[guest post by Dana]
The idea is being floated by an individual who was an adviser to several Republican politicians (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft and Rudy Giuliani) as a plausible path to remove Trump from office. It’s an unhealthy effort to allow Republicans to remove President Trump from office without transparency, and shield them from any criticism by voters unhappy with their decision. In other words, it allows for no accountability. Of all people, elected officials should always know that they will indeed be held accountable for every vote cast, and they should be willing to stand up for their vote, for better or worse and no matter what may come. The American people should demand no less from those they put into office. This is the seriousness of the job for which they signed up, and this is the seriousness of making a decision as monumental as impeaching the President of the United States. No shield, no cover, no secret vote. Let them own it in the public square:
A secret impeachment ballot might sound crazy, but it’s actually quite possible. In fact, it would take only three senators to allow for that possibility.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will immediately move to hold a trial to adjudicate the articles of impeachment if and when the Senate receives them from the House of Representatives. Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution does not set many parameters for the trial, except to say that “the Chief Justice shall preside,” and “no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.” That means the Senate has sole authority to draft its own rules for the impeachment trial, without judicial or executive branch oversight.
During the last impeachment of a president, Bill Clinton, the rules were hammered out by Democrats and Republicans in a collaborative process, as then Senate leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle recently pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed. The rules passed unanimously. That’s unlikely this time, given the polarization that now defines our politics. McConnell and his fellow Republicans are much more likely to dictate the rules with little input from Democrats.
But, according to current Senate procedure, McConnell will still need a simple majority—51 of the 53 Senate Republicans—to support any resolution outlining rules governing the trial. That means that if only three Republican senators were to break from the caucus, they could block any rule they didn’t like…Those three senators, in turn, could demand a secret ballot and condition their approval of the rest of the rules on getting one.
Some might say transparency in congressional deliberations and votes is inviolable, and it’s true that none of the previous Senate impeachments have been conducted via secret ballot. But the Senate’s role in an impeachment is analogous to a U.S. jury, where secret ballots are often used. When Electoral College gridlock has resulted in the House picking the president—the House elected Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and John Quincy Adams in 1824—that vote has been secret. And, of course, when citizens vote for president, they do so in private.
The numbers are what they are:
Trump and those around him seem confident that he won’t lose the 20 Republican senators needed to block a guilty verdict. But it’s not hard to imagine three senators supporting a secret ballot. Five sitting Republican senators have already announced their retirements; four of those are in their mid-70s or older and will never run for office again. They might well be willing to demand secrecy in order to give cover to their colleagues who would like to convict Trump but are afraid to do so because of politics in their home districts. There are also 10 Republican senators who aren’t up for reelection until 2024 and who might figure Trumpism will be irrelevant by then. Senators Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski have been the most vocal Republicans in expressing concerns about Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine. Other GOP senators have recently softened in their defense of him, as well—all before the House has held any public hearings.
I’m happy to see that I’m not alone in thinking this is a terrible idea:
It would represent senators trying to avoid accountability for their votes, during an exercise that is supposed to be a legislative effort to hold the president accountable for his actions. This country has never forcibly removed a president from office. For such a consequential and historically important vote, the idea of senators being able to not tell the public how they voted — or to publicly claim they voted one way when they secretly voted the other — is unthinkable.
We all know why some senators would want a secret ballot; plenty of Republican senators who privately can’t stand Trump and who would strongly prefer a President Pence would vote to remove Trump from office if they knew they wouldn’t face punishment in a subsequent GOP primary. In a 75-25 vote in favor of removal, all 53 Republican senators could insist they were among the “no” votes, with no official record to contradict them. (This might apply to relatively Trump-friendly red state Democratic senators like Joe Manchin, too.)
If Trump really is an unconstitutional menace who is abusing the power of the presidency for his personal interests, stopping him ought to be worth losing a Senate seat. And if this action isn’t worth losing a Senate seat over, then it’s hard to see how it is worth removing a president.
President Trump stands accused of concluding the ends justified the means — that he really wanted an investigation of the Bidens, and he was willing to withhold Congressionally appropriated military aid from another country in order to strong-arm the foreign government into announcing an investigation into one of his potential rivals. Trump knew the outcome he wanted, and he didn’t care how he got there. A secret ballot is just continuing the same philosophy — people want Trump out of office, and they don’t really care how they get there. And they’re even willing to sacrifice basic fundamental concepts of government — such as informing the public of which senators voted for impeachment — to get what they want. This would represent an attempt to remedy a cynical act done for personal political advantage in secret . . . with another cynical act done for personal political advantage in secret.
Anytime the words “secret vote” and “Congress” appear together, every American should immediately be suspicious, and every congressperson endorsing such secrecy – especially with regard to an impeachment – should be viewed with nothing less than suspicion.
(Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.)