After the house sent the articles of impeachment to the senate, the senators were sworn in and the trial began. As would be expected, it has played out along party lines (although Collins did vote with the Democrats on one losing vote). While the Constitution does not provide an extensive guide to the process, the oath that the senators take is informative: “”Do you solemnly swear, that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, now pending, you will do impartial justice according to the constitution and laws: So help you God?” This oath commits the senators to “impartial justice” defined by the “constitution and laws.”
Some Republican senators, such as Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham, have been quite clear that they made their decision before the trial even began. McConnell was quite explicit that he would be working with the White House to ensure that that Trump is not removed from office—he did not make even the slightest effort at pretending to be impartial. Some Democrats have been accused of prejudging Trump, but McConnell seems unmatched in this matter. Regardless of party, to the degree that a senator has committed to their position based on partiality, they have failed to live up their oath.
The senators are also supposed to use the “constitution and laws” as their standard of justice. While the Republicans are trying a variety of strategies, the one that seem most consistent with these standards are the arguments that Trump broke no laws, that Trump acted constitutionally and that the Democrats are acting unconstitutionally. As would be expected, people tend to accept or reject these arguments along party lines. One that has no merit is the argument that Trump should not be impeached because that would nullify the 2016 election (and the 2020 election, assuming Trump would not be able to run again if he was removed from office).
Impeachment is constitutional—this is evident from the fact that it is laid out in the Constitution; so that line of defense has no merit. While it is certainly tempting to see it as nullifying the election (after all, the president could be removed from office) to accept this reasoning would be to nullify the impeachment process: if impeachment and removal nullifies an election and elections should not be nullified, then no one should ever be impeached and removed. While this would defend Trump, it would also do away with impeachment and removal entirely.
The Republicans can also be seen as claiming that the Democrats have a wicked motivation (nullifying the election they lost) and hence their case has no merit. The problem with this argument is that the motivation of the Democrats is irrelevant to the legitimacy of their case. If the Republicans can show that there is no constitutional or legal basis to the articles of impeachment and can provide evidence of the Democrat’s wicked motivations, then they can certainly conclude the impeachment is unfounded and the Democrats have wicked motivations. But the motivations of the Democrats, however wicked, are not relevant to assessing the case against Trump by the standards of “impartial justice.” One could, of course, use the wicked motivations of certain senate Democrats to argue they are not impartial; but it is even easier to show that certain senate Republicans are not impartial—since they have made clear statements to that effect on camera. But such exercises would be largely pointless: there are no penalties specified for breaking the oath, though there might be some political cost for doing so in an egregious manner.
A case can certainly be made the Republicans are interfering with “impartial justice” by trying to prevent witnesses from testifying and by blocking new evidence; the legal process of discovery does set a clear precedent for new evidence and witnesses in a trial. Impartial justice would seem to require considering all available relevant evidence whether it favors or harms Trump. The Republican leadership understands that witnesses and evidence would be damaging to Trump—the more Americans learn about the matter, the more they have come to support impeachment and even removal. While the Republicans will almost certainly all vote in Trump’s favor regardless of any new evidence or witnesses, they do get that the 2020 election might be impacted by what the public sees and hears in the trial. Hence, McConnel wants the trial to be as short as possible with no additional revelations about Trump’s misdeeds. Which is to say that he does not want impartial justice; he wants his side to win or at least he wants to minimize the damage done to his Party.
It can be argued that the Democrats are just out to score political points for 2020. Even if this is true, it does not entail that Trump should not be removed from office. After all, why the Democrats are pushing impeachment has not relevance to whether Trump should be removed or not. For example, I might want a professor who sexually harasses students and creates a hostile classroom for conservative students removed because I want a buddy of mine to get their job. But if the professor is, in fact, sexually harassing students and creating a hostile classroom for conservative students, then they should still be removed. While one could say that this would “nullify” their hiring (the vote of the hiring committee, etc.), such an objection would entail that professors should never be removed, no matter what they might do—which would be absurd.
If one accepts the idea that impartial justice should be done, then the evidence seems damning for Trump. Naturally, those defending Trump will assert that I am just biased against him—but one struggles to imagine what sort of case would ever convince them. But if we reject the idea of impartial justice and simply take it as a political battle between the dominant parties, then talk of justice, the constitution and law are but empty words. It would just be a matter of winning by having more votes, regardless of the case made for or against the president. It could be said that this is an honest approach: it is just a struggle for power between two groups of awful people and one almost must pick a side because they are the only two available.