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'You Have To Get The Facts Out': Sen. Patrick Leahy On Upcoming Impeachment Trial

Sen. Patrick Leahy at a podium with other lawmakers
Jose Luis Magana
Associated Press File
Sen. Patrick Leahy speaks about the War Powers Resolution on Jan. 9 in Washington, D.C. Now that the U.S. House has sent its articles of impeachment to the Senate, a trial is expected to start next week.

The U.S. House formally sent two articles of impeachment over to the Senate on Wednesday, setting the stage for a Senate trial. It's expected that the Senate will deal with some procedural issues this week and actually begin the trial Tuesday.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, talked to VPR about the key issues in the trial and whether or not additional witnesses should be called to testify.

You can listen to the interview above. Below are excerpts from the interview.

Concerns over a fair trial

"[Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell ... has said time and time again that he's consulting with Donald Trump," Leahy said, "and doesn't want to do anything that [President] Donald Trump doesn't agree with and that he wants to quickly acquit Donald Trump. Well that's not what you have a trial for."

Leahy acknowledged McConnell has a different stance than him, but reiterated a necessity to ensure fairness in the proceedings.

"I fully expect Sen. McConnell to be very pro-Republican and that's fine. But we need — we need votes, we need to have to have a fair trial. If 51 senators voted to have a really fair trial, we'd have it," Leahy said, "and I'd be very happy with whatever the final outcome is if it was done in a fair way."

Opportunity to call witnesses

Leahy said the full Senate will have the opportunity to vote on calling additional witnesses once the trial is underway, "unless of course Sen. McConnell were [to] make a move, and have enough Republican votes to do it, to just squelch the whole thing." 

"He's actually talked along those lines," Leahy continued. "I hope he would not do such a thing. I think it would be a mark against the Constitution, a mark against the Congress, and actually would not in any way help the president. So if we want to start the proceedings and then vote on witnesses, that's a possibility."

When it comes to allowing witnesses, Leahy said he has "encouraged senators to do that, both moderate and conservative."

Leahy compared not allowing witnesses to be "a dark mark" on the Senate, but also expressed wariness as to if GOP senators would vote to allow the witnesses when the time comes.

"The Senate has changed so much in the last few years that I have real worries whether something like that might happen," Leahy said. "I would hope that would happen, but I wonder."

Timing of the trial

Leahy said he isn't concerned that holding the impeachment trial sets some kind of precedent for any future disagreements between a president and Congress.

"My concern is that if a president commits what appears to be a crime – in this case, the president trying to get a foreign country to influence our elections, which of course would be an impeachable crime — that we ignore it," Leahy said. "That is not the precedent I want."

And to those who question the timing of the trial when there's a presidential election in November, Leahy said he's not on board with that argument.

"That would be like saying that you just had somebody commit a crime but, you know, in a few months we're going to have a new prosecutor, new judges and everything else — so why do anything now? Why don’t we just ignore the crime?" Leahy said. "As a former prosecutor that does not make a lot of sense to me."

Leahy also noted that "this case, the issue we're talking about, involves the very election that's coming up this fall."

Interpreting the facts

The transcript of the call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has been made publicly available, but there still seems to be disagreement over the meaning behind those words said during the conversation.

Leahy said, to him, the president's intent during the phone call was "obvious," but also said that the issue at hand actually goes beyond this single instance.

"We're talking about [an] effort that went on for months to pressure Ukraine. I mean this was on and on and on and on — it wasn't just a slip of a tongue on one telephone call," Leahy said. "And I think that is why the president, having said earlier that he’d be perfectly willing to testify, now realizes that he can't testify because he'd have to admit to a crime and he definitely does not want any of the people around him who had knowledge of it to testify."

"That, what we're seeing here, is a continuous effort of a cover-up by the White House," Leahy continued, adding that a cover-up was at the heart of President Richard Nixon's impeachment proceedings.

"When you have a president who wants to hide what happened," Leahy said, "who wants to treat something that is illegal — trying to influence an election in this country by a foreign country — well, then you have to get the facts out."

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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