Donald Trump is not known to be a fan of country music, or any music. But lately, he is taking counsel from the Alison Krauss hit that advises, “You say it best when you say nothing at all.”
Not when it comes to heaping abuse on Nancy Pelosi. His bizarre six-page letter, released on the eve of the House impeachment vote, was a boiling mix of fury, self-pity and mendacity. But when it comes to sitting down, taking an oath and answering hard questions, he’s as silent as a snake.
In November, the president tweeted that he would “strongly consider” providing oral or written answers to impeachment investigators. But he let the House committees complete their hearings without the benefit of his version of events.
The Senate proceedings are not likely to loosen his inhibitions. Trump reportedly would like an extended trial that would include appearances by the White House whistleblower and Hunter Biden, but he balks at testifying or letting his accomplices do so.
On Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Senate does not care to hear from acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former national security adviser John Bolton or other aides who could shed light on the conduct for which Trump stands to be impeached.
“It is not the Senate’s job to leap into the breach and search desperately for ways to get to ‘guilty,'” he declared Tuesday. McConnell would not expect their testimony to get to “innocent.”
Most Americans lack the time to plow through the 685-page House Judiciary Committee report making the case against the president. But if they are in doubt about whether Trump committed impeachable offenses, they might ponder why he behaves like a guilty man.
From the start, he and those around him have labored to keep the truth from coming out. After his July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine, his aides made the extraordinary decision to put a transcript in a highly classified server. Trump later released the call record only because of his bizarre delusion that it vindicated him. But he rails bitterly against the whistleblower for bringing the call to light.
House Republicans charge that the Judiciary Committee acted on “hearsay, presumptions, and speculation.” In fact, much of the incriminating testimony was firsthand, and it’s not speculation to draw logical conclusions from a wealth of evidence. But any residual uncertainty would vanish if Trump and his subordinates gave their accounts under oath.
Americans are conditioned not to regard the silence of an accused person as incriminating — because our criminal justice system stipulates that it shouldn’t be taken that way. A prosecutor, making her closing argument, is not allowed to say that a suspect who declines to testify must have something to hide.
But because this is not a criminal trial, Trump can’t hide behind the Fifth Amendment. “There’s no problem with drawing adverse inferences in impeachment proceedings,” University of Chicago emeritus law professor Albert Alschuler tells me. “And there’s no problem even in a criminal case with drawing adverse inferences from orders to other people to stonewall. It’s only a privilege against self-incrimination.”
In every realm besides a criminal trial, we interpret a refusal to answer questions about possible misconduct as strong evidence of guilt. If you ask a teenager why there are empty beer bottles under his bed and he declines to answer, you would reasonably assume he’s been drinking. If Trump’s conduct were as impeccable as he claims, his testimony could only vindicate him.
The Senate, if it yearned to uncover the truth, could order Trump and those around him to appear. But the White House could fight any criminal or civil subpoenas, notes University of Missouri law professor Frank O. Bowman III, author of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump,” which could delay any enforcement for months. And he might refuse to heed any eventual court orders.
“All of which is yet another reason why Senate Republicans will use every means at their disposal to avoid issuance of Senate subpoenas to administration witnesses,” Bowman told me. “Defiance followed by Senate inaction would highlight Republicans’ utter subservience to Trump.”
Trump loves to harangue crowds, yammer at press gaggles and burn up his smartphone banging out tweets. When the prospect of regaling senators with accounts of his “perfect” behavior makes him swallow his tongue, it’s not hard to figure out why.