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Van Hollen decries ‘willful blindness’ of Senate Republicans to Trump misconduct | COMMENTARY

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin speaks during a news conference last year with Sen. Chris Van Hollen.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin speaks during a news conference last year with Sen. Chris Van Hollen.(Zach Gibson/Getty)

The most disturbing part of President Donald Trump’s impeachment, says Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, is the refusal of his Republican colleagues to acknowledge that the president did anything the least bit wrong even as they remain prepared to acquit him of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

“If Republican senators were to publicly state that the president engaged in wrongdoing, or in presidential misconduct, but that it didn’t warrant removal from office, then at least we’d have some bipartisan agreement that the conduct was wrong,” Van Hollen, a Democrat, said Tuesday. “The most alarming part of this is watching people willfully blind themselves to the facts and go along with this ridiculous theory that, even if he did all those things the House says he did, that it’s all OK.”

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Trump has been accused of trying to extort a personal political favor from Ukraine’s new president and of obstructing the congressional investigation of his dealings with the East European ally.

Dismissing the allegations without some concession that Trump’s conduct was “not impeachable but unacceptable” sets the stage for similar abuses by future presidents, Van Hollen said: “If Republican senators don’t speak out and say that the conduct was wrong, then they normalize it.”

Van Hollen held out little hope that such statements would be forthcoming; Senate Republicans are not about to cross Trump. “Fear of political retribution is part of their calculus,” he said.

In separate interviews, Van Hollen and Sen. Ben Cardin, also a Maryland Democrat, shared observations about Trump’s impeachment trial, now in its second full week.

Based on conversations Cardin had Monday with some Republican senators — and not those usually cited in the press as amenable to summoning witnesses — he said he expects Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton to be called. He thinks acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney should get a subpoena, too.

Even so, testimony from those witnesses, however damaging to Trump, is unlikely to keep the Republican majority from acquitting him.

“It’s not going to change the outcome,” Cardin said. “But you have to call, examine and cross-examine witnesses in a trial. You have to show you’ve carried out your duty as a senator.”

“The problem is,” Van Hollen noted, “Senate Republicans have made up their minds on the ultimate issue. If they bring fact witnesses and documents, it makes it harder to make the decision they’ve already decided to make.”

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On Monday, Van Hollen, Cardin and the other 98 senators heard Trump’s defense team claim their client had a “sincere” concern about corruption that justified the temporary withholding of congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine. (Hearing “sincere” and “Trump” in the same sentence must have been jarring.)

They heard former Vice President Joe Biden repeatedly smeared with the implication that he had tried to have Ukraine’s top prosecutor removed because Biden’s son, Hunter, sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company under investigation. But those were twisted facts. Biden represented the standing Obama administration view that the prosecutor was corrupt and should be removed, and the investigation of the energy company took place before Biden’s son joined its board.

The senators also heard Ken Starr argue that the impeachment of Trump was misguided. This from the man who obsessively pursued Bill Clinton into impeachment for lying about sex with a White House intern. “That was painful,” Van Hollen said. “It just reeked of hypocrisy.”

Cardin was impressed with Alan Dershowitz’s eloquent argument that the House charges do not constitute impeachable offenses, though he disagrees with him (as do many legal scholars).

The celebrity law professor, who spoke for more than an hour, starting just before 8 p.m., claimed that “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress” are too vague for the impeachment remedy. A president, he said, must be convicted of a specific crime to be removed from office. Dershowitz held the opposite view during the Clinton impeachment two decades ago, but said he changed his mind after more research.

“He made a good case out of something I disagree with,” Cardin said after the Senate adjourned Monday night. “I thought he did an excellent job. There was no name-calling. … It was the summary at the end that I found terribly offensive.”

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That’s a reference to Monday’s coda, presented by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who accused Democrats of bringing a “purely partisan” impeachment against Trump “just because he won” the 2016 election.

Cipollone claimed the House charges had no merit and that a conviction in the Senate would “tear the country apart for generations,” echoing the fevered claims of some of Trump’s zealous supporters that the president’s ouster would lead to civil war.

“[Cipollone] was basically saying, ‘Unless you agree with me, you’re an imbecile,'” Cardin said.

Cipollone accused Democrats of wasting time that could be better spent solving the country’s biggest problems.

But, Cardin countered, impeachment is not to blame for that state of affairs. There have been some bipartisan achievements — funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, for instance — but Congress, Cardin said, had not been meeting the nation’s biggest challenges long before the House voted to impeach Trump. The polarization that grips Washington and limits legislative progress has been exacerbated by Trump’s erratic and divisive behavior and rhetoric.

“As an institution, we have not taken up the biggest issues — immigration, health care, gun safety,” Cardin said. “President Trump is very divisive. We would have solved immigration if not for this president. Trump is very difficult to work with, and that’s not just me saying that. There are many Republicans who say the same thing privately.”

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