Ever since the House moved decisively toward impeaching the president, the prevailing assumption has been that any Senate trial would be short and peremptory, with acquittal preordained. Indeed, for a good while, there was a debate about whether a trial would actually be required, though Mitch McConnell has ruled out just dropping House impeachment resolutions on grounds that they are “illegitimate” or a “witch hunt” or something.
Still, the Senate could hold a “real” trial and end it pretty briskly, particularly if the House resolutions are narrow (i.e., focused on the Ukraine scandal rather than the full universe of Trumpian crimes and misdemeanors). There’s even a mechanism for short-circuiting a trial through a motion to dismiss the articles of impeachment, which would only require a majority vote (Democrats unsuccessfully tried that during the Clinton impeachment trial).
But now a very different idea is percolating in Senate Republican circles:
co-opting rather than curtailing an impeachment trial and turning it into a de facto trial of Joe and Hunter Biden for their alleged corruption, as the Washington Post reports:
Senate Republicans are privately debating whether they should use an impeachment trial of President Trump to scrutinize former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter as some Trump allies push to call them as witnesses while others dismiss the suggestion as a risky political ploy …
Among a group of Trump’s allies inside and outside Congress, there is intense and growing interest in countering the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry by delving into Hunter Biden’s overseas business dealings in Ukraine and China. Because his father was vice president at the time, these allies believe it could be a way of explaining why Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a July 25 phone call to “look into” the Bidens, who have denied any wrongdoing.
It sure sounds like something Trump himself would relish, with his interminable habit of attributing his own sins to his enemies. And among the 53 Republican senators, it’s not surprising there are those who would indulge him:
That effort gained steam on Capitol Hill last week at a private lunch where Republican Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and John N. Kennedy (La.) raised the idea of summoning Hunter Biden, according to two people familiar with the exchange who, like others in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Paul took his private push public at a campaign rally with the president Monday night in Kentucky.
“I say this to my fellow colleagues in Congress, to every Republican in Washington: step up and subpoena Hunter Biden and subpoena the whistleblower!” Paul told the crowd, also referring to the unnamed intelligence official who first raised alarms about the president’s Ukraine conduct.
Presumably Republicans would argue anything and everything about the Bidens is germane to the charges against the president, who claims that in making a quid pro quo offer to the Ukraine, he was just earnestly trying to root out corruption there and everywhere (a trait for which he is hardly known). In an impeachment trial, the presiding officer would at least initially decide whether to open the proceedings to such a collateral attack:
If Republicans moved to call the Bidens during impeachment, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. would likely have the final word. Roberts would oversee a Senate trial and has the power to accept evidence, dismiss the case and direct the proceedings — although he could defer those decisions to senators for a vote or be overruled by them.
Mitch McConnell hasn’t commented on the idea, and his close ally John Cornyn rained on this particular parade:
“I think that’s a sideshow,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said of calling in Hunter Biden. “[Impeachment] is a very solemn and serious constitutional process, and I just think that whatever the House decides to vote on … that’s what we ought to consider and not make this any more of a reality show than it’s likely to become.”
Still, conservative media are wild about going there, and there’s also an alternative approach to trying the Bidens in the Senate: some sort of ancillary hearings, presumably in Lindsey Graham’s Judiciary Committee. But Graham’s not crazy about doing that, either:
“I don’t have jurisdiction over Hunter and Joe Biden, so we’re not going to call them at the Judiciary Committee,” Graham said, adding later: “That’s just not proper. I don’t have jurisdiction and I’m an institutional guy.”
When told his position might disappoint some conservatives, Graham pointed to other committees, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggesting they might be able to conduct such an investigation.
Graham’s happy to play institutional hot potato and let someone else hold a show trial. But Senate Republicans more generally need to decide whether they can implicitly try the Bidens in the media through their attacks and insinuations without making anybody take oaths or deliver testimony.