Behind the scenes of Donald Trump's impeachment trial, Republicans have supposedly offered Democrats a trade that could end the stalemate over whether to call witnesses: If Republicans can have their preferred witnesses, Democrats can have theirs. In practice, this amounts to a trade of Hunter Biden for John Bolton, the witnesses the respective sides most covet.
Democrats view this as a cynical ploy. Bolton, after all, has critical information directly related to the articles of impeachment. Biden, by contrast, would be used as a smokescreen, an effort to hurt his father politically while distracting from the issues at hand. But Democrats should reconsider their resistance to the proposed swap, for two related reasons. First, while Republicans may propose the deal solely for political advantage, it would likely backfire on them. Second, Hunter Biden's testimony is potentially relevant to the charge that Trump abused power.
"Maybe Trump's impeachment trial isn't the ideal place to air the truth about nepotism and influence-peddling, but if that's a collateral benefit of this trial, so be it."
The House's abuse-of-power charge stems from the President's holding up badly needed aid to Ukraine in order to extort an investigation (or at least the announcement of one) into corruption centering on Hunter Biden's involvement with Burisma, the energy company that paid him handsomely to sit on their board. Trump insists that the hold-up of aid reflected his legitimate concerns about corruption more broadly, rather than a pinpointed effort designed to damage his political rival, Hunter's father Joe.
Given Trump's defense, the circumstances surrounding Hunter Biden's relationship with Burisma is plainly relevant to the Senate decision. Was Biden ever contacted by the Department of Justice, or other representatives of the Trump administration, or for that matter the Ukrainian government, expressing concern about corruption related to Burisma? What, if anything, did he learn about broader efforts by the U.S. government to address Ukrainian corruption?
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It is quite possible that the answers to these questions will help rather than harm the case for impeachment of the President. Of course, we don't know that. And what we do know is that Republicans will harp on matters that really are irrelevant, especially the fact that Hunter Biden was hired because of his last name rather than his qualifications. Democrats can object to such questions and ask the presiding judge, Chief Justice John Roberts, to exclude them as irrelevant. If he does, however, Republicans will likely overrule him. (Senate rules on impeachment empower the Senate, by majority vote, to reverse the Chief Justice's rulings.)
But what's the worst that can happen? Quite likely we will "learn" what we already know: Hunter Biden was indeed hired with the hope that his presence on Burisma's board would help the company politically. Maybe Trump's impeachment trial isn't the ideal place to air the truth about nepotism and influence-peddling, but if that's a collateral benefit of this trial, so be it. And I'm hardly convinced that exposing these untoward practices will ultimately help the President; he is the last person who should throw stones from a White House he has turned into a Glass House of Nepotism.
Granted, horse trading is not the usual way to determine what witnesses get called in a trial. But this is not a normal trial. A trial before the Senate necessarily involves a degree of politics, and Democrats should not unilaterally ignore political considerations. But we have no idea how the politics of this all will play out. We do know that Hunter Biden is a potentially relevant witness. John Bolton certainly is. Bring them on.