In one universe, that of televised ads run by her campaign, Susan Collins is a stalwart independent. Yet the impeachment trial of Donald Trump started with senatorial obstruction, when all Republicans, including Collins, voted against Democratic proposals to change the ground rules of the Senate trial, which were written by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to hear from witnesses and to get more documents. Collins said she might vote to get this evidence later and now says that that revelations from Bolton’s book “strengthen the case for witnesses.”
In an alternative universe where Collins was independent, initially she would have vigorously backed the efforts to receive witnesses and documents blocked by the White House.
That Collins would have led in calling for hearing from John Bolton after Bolton’s aide testified in November that Bolton called Trump’s attempted shakedown of Ukraine a “ drug deal” the White House was “cooking up.” She would have voted for testimony from Mick Mulvaney, who publicly confirmed a quid pro quo and then backtracked. Collins would have insisted on hearing from Lev Parnas, whose texts and a tape show how Trump, Rudy Guiliani and others used taxpayer money and foreign policy to try to smear a political opponent and a respected ambassador. She would have questioned the role of private individuals and demanded memos.
Maine has previously seen bold independent leadership. While a freshman House member, Republican Bill Cohen criticized President Richard Nixon for withholding evidence and voted for articles of impeachment. Cohen was so committed to holding Nixon accountable that he added details to the articles of impeachment crafted by the Judiciary Committee.
In contrast, as Politico reported, Sen. Charles Schumer’s “unceasing demand to hear from key administration witnesses and subpoena administration documents appears to have annoyed Collins,” and Collins pointed to Democrats launching a website and ads against her re-election. Those responses seem peevish.
Yes, Collins has left the door open to voting for witnesses and documents later. But even that approach is woefully inadequate.
For one, by putting off a decision about whether witnesses and evidence would ever be presented at the Senate trial, Collins normalized Trump’s blocking information from Congress and the public. A weak response to Trump shielding evidence degrades our institutional system, delegitimizes congressional oversight and gives a green light to Trump cheating in the 2020 election.
Our founders didn’t want an unconstrained president. Sen. Angus King gets it, saying “It’s a question of the checks and balances and the basic structure of our Constitution.”
Collins has long portrayed herself as an institutionalist. It is her job to fulfill her constitutional obligations, including ensuring a fair impeachment trial with witnesses.
Second, Collins overlooks Trump’s corrupt intent in ordering witnesses not to comply with a congressional impeachment, and his coordinating the coverup with Mitch McConnell.
During the Watergate investigation, Nixon allowed administration witnesses to testify but kept the White House tapes secret until the Supreme Court forced their release. Now Trump is going further than Nixon by blocking witnesses and documents, thus refusing to let Congress and the public know the full truth of his own corrupt, illegal scheme.
Third, Collins’ contention that she supports the same rules used in the Bill Clinton impeachment is absurd. For one, the Senate isn’t using the same rules. For another, the Clinton impeachment came after the Starr Report, which relied on many witness interviews and documents. In contrast, Trump has obstructed the investigation.
As Cohen recently observed, while existing evidence shows Trump used his office for “corrupt purposes,” “more evidence is going to come out.” That new evidence will “be quite damning and damaging, and then [senators] will be called upon by their constituency: ‘Well, why didn’t you at least go forward and ask for more evidence so that you could be informed, so that we could be informed?’”
Indeed, Collins will be asked those questions and a later vote for witnesses would look like she’s seeking political cover, particularly if the vote fails.
If we could visit an alternate universe, what might an independent Collins be doing? She could be emulating what Cohen did during Watergate.
As Cohen said, “Each of us, by a force of circumstances beyond our desire or control, was placed on a high wire that was strung between disloyalty to party and disloyalty to principle.” Cohen chose principle and true independence.