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2 former congressional staffers on precedents set by Trump impeachment trial

In President Trump's impeachment trial, senators had their second and final opportunity to ask questions Thursday. The Brookings Institution’s Margaret Taylor, former chief counsel and deputy staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and John Hart of Mars Hill Strategies, who worked for Republican Rep. Tom Coburn when President Clinton was impeached, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now I am joined by two people who have been analyzing this trial with us since day one — well, since at least the last few hours.

    Margaret Taylor, she was the Democrats' chief counsel and deputy staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She's currently at the Brookings Institution and senior editor at Lawfare. And John Hart, he worked for then Congressman Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, during the impeachment of President Clinton.

    Welcome to both of you. It's good to have you with us.

    Let's talk about today and think that about — you both have been paying attention closely to the questions the senators have been posing back and forth, taking turns from each party.

    John Hart, are we learning anything new from this exposition, if you want to call it that?

  • John Hart:

    Well, gee, I don't know that we're learning a lot new, but I think both sides are doing a very good job of delivering their talking points.

    And the talking points, of course, Democrats are saying, is that Republicans don't want witnesses, they don't want a fair trial. And Republicans. I think, have done a good job describing this core argument that this whole process is a charade, and it violates what some senators have called the golden rule of impeachment.

    And that golden rule says, impeachment has to be bipartisan. And Republicans, of course, have played video of Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer saying that, in effect, that impeachment that is partisan on its face is illegitimate.

    And so we may see a win for Republicans with a vote, but this is a loss for our republic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Margaret Taylor, what about — what do you see new that's illuminated here that we didn't know before? Much of anything?

  • Margaret Taylor:

    I have a slightly different view.

    While we have seen questions that are repetitive, questions that do allow the parties to sort of repeat the talking points that they have done before, what we also saw from a few senators, in particular some Republicans, sometimes on a bipartisan basis, asking some questions that lead me to think they're thinking, what happens after this trial is over?

    So, for example, a group of Republicans asked the parties, you know, what — is there a legitimate situation where a president could request a foreign government announce an investigation into a U.S. citizen when there is no investigation going on by U.S. law enforcement? Is that — is there ever an appropriate rattle time for that?

    And example that I thought was interesting is that senators, on a bipartisan basis, were asking about, what about this mixed-motives question? When a president is doing something…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Alan Dershowitz…

  • Margaret Taylor:

    Yes, that's right.

    When a president does something that is within his constitutionally assigned duty, if he has a corrupt motive, but also potentially a non-corrupt motive, does that matter? Is it important?

    And so what I see is senators looking beyond what — the writing is on the wall. The president will almost certainly be acquitted, but they are looking beyond and saying, what does this mean for the norms for our country and our democracy going forward?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Hart, as we move closer to votes on all this, is — what is mattering more? Is it the interpretation of the Constitution, or is it the facts as each side sees it? What do you think?

  • John Hart:

    Well, I think what matters more for the country is the Constitution.

    And, as Margaret indicated, there is a very healthy discussion about what precedents are being set as we have this discussion. What is the standard of impeachment?

    And the founders created a system with impeachment where it is a political process. They put it in the Senate, so that it would be a decision made by elected officials. And the burden is on we, the people. It's for us to decide what kind of behavior we tolerate.

    So I think — in some degrees, I think that's been a productive conversation, but it's been highly partisan and poisonous at the…


  • Judy Woodruff:

    And yet, as you look back at, for example, the Nixon process, which didn't lead to impeachment because he stepped down, the parties came together, ultimately, not all, but a number of Republicans joined with Democrats. It was different.

  • Margaret Taylor:

    Yes, that's true.

    And, you know, we're not really seeing that here. But I guess my hope going forward is that, after this is over, senators can get together, figure out what they might agree on in terms of what is appropriate behavior for the president going forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Margaret, what about this question that I posed to John about whether — what ultimately is going to matter more? Is it the facts, is it politics, is it the Constitution, all of the above?

  • Margaret Taylor:

    So, my view is that the arguments made here, in particular by Professor Dershowitz, actually will have a long lifetime, I suspect, because they're now — that — this theory of what the president can do is now going to be a large part of the sort of the small canon of presidential impeachments.

    And so I do think that where the legal arguments about what the Constitution requires will actually loom large going forward. I think that's going to be very important moving forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Hart, as somebody who worked in the Senate — we mentioned you worked for many years for former Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — what's it like inside the Senate when they are facing a pretty — not pretty — very consequential vote like this?

    And they probably have a sense that it's not — that it's going to go down the way it's going to go down?

  • John Hart:

    Well, I think there is a lot of reflection, there's a lot of pressure, there's a lot of fatigue, short tempers sometimes.

    And I think what's interesting and troubling about where we are right now is that it has gotten so poisonous and so partisan, and I think it's degenerated a few times.

    When Coburn was — he was in the House during the Clinton impeachment. And he ended up supporting that, that impeachment of President Clinton. But, to his credit, he sounded the alarm on the partnership 20 years ago.

    He went to his leadership and said, we can't just run on impeachment. What is our agenda? What is our positive agenda for the country?

    And Newt Gingrich said, well, Bill Clinton has already motivated our base for us. And, in hindsight, history has not been kind to that impeachment, because it really started by — there was a movement to describe Bill Clinton as an illegitimate president.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • John Hart:

    And, today, that's exactly what we have.

    And so what we should fear in our country, losing isn't fun, but what's worse than elections with consequences are elections without consequences. And nullifying the results of an election is a very grave and serious thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very quick question to you, Margaret.

    We were discussing this earlier. And that is, I'm told — you were saying some of the process — procedures tomorrow could be behind closed doors. Is that healthy for the country, that the American people may not be able to see the final deliberations here?

  • Margaret Taylor:

    So, it's actually a very good question.

    Sometimes, senators behind closed doors can be much more frank with one another, when they feel that not all their constituents are watching with every — every eye on them.

    So, actually, closed-door deliberations can be a helpful thing, if senators want to find a way forward to figure out some sort of cathartic moment to have.

    However, I don't think it will be healthy if Americans don't have a rally good understanding of why their senator made the decision that they made. Senators, obviously, I think, will need to go out and explain to their constituents what their vote is.

    And I do hope that is done in an open session.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Margaret Taylor, John Hart, very good to have both of you. Thank you.

  • Margaret Taylor:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Appreciate it.

    And our special live coverage of the impeachment trial is continuing on air and online tonight. Check your PBS station locally, or join us online at PBS.org/NewsHour, or on our YouTube pages.

    And then we will be back tomorrow, when the trial resumes, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

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