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Voting Rights Advocate: The Impeachment of Trump Is Needed to Protect Our Elections & Democracy

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The impeachment trial begins its proceedings in the Senate today amid accusations of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attempting to rush the impeachment process. Senators will have 16 hours for questions and four hours for debate, after 24 hours for opening arguments on each side. We speak with Rick Perlstein, historian and author, and Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Clarke says that thanks to the rules set by McConnell, Trump’s impeachment trial could be over within a week, with much of the debate taking place in the evening. The process is designed “to keep the Senate and the public in the dark,” she says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Today is the Senate impeachment trial day in Washington. It is historic. We’re speaking with Rick Perlstein, who has written several books on President Nixon and what happened to him, also has focused on what happened to President Clinton. And we’re joined by Kristen Clarke. She is head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She’s in Washington, D.C.

Kristen Clarke, today we’re expected to see a battle between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. They will debate for several hours about what’s going to take place. Then there’s going to be 24 hours for both the House managers, the prosecutors, the Democrats, and President Trump’s lawyers. And as Mitch McConnell laid out the rules last night, these 24 hours each have to be over two days each, 12-hour days, clearly wanting to make this extremely fast, then a debate over whether there will be witnesses. And then there will be 16 hours where the senators will weigh in. They are kind of like jurors. They’re all sitting there, can’t have any phones. They can’t actually get up and ask questions of both sides. They have to hand their cards, their questions, to Chief Justice John Roberts, who will then read out their questions. And apparently this will go on for about 16 hours. Can you talk about the form of this, and also what information hasn’t been gotten out, or only recently?

KRISTEN CLARKE: The process feels rigged and intentionally designed to keep the Senate and the public in the dark. And that’s unfortunate. No doubt, Senator McConnell has constructed the rules here to extend debate well into the night, during hours in which the public likely would miss the opportunity to hear the evidence and hear the facts. This is not following the precedent that was set under Clinton. It’s important that we remember that the Clinton trial lasted for about a month. For President Johnson, that process extended for about two months. The way the rules have been set forth here, we’re looking at the possibility of this process concluding by the middle of next week. There has been resistance to entering the record that was built in the House into the record in the Senate. And the way that Senator McConnell has constructed the rules is intended to make it virtually impossible for a majority to agree and come to consensus that we should hear from the witnesses, that we should hear from the facts.

This is particularly startling when you think about the very positions that Senator McConnell and Senator Lindsey Graham took during the Clinton impeachment. Both of them were there, and both of them talked very openly and frankly about conducting a searching examination for the truth, about the importance of hearing from witnesses, about the importance of having a full and fair trial.

So I’m deeply concerned about the process that is underway, because at the end of the day we can’t forget the very issues that are the subject of this impeachment, which concerns allegations that a president interfered with our elections. As somebody who has been practicing voting rights and election law for virtually every day of my professional life, I care deeply about the allegations at hand. The idea that we’d have a president who would abuse his power and leverage a $400 million payment, that had been authorized by Congress, in order to secure from a foreign country a public announcement that is televised or broadcast that a political opponent is under criminal investigation is deeply troubling. This is conduct that undermines democracy, that undermines the integrity of our elections, that destroys public confidence in the process. So, you know, there is much debate about the rules and about new evidence circulating every day, but we cannot forget the deeply troubling and startling allegations that are the very subject of this impeachment process.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to get back to those rules for a second. You mentioned, and Chuck Schumer has lamented, the reality that McConnell is proposing to go into the wee hours of the morning. He wants to start the 12-hour process that 1 p.m. each day, so that it will go at least until 1:00 a.m. in the morning. And also, the amazing revelation that the Republicans are going to control the camera angles of what’s actually seen on C-SPAN, is in an uproar over the fact that basically they’re not going have even control over the cameras to be able to show individual senators or whatever from the hearing as the trial is ongoing.

KRISTEN CLARKE: There is no question that Senator McConnell is rigging the rules, that this is being set up in a way that feels like a sham process. It is a gross departure from the precedent sent by the Clinton impeachment process, where there were 24 hours of debate that extended over a longer period of time. By cramming and forcing the senators to sit for this length of a period of time over two days, it is absolutely clear that they intend for the debate to extend into the wee hours of the night, when the public will miss the opportunity to hear the very important facts at issue here.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go — stay on that issue of press restrictions. The Republican Senate leaders have issued these restrictions on journalists covering the impeachment trial. Press will be restricted to a pen and would be subjected to passing through a magnetometer that would check to make sure they’re not carrying electronic devices that would allow them to report on the trial from the press gallery. Several news organizations have criticized the rules, as Juan mentioned, including C-SPAN, which is calling on the Senate to allow its cameras to document the trial. A coalition of organizations, led by the ACLU, has written an open letter to Senate leaders, saying, quote, “The public and the press should be empowered to bear and use computing devices to bear witness to history from the galleries. C-SPAN should be allowed into the Senate Chamber to position its cameras so that they can broadcast the historic proceedings throughout the country and make the archives available to the public. … Journalists are not, as the Senate itself unanimously affirmed in 2018, the 'enemy of the people,' nor should they ever be treated as such by an institution in the United States government.” Kristen Clarke, also being told that they cannot talk to senators something like — I don’t know the exact time restriction — half an hour before the proceeding and a half an hour after, that means, especially the Republican senators, who won’t want to go on the record on this, know when they can run into the Senate chamber without being bothered, is how they would view it, by reporters. But, of course, it’s our role to put our elected leaders on the record.

KRISTEN CLARKE: Yeah, I smell a potential legal challenge here. I think the restrictions that have been imposed on the press and that are limiting and stifling their ability to do their job are deeply troubling and go to the heart of the First Amendment. So we’ll see how that plays out. But no doubt, when you think about the effort to stifle the public’s ability to follow and observe this process, when you think about the restrictions on the press, when you think about Senator McConnell’s rules, which are intended to not shine light on the evidence and the fact but are constructed to keep the public in the dark and to keep what played out here shrouded in secrecy, you know, it almost feels like we are witnessing the death of democracy here.

All of these issues — a public and open forum in Congress, free elections, a free press — really go to the heart of American democracy. I think that what’s playing out here is deeply troubling. And I hope that we can get the American public to focus again on the issues at hand, which really go to the heart of democracy. We want elections where there’s a level playing field, where candidates can compete freely and fairly. And that’s critical to ensuring that at the end of the day that the public can have confidence in the outcome produced by our elections.

And the allegations levied against the president here are deeply troubling, are very concerning. We’ve got about 286 days left until the November 2020 presidential election. And what’s to keep him from doing this again? It’s important that the Senate do its job, that it air all of the facts, lay to bare all of the evidence, so that the public and the Senate can understand what the president did here and determine whether or not the president violated his oath of office and abused his power.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering if you could comment also on the announcement by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham last week that while the trial is ongoing, that there will be no meetings of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the possible implications of that?

KRISTEN CLARKE: This is a very significant development. So, we now mark three years into the Trump presidency, and President Trump has moved at lightning speed to fill vacancies across our federal court system, and has done so at a record-breaking pace. When you compare the number of nominees named by President Trump three years into his presidency compared to President Obama at the same point, there is a stark disparity. He has put in place two Supreme Court justices, 50 judges on the federal circuit court — Obama appointed 25 over that time period — and 133 district court judges. Obama appointed about 97 during that same time period. These are judges who are there for a lifetime. These are judges who are overwhelmingly white and male. They don’t reflect the diversity of our country. These are judges who bear extremist records and raise real questions about their ability to hear issues that come before them impartially.

This development matters, because it is hard to imagine how the Senate could carry out the grave responsibility of reviewing the questions before them during the impeachment trial and properly vet judicial nominees for lifetime appointments. I am glad that Lindsey Graham has suspended the Judiciary Committee’s process during the time period, and hope that the senators will take all of their time and attention to uncover the evidence and facts at hand in this impeachment process. I’m glad that the public will get a reprieve from President Trump’s dangerous judicial nominees during this time period.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a video tweeted by the Senate Democrats showing remarks made by Senators Lindsey Graham and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, though he wasn’t at the time, during the Clinton impeachment trial.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: In every trial that there has ever been in the Senate regarding impeachment, witnesses were called.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: It’s not unusual to have a witness in a trial.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: If there’s any doubt, call witnesses.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: The crisis will only be resolved by a fair and sober search for the truth.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: When you have a witness, who was there, who was engaged in it, who was in the middle of it, telling you about what they were doing and why, it’s a totally different case, and it’s the difference between getting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: It’s certainly not unusual to have a witness in an impeachment trial.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: But if we don’t get to call meaningful witnesses, direct witnesses to the point, is that you’re basically changing impeachment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s to the issue of witnesses. Again, Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell now saying that they don’t want witnesses. And now I want to go to play two clips of Alan Dershowitz, one of the newest members of Trump’s legal team. This is Dershowitz speaking in 1998 in reference to the Clinton impeachment.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: It certainly doesn’t have to be a crime. If you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty, you don’t need a technical crime.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Alan Dershowitz in 1998 around Clinton. This is Dershowitz Sunday appearing on ABC This Week, referencing former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis’ defense of President Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial in 1868.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: When you read the text of the Constitution, bribery — treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors, “other” really means that crimes and misdemeanors must be of a kin — akin to treason and bribery. And he argued, very successfully, winning the case, that you needed proof of an actual crime. It needn’t be a statutory crime, but it has to be criminal behavior, criminal in nature.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have the complete turnaround of these men. Rick Perlstein, you’ve covered Nixon. You covered the Clinton impeachment. Talk about what Dershowitz is now saying and what the others are saying around witnesses, how it played out with Clinton.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Right. A wise man once defined conservatism as the ideology that says the law covers but does not bind certain people, and binds but does not cover others. In other words, it’s about protecting the powerful, and procedural neutrality, fairness, logic, a lack of hypocrisy has nothing to do with it.

And that, you know, really goes back to, again, these media restrictions. It’s not just that the public is going to be kept in the dark. What’s happening is that Republicans are being protected from the humiliation and the political damage of being forced to go on camera and say that black is white, that up is down, that two plus two equals five. They’re being protected from the judgment of history. I mean, if the world ends up in smoking ruins because of Donald Trump, these guys do not want to be recorded in the history books as the people who did not stand up.

The Clinton trial shows, actually, quite the difference between this very flawed Democratic Party and this deeply corrupt Republican Party. When Clinton was impeached, the reason this happened was because Clinton was willing to allow his attorney general to replace an independent counsel when that counsel’s term was up and that the attorney general, Janet Reno, chose a partisan Republican. That’s how committed the Democratic Party was to fairness. You know, in the same way, when the Democrats took over the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy gave enormous latitude to allow Republicans to pink — blue-slip, or veto, Democratic judges — right? — this commitment to procedural neutrality.

The Republicans have no commitment to procedural neutrality. They’re only interested in, basically, a Führerprinzip, like the one in Germany: The leader is always right; we’re going to protect him at all terms. And whether our republic can survive this sort of depredation is very much in question. The walls are closing in. The hour is very late.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Kristen Clarke, you are a voting rights leader in this country. How do you answer those who say, “Why impeachment? If people don’t like what President Trump has done, vote him out of office in the next election”?

KRISTEN CLARKE: We need fair rules. We need a level playing field in order for our democracy to work. And when you have a public official — here, the president — who abuses his office and abuses his power to rig the outcome, to undermine a political opponent because they are afraid to compete on that level playing field, then we should all be concerned. We want elections where the outcomes are ones that people feel are fair, outcomes where they can have confidence. And here, I think it’s important that we all ask: With 286 days to go, what’s to stop President Trump from doing it again? It’s important that the Senate do its job, lay bare the evidence, and that we determine whether or not he indeed abused his office and withheld aid to Ukraine in order to buy a public pronouncement about a criminal investigation in a political opponent. That is not conduct that we should tolerate in American democracy today.

AMY GOODMAN: Kristen Clarke, we want to thank you for being with us, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Rick Perlstein, author of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.

When we come back, the National Archives erases history? Stay with us.

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