Senators engage in ‘political ventriloquism’ during Trump trial questions

Impeachment Q&A used more to make points than clarify or obtain new information

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., arrives to the Senate carriage entrance of the Capitol before the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., arrives to the Senate carriage entrance of the Capitol before the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 29, 2020 at 6:38pm

Senators in the President Donald Trump impeachment trial tried Wednesday to score political points, press their argument or knock down the other side’s claims — they just couldn’t use their own voice to do so.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats wrote down questions on a white card, directed to either Trump’s legal team or the House managers, for presiding officer Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to read aloud.

But many of those questions sought more to allow each side five minutes to tee off on an issue, and less to challenge a position, clarify an issue or obtain more information.

Most of the Republicans’ questions went to elicit a specific response from Trump’s team, and most of the Democrats’ questions similarly went to the House managers.

“Political ventriloquism,” Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, dubbed it.

The questions often telegraphed the forthcoming arguments of senators — some who have been media shy during the trial — even though senators could only state on the floor that, “I’ve sent a question to the desk.”

What senators wrote in the question came out of the mouth of the chief justice, something California Democrat Kamala Harris took advantage of most of all.

In one question from the former California attorney general and Washington Democrat Patty Murray, Roberts had to read Trump’s comments on a recording, made public Saturday, about the United States’ former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.

“Quote, ‘Get rid of her, get her out tomorrow, I don’t care, get her out tomorrow, take her out, okay,’ end quote,” Roberts deadpanned. The question went on to stress that more new evidence could come to light after the Senate votes on impeachment.

With another Harris question to House managers, Roberts had to repeat President Richard Nixon’s words, as well as Trump’s words from an old Access Hollywood tape where he described sexually assaulting women.

“Before he was elected, President Trump said, quote, ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything,’ end quote. After he was elected, President Trump said that Article II of the Constitution gives him, quote, ‘the right to do whatever he wants as president,’ end quote,”

Then Harris’ question in one swoop made an argument and lobbed a softball question to House managers: “These statements suggest that each of them believed that the president is above the law, a belief reflected in the improper actions both presidents took to affect their reelection campaigns,” Roberts read. “If the Senate fails to hold the president accountable for misconduct, how would that undermine our system of justice?”

Utah Republican Mike Lee’s question previewed an argument that the president was exercising his authority.

The question pointed out that the House managers had “aggressively” argued that Trump’s actions contravened the country’s foreign policy.

“Isn’t it the president’s place, certainly more than the place of career civil servants, to conduct foreign policy?” Roberts read Lee’s question.

Similarly, Iowa Republican Charles E. Grassley’s question to Trump’s counsel seemed to assert its own answer: “Does the House’s failure to enforce its subpoenas render its ‘obstruction of Congress’ theory unprecedented?”

New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen used her question to make an argument about what the Senate might be condoning if Trump were acquitted based on his argument that articles of impeachment must contain a violation of criminal statutes.

“Does this reasoning imply that if the president does not violate a criminal statute, he could not be impeached for abuses of power, such as ordering tax audits of political opponents, suspending habeas corpus rights, indiscriminately investigating political opponents or asking foreign powers to investigate members of Congress?” Roberts read Shaheen’s question.

Ohio Republican Rob Portman used his question to Trump’s counsel to take a potshot at the House impeachment process and highlight concerns with allowing additional witnesses.

“Given that impeachment proceedings are privileged in the Senate and largely prevent other work from taking place while they are ongoing, please address the implications of allowing the House to present an incomplete case to the Senate and requesting the Senate to seek testimony from additional witnesses,” Roberts read Portman’s question.

Texas Republican John Cornyn also sought to highlight concerns about more witnesses without litigation, asking: “What are consequences to the presidency, the president’s constitutional role as the head of the executive branch, and advice president can expect from his senior advisors, if the Senate seeks to resolve claims of executive privilege for subpoenas in this impeachment trial without any determination by an Article III court?”

The senators sometimes just wanted to give their side a chance to respond to an argument.

After Trump’s lawyers responded to a question from Texas Republican Ted Cruz about whether quid pro quo is a common tactic in foreign policy, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer sent a question to the desk for the House managers.“Would you please respond to the answer just given by the president’s counsel?” Roberts read the New York Democrat’s question.

For the most part, the first of two days of questions from senators underscored just how little the parties are forwarding their argument rather than engaging with each other. But there were some crossover questions.

Republicans John Kennedy of Louisiana, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Cornyn asked both sides to address why the House did not challenge Trump’s claims of executive privilege or immunity.

And Maine Independent Angus King asked both sides to respond to reports that former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said, “I believe John Bolton,” the former national security adviser whose leaked manuscript reportedly contains a passage that contradicts Trump’s defense.

King’s question also pointed out that Kelly suggested Bolton and others with information testify, saying, “If there are people that could contribute to this, either innocence or guilt, I think they should be heard.”

“Do you agree with General Kelly that they should be heard?” Roberts read King’s question.

Senators will get more chances to ask questions when the trial resumes Thursday afternoon.