Full Statement on the Senate Impeachment Proceedings
Mr. SULLIVAN. Mr. President, I rise today to speak about the impeachment of Donald J. Trump.
The Democratic House Managers, who are prosecuting the case against the President, emphasized that history is watching. That is true. Every action taken by the House and the Senate during this impeachment sets a precedent for our country and our institutions of government—whether good or bad.
For that reason, it is our job as Senators to look at the entire record of this proceeding—from what happened in the House to final arguments made here in the Senate. It is also our duty to look at the whole picture—the flawed process in the House, the purely partisan nature of the articles of impeachment, the President’s actions that led to his impeachment, and the impact of all of this on our constitutional norms.
Most importantly, we must weigh the impact on our nation and on the legitimacy of our institutions of government, if the Senate were to agree with the House Managers’ demands to overturn the 2016 election and remove the President from the 2020 ballot. This has never happened in our country’s 243-year history.
It is also our job as Senators during an impeachment trial to be guided by “a deep responsibility to future times.”
This is a quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, two centuries ago, but it couldn’t be more relevant today.
With this grave constitutional responsibility in mind, and considering the important factors listed above, I will vote to acquit the President on both charges brought against him.
II. Partisan Impeachment
It may surprise some, but if you listened to all the witnesses in this trial and you examine the sweep of American history, one strong bipartisan point of consensus has emerged: Purely partisan impeachments are not in the country’s best interest. In fact, they are a danger which the Framers of the Constitution clearly feared.
Alexander Hamilton’s warning from Federalist #65 bears repeating:
“In many cases [impeachment] will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will inlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt…Yet it ought not to be forgotten that the demon of faction will, at certain seasons, extend his sceptre over all numerous bodies of men."
The reason for this “greatest danger” is obvious: the weaponization of impeachment as a regular tool of partisan warfare will incapacitate our government, undermine the legitimacy of our institutions, and tear the country apart.
And until this impeachment, our country’s representatives largely understood this. During the Clinton impeachment—Democrats, including Minority Leader Schumer and House Managers Lofgren and Nadler, argued that a purely partisan impeachment would be “divisive,” “lack the legitimacy of a national consensus,” and “call into question the very legitimacy of our political institutions.”
Less than a year ago Speaker Pelosi said: “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path because it divides the country.”
Yet here we are.
Against the weight of bipartisan consensus and the wisdom of the Framers, the House still took this dramatic and consequential step—the first purely partisan impeachment in U.S. history. Only Democrats in the House voted to impeach the President, while a bipartisan group of House members opposed.
This was done through rushed House proceedings that lacked the most basic due process procedures afforded Presidents Clinton and Nixon during their impeachment investigations.
A significant portion of the House proceedings last fall took place in secret, where the President was not afforded counsel, the ability to call his own witnesses, or cross examine those of the House Democrats.
Certain testimonies from these secret hearings were then selectively leaked to a pro-impeachment press.
This happened in America! In my view, it sounds like something more worthy of the Soviet Union, not the world’s greatest constitutional republic.
Yet here we are. A new precedent has been set in the House.
When asked several times if these precedents and the partisan nature of this impeachment should concern us—the House Managers dodged the questions. And my Senate colleagues—who in 1999 were so strongly and correctly and vocally against the dangers of purely partisan impeachments—have all gone silent.
Perhaps it’s too late. Perhaps the genie is now out of the bottle. Perhaps the danger that Hamilton so astutely predicted 232 years ago is upon us for good. I hope not.
No one thinks that partisan impeachments every few years would be good for our great nation.
The Senate does not have to validate this House precedent, and a Senate focused on “deep responsibility to future times” shouldn’t do so.
III. Undermining Constitutional Norms
In addition to unleashing the danger of purely partisan impeachments, the House’s impeachment action and their arguments before the Senate, if ratified, have the potential to undermine other critical constitutional norms, such as the separation of powers and the independence of our judiciary.
These traditions exist to implement the will of the people we represent and to protect their liberty.
And yet so much of what has already been done in the House, and what has now been argued in the Senate, has little or no precedent in U.S. history; thereby threatening many of the constitutional safeguards that have served our country so well for over two centuries.
Take, for example, the debate we recently had on whether to have the Senate seek additional evidence for this impeachment trial.
The House Managers claim that by not doing so, we are undermining a “fair trial” in the Senate. The irony of such a claim should not be lost on the American people.
Throughout this trial, and in their briefs, the House Managers have claimed dozens of times that they have “overwhelming evidence” on the current record to impeach the President; thereby undermining their own rationale for more evidence.
And in terms of fairness, it is well-documented that the Democratic leadership in the House just conducted the most rushed, partisan, and fundamentally unfair House impeachment proceedings in U.S. history.
A Senate vote to pursue additional evidence and witnesses would have turned the Article I constitutional impeachment responsibilities of the House and Senate on their heads.
It would have required the Senate to do the House’s impeachment investigatory work, even when the House affirmatively declined to seek additional evidence last fall—such as subpoenaing Ambassador John Bolton—because of Speaker Pelosi’s artificial deadline to impeach the President by Christmas.
A vote by the Senate to pursue additional evidence that the House consciously chose not to obtain would incentivize less thorough, and more frequent, partisan impeachments in the future—a danger that should concern us all.
Another example of the House’s attempt to erode long-standing constitutional norms is found in its second article of impeachment—obstruction of Congress. This article claims that the President committed an impeachable offence by resisting House subpoenas for witnesses and documents, even though the House didn’t attempt to negotiate, accommodate, or litigate the President’s asserted defenses, such as executive privilege and immunity, to provide such evidence.
These defenses have been utilized by administrations—Democrat and Republican—for decades and go to the heart of the separation of powers within the Article I and Article II branches of the federal government and even implicate a defendant’s right to vigorously defend oneself in court. Indeed, the Supreme Court acknowledged in United States v. Nixon that the President has the right to assert executive privilege.
Nevertheless, the House Managers argued that the mere assertion of these constitutional rights is an impeachable offense—in essence claiming the unilateral power to define the limits and scope of executive privilege, while simultaneously usurping that power from the courts, where it has existed for centuries.
Indeed, the House Managers even argued that merely asserting these defenses is evidence of guilt itself. This is a dangerous argument that demonstrates a lack of understanding of basic constitutional norms. As U. S. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis stated in his famous dissent in Myers v. United States, “The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted by the convention of 1787 not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was not to avoid friction, but, by means of the inevitable friction incident to the distribution of the governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy.”
If allowed to stand by the Senate, the implications of these House precedents for our nation and the individual liberties of the people we represent are difficult to discern, but would be profound, and likely very negative.
Similarly concerning were the attempts—both subtle and not-so-subtle—to inject Chief Justice Roberts of the U. S. Supreme Court into this trial.
The smooth siren song of House Manager Schiff, casually inviting the Senate and Chief Justice into a constitutional labyrinth for which there may have been no exit, was a recurring theme of this trial.
“We have a perfectly good judge here,” Schiff said over and over again, “whom you all trust and have confidence in.” Let him quickly decide all the weighty legal and constitutional issues before the Senate—the relevance of witnesses, claims of immunity and executive privilege. What House Manager Nadler described on day one of the trial as “executive privilege, and other nonsense.”
Moreover, the Chief Justice could do this all within a week, Schiff told us.
It all seemed so simple, rational, and efficient. But our Constitution doesn’t work this way. The Chief Justice, in an impeachment of the President, sits as the presiding officer over the Senate, not as an Article III judge. And while the Senate can delegate certain trial powers to him, it cannot delegate matters—such as a President’s claims of executive privilege—over which the Senate itself does not have constitutional authority.
The quick and efficient fix Schiff was tempting the Senate with might have ended up as a form of constitutional demolition.
And as the trial proceeded, it became apparent that it was more than just claims of efficiency behind the invitation to draw the Chief Justice fully into the trial.
There was something else afoot—a subtle and not-so-subtle attempt by some to attack the credibility and independence of the Chief Justice and the Court he leads.
The junior senator from Massachusetts’ question for the House Managers—which drew an audible gasp from those watching in the Senate after the Chief Justice read it—made this clear, when she asked about “the loss of legitimacy of the Chief Justice, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution.”
So too did Minority Leader Schumer’s parliamentary inquiry about the precedent from the impeachment of President Johnson 150 years ago, on the role of the Chief Justice in breaking ties on 50-50 votes in the Senate during presidential impeachments.
Chief Justice Roberts’ cogent, historically accurate and constitutionally-based answer to this inquiry will set an important precedent on this impeachment issue for generations to come.
Perhaps it is all a coincidence, but as these attempts to diminish the Chief Justice’s credibility by more fully dragging him into this impeachment trial were ongoing, much more harsh political ads directly attacking him in this regard were being launched across the country.
Members of the Senate noticed, and we were not impressed.
The independence of the federal judiciary as established in our Constitution is a gift to our nation that has taken centuries to develop. The overreach of the House Managers and certain Democratic Senators seeking to undermine this essential constitutional norm was a disappointing and even dangerous aspect of this impeachment trial.
When historians someday write about this divisive period of American history, they would do well to focus on these subtle and not-so-subtle attacks on the Chief Justice’s credibility—and by extension the credibility of the Supreme Court—for it was clearly one of the important reasons why the Senate voted last week—51 to 49—to no longer prolong the trial phase of this impeachment.
IV. The Ultimate Question Before the Senate
The impeachment articles do not charge the President with a crime. Although there was much debate in the trial on whether this is required, it is undisputed that in all previous presidential impeachments—Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton—the president was charged with having violated a criminal statute. And there was little dispute that these charges were accurate. Lowering the bar to non-criminal offenses has set a new precedent. However, whether a crime is required is still debatable. Instead, the House impeachment charged the President with an abuse of power based on speculative interpretation of his intent.
So what about the President’s actions that were the primary focus of this impeachment trial and the basis of the House’s first article of impeachment claim that he abused his power? The House Managers argued that the President abused his power by taking actions that on their face appeared valid—withholding aid to a foreign country and investigating corruption—but were motivated by “corrupt intent.”
One significant problem with this argument is that it is vague and hinges on deciphering the President’s intent and motives, a difficult feat because it is subjective and could be—and was indeed in this case—defined by a partisan House. Further, the House Managers argue essentially that there could be no legitimate national interest in pursuing investigations into interference of the U.S. 2016 elections by Ukraine and corruption involving Burisma.
I believe all Presidents have the right to investigate interference in U.S. elections and credible claims of corruption and conflicts of interest, particularly in countries where America sends significant amounts of foreign aid, like Ukraine, and where corruption is endemic, like Ukraine.
Were the President’s actions perfect? No.
For example, despite having the authority to investigate corruption in Ukraine and with Burisma, I believe he should have requested such an investigation through more official and robust channels, such as pursuing cooperation through the U.S. Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with Ukraine, with the Department of Justice in the lead.
I also believe that the role of Mr. Giuliani has caused confusion and may have undermined the Trump Administration’s broader foreign policy goals with regard to Ukraine.
But none of this even remotely rises to the level of an offense that merits removing the President from office. It is difficult to imagine a situation requiring a higher burden of proof.
The radical and dangerous step that the House Democrats are proposing seems to have been lost in all of the noise.
What they are asking the Senate to do, is not just overturn the results of the 2016 election—nullifying the votes of millions of Americans—but to remove the President from the 2020 ballot, even as primary voting has begun across the country.
Such a step, if ever realized, would do infinitely more damage to the legitimacy of our constitutional republic and political system than any mistake or error of judgment President Trump may have made.
An impeachment trial is supposed to be the last resort to protect the American people against the highest crimes that undermine and threaten the foundations of our Republic, not to get rid of a president because a faction of one political party disagrees with the way he governs. That’s what elections are for.
I trust the Alaskan and American people—not House Democrats—with the monumental decision of choosing who should lead our nation.
And soon, they will decide, again, who should lead our nation. In churches, libraries, and school cafeterias, the people all across the country will vote for who they want to represent them.
And I’m convinced that the American people will make their choices wisely.
V. Protect the Constitution and Get Back to Work
Mr. President, let me conclude by saying a few words about where we should go from here.
Right before this impeachment trial began, I was at an event in Wasilla, Alaska, where many of Alaska’s military veterans attended.
A proud veteran approached me with a simple but fervent request. “Senator Sullivan,” he said. “Protect our Constitution.”
So many of us—including me—have heard similar pleas over the past few months from the people we represent. But there was something about the way he said it, something in his eyes that truly got my attention.
I realized that something was fear. That man—a brave Alaskan who had served in the military to protect our constitutional freedoms—was afraid that the country he knows and he loves was at risk.
And I have to admit that I’ve had similar fears these past weeks.
But I look around me, on this floor, and I continue to see hope for our nation.
I see my colleagues on the other side of the aisle—my friends—who are willing to work with me on so many issues to find solutions sorely needed for the country.
And back home, I see my fellow Alaskans—some of them fearful—but also so hungry to do their part to help heal the divides.
We should end this chapter and we should take our cues from them—the people whose spirit and character guides this great nation.
They want us to protect our Constitution. They need us to work together to do that and address America’s challenges.
It’s time to get back to the work Alaskans want the Congress to focus on: growing our economy, improving our infrastructure, rebuilding our military, cleaning up our oceans, lowering health care costs and drug prices, opening markets for our fishermen, and taking care of our most vulnerable in society like survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and those struggling with addiction.
That’s what I’m committed to do.
I yield the floor.