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With Due Respect

Trump acquitted without trial

In an unabashedly partisan vote, the 100-member US Senate dismissed on Feb. 5 the two impeachment charges filed by the US House of Representatives and acquitted US President Donald Trump without trial, without hearing any testimony and without looking at any documentary evidence.

All the 53 Republican senators voted to dismiss the second charge of obstructing the House impeachment investigation, while all the 45 Democrats plus two independents voted to convict.

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However, one of them (Mitt Romney) joined the Democrats in voting to convict on the first charge of abuse of power in withholding almost $400 million in military aid to Ukraine unless an investigation of Joe Biden, Trump’s possible Democratic rival in the US presidential race, was conducted by that country. Thus, the score on the first charge was 52-48, and on the second, 53-47.

After listening for several days to impassioned oral arguments from the “managers”of the US House and from Trump’s lawyers, the 100 US senators earlier voted, 51-49, on Jan. 31 evening to bar the presentation of oral and testimonial evidence. (Two Republicans, Romney and Susan Collins, voted with the Democrats.) This 51-49 balloting inevitably led to the more solid partisan vote to acquit.

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The Republicans reasoned that even if testimonial and documentary evidence were allowed, they would have nonetheless dismissed the charges because “abuse of power” and “obstruction of the House” are not among the impeachment grounds listed in the US Constitution, which are “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”They contended that to be ousted, a US president must have committed a “criminal act.”

True, the senators went through the ceremonial processes of (1) taking an oath to “do impartial justice,” (2) listening to the oral arguments, (3) raising questions by writing and sending them to the presiding officer, Chief Justice John Roberts, who read them aloud; (4) allowing the managers and the defense lawyers to answer them, and (5) granting the Democratic senators a lot of leeway in asking questions.

But in the end, the Republicans used their plainly numerical superiority to bar any testimonial or documentary evidence and to defeat any liberal interpretation of the US Constitution intended by its framers.

Because of this verbal legis or literal (as contradistinguished from liberal) interpretation, no US high official had been removed via impeachment. Indeed, in the 250-year history of the US Constitution, no president has ever been ousted by the Senate, although two others (aside from Trump) have been impeached by the House — Andrew Jackson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999. But both, like Trump, were later acquitted by the Senate. One US chief executive, Richard Nixon, resigned before a vote could be taken during the impeachment proceedings in the House.

Aware of this literal exclusion of “abuse of power” as a basis for removing impeachable officials, the framers of our 1987 Charter provided more encompassing grounds for impeachment: “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes and betrayal of public trust.”

Had the last ground (betrayal of public trust) been included in the US Constitution, the Republican senators could not have dumped “abuse of power” so easily even in a very partisan way.

The Philippine House of Representatives partly used “betrayal of trust”(and violation of the SALN Law) in its impeachment of former president Joseph Estrada and former chief justice Renato Corona. Estrada’s Senate trial was short-circuited when the House prosecutors walked out, precipitating the Edsa II People Power Revolution that toppled the former president.

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But the trial of Corona proceeded for several months in the Senate, which did not block the testimony of any of the witnesses that included former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and Corona himself. It ended with a judgment ousting him from office via a vote of more than three-fourths of the Senate, without any unabashedly partisan alignment.

In this sense, I think the impeachment process in the Philippines, though also sui generis, was fairer, more democratic and less partisan than its US counterpart. Moreover, the guilty judgment in our Senate passed the higher threshold of three-fourths, compared with only two-thirds in the United States.

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