Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart was White House press secretary from 1998-2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. He co-hosts the podcast “Words Matter.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In the legal and political arena, you always want the last word. That theory held true in the 1999 impeachment of President Bill Clinton. The House managers led by Henry Hyde and the likes of Lindsey Graham made an impressive case over three days. But Clinton’s brilliant White House counsel blew away those three days of arguments in a presentation that destroyed the foundation of the House managers’ case. While the trial dragged on for several weeks, Charles Ruff, Clinton’s counsel, had the last word long before the trial ever ended.
But things might be different this time around – if there’s an important takeaway from the first week of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, it may be the importance of going first. And going first in this case happened well before the House managers walked the two articles of impeachment to the Senate. It began with the House, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to hold the articles of impeachment for almost a month.
Several developments unfolded during that month, including former national security adviser John Bolton’s announcement that he would be willing to testify in the impeachment trial if the Senate called him to. Days later, Pelosi announced the articles would be sent to the Senate, and appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” telling George Stephanopoulos, “We wanted the public to see the need for witnesses, witnesses with firsthand knowledge of what happened.”
That decision to hold the articles cemented the narrative for this impeachment trial.
During the impeachment trial this week, the House managers delivered a scathing indictment of the President’s behavior. No fair-minded person who’s listened to the evidence can come to any other conclusion than Trump acted in a corrupt manner by asking the President of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens in exchange for the release of critical military aid. The only thing debatable at this point is the remedy – should the President be removed or only rebuked by the Senate and the country.
Second, the House managers have been able to anticipate and debunk much of the President’s potential defense. Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries struck a mighty blow to the defense team by saying, “The President’s lawyers and top level advisers adopted a two-prong cover up strategy.” He went on to mention White House Counsel Pat Cipollone by name and made the case that he knew about the whistleblower complaint and “likely discussed with President Trump whether they were legally required to give the complaint to Congress.” That casts doubt on Cipollone, who will deliver the opening argument defending the President on Saturday.
House managers also spent more than 30 minutes going into great detail on the question of the Bidens and their role in this whole affair, with Rep. Sylvia Garcia stating that there is “simply no evidence” that Biden did anything wrong in firing Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin. Many commenters said it was a mistake to dwell on the Bidens. Some Democrats say the Bidens are not relevant to this case. They’re both wrong.
The Bidens are central to the case to remove the President – and the House managers established that in their lengthy defense. Without the Bidens, and the effort to hurt the President’s rival, there is no conspiracy to undermine the 2020 election. By firmly establishing that Biden acted in our country’s interest and never in his own interest, the House managers effectively highlighted President’s corrupt intent.
But the real value in going first was embodied in lead House manager Adam Schiff’s closing remarks late Thursday night. He argued the President is not to be trusted, that he will always put his personal interests in front of the national interest. When he said it the first two times, it was a stinging indictment of the President and his lack of character. But when he said it again, he was subtly putting the United States Senate on notice.
In addition to arguing that the President abused the power of his office and obstructed Congress, the House managers have stressed the need for a fair trial. Their argument raises the question as to whether the Senate, led by Republicans, is able to dispense judgement blindly, and demand witnesses and documents.
The Senate is on trial as much as the President. And Schiff effectively made the point that moving forward, the Senate will lose the trust of the American people if they cannot put the country’s interest ahead of the Republican Party’s. This might – and I emphasize might – be the last chance to salvage the reputation of the GOP before succumbing fully to Trump himself.