Sen. Tina Smith: Proposed impeachment rules 'seem designed to deliver a fast acquittal'

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Sen. Tina Smith poses for a photograph at Minnesota Public Radio on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The Senate impeachment trial of President Trump begins in earnest on Tuesday. Senators are set to debate the trial's rules and procedures, in what is expected to be a thorny process.

Minnesota DFL Senator Tina Smith spoke with MPR News host Cathy Wurzer ahead of the proceedings in Washington.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Leader McConnell, as you know, outlined his plan last night with the trial unfolding in a similar sequence to the 1999 Clinton impeachment, but Senator McConnell's plan would speed up the proceedings. What do you make of that?

I think it's really kind of outrageous, to tell you the truth. I mean, McConnell's rules seem designed to deliver a fast acquittal rather than a fair trial, and there are two things that I'm really concerned about. The first is no guarantee or clarity about whether or not we'll be able to hear from witnesses and see evidence, and that is so important to a fair trial. You know, trials have witnesses. The second thing I'm very concerned about is the timing, the speed that McConnell is laying out here. He is arguing, or he is proposing that each side would have 24 hours of presenting their case over two days, which would be 12, 13, 14 hour days. And I ask myself, why would you do that? That is not the way courts normally work. That is, there is no reason, in terms of having a fair trial, to have the timeline work that way. It makes it harder for Americans to really understand what's happening, and it's not like the Clinton trial.

You know, Leader McConnell – getting back to the debate over whether to call witnesses and compel new evidence – he says he's going to wait on that until the middle of the trial. How crucial, critical is witness testimony as you weigh evidence that's already been gathered?

Well, I think that the important thing here is that the facts of what's happened here aren't really in dispute. In fact, when you read the over 100-page brief that the president's lawyers submitted yesterday, which I had a chance to look at yesterday afternoon, they don't actually dispute the facts either. The question in my mind, though, is that if there are witnesses, and we think that there are, who have firsthand knowledge and experience of the issues that we're discussing here, why would you not want to hear from them? Why would you be afraid of those facts?

Who would you like to hear from if additional testimony is allowed?

I'm most interested in hearing from John Bolton, who was right there in the middle of these decisions that the president made to withhold security aid for Ukraine. And also Mick Mulvaney, who is the president's acting chief of staff and also the head of the Office of Management and Budget, who is the person who was directly communicating between the president and OMB about withholding this aid.

You and your colleagues have taken an oath to be impartial jurors. Do you feel that's truly possible right now, given how partisan this very deep partisan divide over impeachment is?

Well, I think that it is our challenge and it's our obligation and it's our duty to provide impartial justice. And I can tell you, when we all went onto the floor of the United States Senate last Thursday and we sat at our desks and we stood as the Supreme Court, the chief justice of the Supreme Court walked into the Senate chamber, everything in the room changed. The air changed. The sense of gravity and seriousness, I mean, I felt a little catch in my throat that this is a moment of history in our country. And I think that needs to guide us. And, you know, we swear an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the law, not to the president or our party, and we have to keep that uppermost in our minds.

There is gravity to the situation, yes. But Congress and the public are locked in extreme partisan polarization, and experts think the impeachment process is not going to change many minds. If President Trump is acquitted at the end of all this, what's been the point?

Well, I think the point is that we are responsible for upholding our constitution and the rule of law. And for us to simply say oh well, we don't think right now that we can change the outcome, so we're just going to forget about the Constitution. We're just going to forget about the rule of law. We're going to allow this president [to] behave as if he is above the law would be tearing down our Constitution. Now, I don't know what's going to happen. None of us really knows what's going to happen here, though I don't dispute what you're saying. It seems unlikely that 20 Republicans would vote to acquit this president. But what we don't know for sure is what will happen in this trial. And I think it's important that we all remain open to what might come about, because nobody knows.

Senator Smith, I appreciate the time this morning. Thank you so much.

Thank you so much, Cathy.