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Defense could enable assaults

Senate Republicans on Tuesday laid the groundwork for a truncated trial of President Trump that would be a perversion of justice. Proposals by Democrats to obtain critical evidence were voted down. Unless several senators changed their positions, votes to acquit Mr. Trump on the House’s charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress could come as soon as next week without any testimony by witnesses or review of key documents. That would be unprecedented compared with previous presidential impeachments. It would gravely damage the only mechanism the Constitution provides for checking a rogue president.

Yet the rigging of the trial process may not be the most damaging legacy of the exhibition Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is orchestrating in full collaboration with the White House. That might flow from the brazen case being laid out by Mr. Trump’s lawyers. The defense brief they filed Monday argued that the president “did absolutely nothing wrong” when he pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch investigations of Joe Biden and a Russian-promoted conspiracy theory about the 2016 election. It further contends that Mr. Trump was entirely within his rights when he refused all cooperation with the House impeachment inquiry, including rejecting subpoenas for testimony and documents. It says he cannot be impeached because he violated no law.

By asking senators to ratify those positions, Mr. Trump and his lawyers are, in effect, seeking consent for an extraordinary expansion of his powers. An acquittal vote would confirm to Mr. Trump that he is free to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election and to withhold congressionally appropriated aid to induce such interference. It would suggest that he can press foreign leaders to launch a criminal investigation of any American citizen he designates, even in the absence of a preexisting U.S. probe, or any evidence.

The defense would also set the precedent that presidents may flatly refuse all cooperation with any congressional inquiry, even though the House’s impeachment power is spelled out in the Constitution. And it would establish that no president may be impeached unless he or she could be convicted of violating a federal statute — no matter the abuse of power. Those are principles that Republicans will regret if they conclude that a Democratic executive has violated his or her oath of office. Yet Mr. Trump demands they adopt his maximalist position regardless of the consequences.

We know that many Republican senators do not accept this unacceptable defense. Some, such as Rob Portman (Ohio), Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), Mitt Romney (Utah), Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Susan Collins (Maine), have publicly criticized Mr. Trump for calling on Ukraine or China to investigate Mr. Biden. Mr. Portman and Mr. Toomey have taken the position that Mr. Trump’s behavior was wrong but not worthy of impeachment — a response that would, at least in theory, preserve some guardrails on the president’s behavior.

Mr. Trump’s defense is designed to destroy those guardrails. If Republican senators go along with it, they will not only be excusing behavior that many of them believe to be improper. They will be enabling further assaults by Mr. Trump on the foundations of American democracy.

* Guest editorial from The Washington Post

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