Editorial: Congressman becomes more than a mere footnote in history

Congressman Lee Zeldin, an ardent supporter of President Trump, has joined the president’s legal team as impeachment moved to the Senate for what the Constitution characterizes as a trial, meaning a process by which fact is determined. Once the facts are fully known, senators then vote to acquit or convict. A conviction would remove the president from office and the vice president would then move into the top job.

A trial in an American courtroom is a search for truth, as the rule of law requires. The defendant is presumed innocent, and the jury, or the judge, is tasked with examining the evidence and finding the proper outcome.

Impeachment is, by and large, a political process. It takes place, after all, in the Congress — a president is impeached in the House of Representatives; a trial on those charges takes place in the Senate, where, judging by all the statements made by President Trump’s Senate supporters, there will be no determined effort to fully vet the case heard in the House, to call additional witnesses who have made allegations against the president but did not appear before the House, or to in any way further damage the president’s standing.

For the most part, Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, has all but said he has no interest in anything other than getting through the process quickly and clearing the president. Truth is the first casualty of politics. That’s sort of like the jury foreperson announcing their own conclusions before any testimony has been heard.

Mr. Zeldin has, by his words, gone down the same path as Mr. McConnell. He has certainly not offered a different opinion when the president has characterized the impeachment proceedings as a hoax perpetrated by a bunch of sore losers. Going through months of the congressman’s press releases, it’s all but impossible to find any serious criticism of anything the president has done since he took the oath of office.

One thing could not be more obvious: President Trump’s GOP supporters, including Mr. Zeldin, would be aghast if the very same charges were leveled against a Democrat in the White House. You can guarantee in that case that a GOP majority in both houses would have impeached them quickly, tried and convicted them quickly, and that president would be out on the street and consigned to the ash heap of history. And rightly so.

Our 1st District congressman is now sitting on the edge of American history. When the history of the Trump presidency is written, no matter how or when it ends, Mr. Zeldin will earn more than a simple footnote. He is fully on board with the president’s support team.

An impeachment trial in the Senate has occurred only twice before in our country’s history. President Andrew Johnson, whose supportive view of how the Southern, slave-holding states should be treated in the aftermath of the Civil War was one of the main charges that resulted in his impeachment, was acquitted by just one vote in the Senate. He is ranked among this country’s worst presidents. The next trial would not occur for more than 100 years, when President Bill Clinton was found not guilty at his Senate trial.

Now we have President Trump, facing widely confirmed allegations that he held up millions of dollars in federally approved aid to Ukraine, which was defending itself against fierce and illegal Russian aggression. Not even his most strident supporter can argue against that fact. They can only argue that it was not impeachable conduct. In his time in office, President Trump has gone out of his way to make supportive statements about Russia and its leader, even to the point of calling out our own intelligence community as the bad guys.

We, as a country, need this trial to be a display of our seriousness about the Constitution and the rule of law, and our conviction that no one is above it. We need a full understanding of just what the framers of the Constitution meant when they established “high crimes and misdemeanors” as the basis for impeachment. What would James Madison think of his country today? We should ask ourselves that question.

If the charges against the president are a hoax, put witnesses on the stand who will confirm that. We need these charges to be fully vetted so that we can decide how our great country will be governed — and by whom.