The Senate Will Transform Itself Into An Impeachment Courtroom

Jan 16, 2020
Originally published on January 16, 2020 10:34 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump, quote, "knew exactly what was going on." That's according to Lev Parnas. He's the Soviet-born businessman who was working with Rudy Giuliani to dig up information in Ukraine that would help President Trump in the upcoming election.

Parnas gave interviews to a handful of news outlets yesterday, including MSNBC, New York Times, CNN. And in those conversations, he said the president and several other high-ranking administration officials were well aware of his work in Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW")

LEV PARNAS: President Trump knew exactly what was going on. He was aware of all of my movements. He - I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president.

MARTIN: Central to Parnas's mission - getting Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden, and part of that meant discrediting the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. All of this is happening, all these revelations associated with Parnas, just as the Senate is set to begin the impeachment trial of the president.

Kim Wehle is a visiting professor and fellow in law and government at American University's Washington College of Law and a former federal prosecutor, a frequent guest on this program, and she is back in studio. Thanks for coming in, Kim.

KIM WEHLE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So we want to talk about the opening of the impeachment trial in the Senate. But first, what do you make of these allegations from Lev Parnas, I mean, and coming at the eleventh hour before the Senate begins its trial?

WEHLE: I think it shows that we have not gotten to the bottom of the investigative phase of this entire inquiry. That is, we need more facts. We need, as Americans, to hear from Mr. Parnas, from Mr. Bolton not just about what happened with the president, but what happened with other members of the president's cabinet - the attorney general, Bill Barr, Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Mulvaney - other people - Mr. Nunes in Congress - that are implicated in this very serious narrative that has deep implications not just for this president, but for presidencies going forward. And the question is, who and how will that inquiry take place given that we're on the eve of a trial with incomplete information?

MARTIN: Do you think, then, the House rushed it?

WEHLE: Well, you know, I do think the House could have moved to compel witnesses and testimony. This is the first president in the history of the United States who's taken the position, no, on all things impeachment after having taken the position that the Mueller investigation was unconstitutional, so can't do it through the judicial process - has to be through impeachment. But he has said, no, on all fronts in terms of documents and witnesses. However, there is an Article III branch that I think would have backed up Congress.

That being said, we're here in this moment. And really, the American people need to hear on both sides of the aisle from these people regardless of what happened in the House. And I think it's incumbent on everyone in Congress and the Senate to uphold the rule of law in the Constitution, which is the oath they are going to have to take with this chief justice in addition to the oath they took when they took office.

MARTIN: I want to talk more about that. But a specific question on Parnas. I mean, he is facing federal charges over illegal campaign contributions. He's a potential witness, as you mentioned, maybe in a Senate trial. How is he allowed to speak publicly on these matters right now?

WEHLE: Well, it looks like he got authority from a federal judge to convey some of this information to the Congress as far as the underlying documentation. And his lawyers and he together have made the determination that it's better for his future interests to talk about this than to keep quiet.

MARTIN: Right. He's got his own agenda.

WEHLE: Right. And he has his own rights to speak if he wishes. There's nothing banning that.

MARTIN: Do you think it will compel any change on the part of Mitch McConnell to open up more evidence or witnesses in the trial?

WEHLE: Well, that's a political question, really, in terms of what Mr. McConnell will do. He has said, essentially, that he's aligned with the president. But in this moment, as I suggest, I think that that would be an abdication of his role to represent the American people in upholding the Constitution.

With any thorny problem in our regular lives, we need information to make good decisions. And in this, there's just too much at this point - and there's going to continue to be information coming out, leaking out - to not stop and take a breath and get to the bottom of things.

MARTIN: I guess the better question for you would have been, can Democrats push to have the this information, these text messages, these documents from Parnas included? I mean, once it's done, the House - we saw them walk the articles of impeachment over to the Senate. Do they have any more leverage anymore?

WEHLE: So there's three sorts of rules for the trial. One is the Constitution - very skimpy. One is the Senate rules that were passed under Andrew Johnson and are largely in place. And then the third is a Senate resolution passed with respect to Mr. Clinton. That suggests that the record is closed.

That being said, there's nothing precluding members of the Senate on the Democratic side from seeking to introduce documentary evidence. And when it comes to witnesses, there would, under those rules, have to be a vote. But we don't know - we will find in the next few days - what kinds of rules Mitch McConnell and the majority are proposing for this particular trial. They might be different. And the Clinton process was different because Ken Starr had four years of a grand jury to get to the bottom of things. Mr. Barr did not appoint a special counsel here. So Congress is not an investigative body in the same way as a prosecutor. And as I said, the American people don't have the full facts, and that's quite unfortunate given the gravity of this.

MARTIN: Just briefly, we're going to see John Roberts sworn in as the person who will oversee these proceedings when the Senate opens its trial Tuesday. What will be his role?

WEHLE: Well, just Chief Justice Rehnquist - it was quite ceremonial. Mr. Roberts can actually rule on evidence and could take a larger role, and then he could be basically overruled by a Senate vote. But that would be, I think, difficult more politically when the chief justice of the Supreme Court has said, for example, John Bolton's testimony is relevant. Hard to overrule that, I think.

MARTIN: All right. Kim Wehle, law professor, former federal prosecutor, the author of the new book, "How To Read The Constitution And Why," we appreciate you. Thanks.

WEHLE: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.