the court of world opinion are 100 senators, the American justice system, the rule of law and democratic institutions in the United States and in every other country which follows its lead in promoting liberal democratic ideals.

Like it or not, America has been historically viewed as the world’s leading exponent of the interlocking values of democracy, judicial transparency and the rule of law. It likes to think of itself—as the Puritans and President Ronald Reagan said—as “the shining city upon the hill.” The light has been dimmed by the current administration, but it is still spluttering away. But if the Republican-controlled Senate block the calling of witnesses in the trial of President Trump it will be pouring a bucket of water over that light.

American law is based on English common law. And one of the basic tenets of English common law is that everyone – regardless of their position in society– is entitled to a free and fair trial. The obvious question is: How can you have a fair trial without witnesses? How can you determine a person’s innocence or guilt until all the evidence has been heard and the witnesses have been interrogated and cross-examined?

In fact, if I were President Donald John Trump, I would be insisting on the maximum number of witnesses and the greatest possible transparency. Because he is doing the opposite, it raises the accusation that he has something to hide and that something is simply guilt.

Trump and his Republican majority in the Senate claim that all the necessary witnesses have been heard by the House of Representatives. Untrue. President Trump put a blanket ban on all administration officials testifying before the House Judicial Committee. The result was that those who risked their careers by appearing were able to give only second-hand testimony on the charge that the president used his office to gain personal political advantage. The staff who could have confirmed their testimonies were subpoenaed but refused to comply. So that charge remains unproven.

Republicans claim the Clinton impeachment set a precedent for disallowing witnesses from the Senate trial. There are two things wrong with that argument. First, that President Clinton admitted his guilt and apologised, and secondly that every conceivable witness was interrogated ad nauseum by the House Judicial Committee. There were no evidentiary gaps.

The second charge—obstructing Congress— is fairly obvious. Trump told his staff to refuse compliance with congressional subpoenas. Trump refused to release documents requested by Congress. That is a clear obstruction of Congress. Unless, as Trump’s defence team is likely to argue, there was no offence to obstruct in the first place.

Of course, all the above is academic. The 100 senators, including 53 Republicans, have sworn an oath to be impartial jurors. But that will be ignored. Most of them made it clear weeks ago that they would vote either to dismiss the charges altogether or to declare Donald Trump not guilty of any wrongdoing. As the Republicans command a majority in the Senate, they will vote to clear their Republican president.

Does this make the trial a farce even if witnesses are banned? Not quite. If men such as White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Former National Security Adviser Ambassador John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are allowed to give testimony then the public will at least obtain a clearer picture of the facts. This will help them decide where to cast their ballots in the November elections.

In the meantime, China and Russia are rubbing their hands with glee. They have been arguing for years that the liberalism, democracy and the rule of law has had its day. That the great American experiment has become flawed by division and systemic corruption. The world – insist Beijing and Moscow– should turn to their totalitarian system as the world’s model for the future.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” was published on 15 October.

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3 Comments

  • richard underhill 24th Jan '20 - 4:22pm

    The US Supreme Court chose George Bush (junior) a Republican, despite his lack of votes, not very funny.

  • John Roffey 26th Jan '20 - 8:25am

    Doesn’t the problem of democracy in the US go back even further than Reagan?

    I understand Eisenhower, who by tradition, should have given his ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ speech on January 17, 1961 to Congress – chose instead to use the, by then, TV national coverage to address the speech to the nation – as he believed the M-I C was already exercising significant control of the nation’s government.

    The Donald Trump impeachment farce – demonstrates just how far this process has gone – and how justified Ike’s concerns were.

    From a climate emergency viewpoint, it is to be hoped that the impeachment of DT will prevent him winning a second term – for he is presently the greatest obstacle to preventative action being taken. However, even with him removed – bank and corporate power would still maintain its control over the US and much of the globe.

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