Biden won't voluntarily testify in Trump's impeachment trial. Here's what that means

Former Vice President Biden said he does not want the Senate to "take their eye off the ball" by testifying

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 5, 2019 8:20PM (EST)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Experts who spoke with Salon had mixed views about a statement by former Vice President Joe Biden, in which he revealed that he does not plan to voluntarily attend the impeachment trial likely awaiting President Donald Trump in the Senate.

"No, I’m not going to let them take their eye off the ball," Biden told reporters at a campaign event in Iowa Falls on Wednesday afternoon. "The president is the one who has committed impeachable crimes, and I’m not going to let him divert from that. I’m not going to let anyone divert from that."

“In my view, Joe Biden should have said that he intends to cooperate fully with the constitutional process of presidential impeachment and trial,” Allan Lichtman, an American political historian at American University who wrote the book “The Case for Impeachment” in 2017, told Salon by email.

“He should add that he hopes that Rudy Giuliani and current and former officials of the Trump administration will fully cooperate as well.”

David Priess, an author and former intelligence officer who wrote the 2018 book "How to Get Rid of a President," had a different view.

“I see nothing odd or controversial about Biden's comments. He simply said that he wouldn't attend a trial voluntarily,” Priess told Salon by email. “Indeed, there is no constitutional or other reason for him to do so — either as a former VP or as a political candidate or as a distraction from the heart of the case. Congress has not issued him a subpoena or called on his to appear. Only the president has asked for it, but the president does not have summoning power for any Senate trial.”

Priess added, “As Biden said, he doesn't want to let the president and his allies distract from the core issue in the impeachment — and there is nothing in that core for Joe Biden to shed light on.”

The former vice president made his comments shortly after Eric Ueland, the White House legislative affairs director, told reporters that the president wants a Senate trial.

"We believe very strongly, given the fatally flawed process in the House, that if they were to elect against our better advice to provide articles of impeachment — send articles to the Senate — that we need witnesses as part of our trial and full defense of the president on the facts," Ueland told reporters near the Senate chamber roughly 20 minutes after a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans on impeachment strategy.

Ueland added, “The underlying impeachment rules of the Senate afford the president a full suite of rights to argue his case on the facts and on the merits.”

As a result, Ueland argued that the president needed to be able to make a “whole case” through “both a full trial and the opportunity to call witnesses and work a trial over here on the Senate floor."

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Biden’s campaign referred Salon to the former vice president’s remarks in Iowa.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced Thursday that she had ordered Democrats to draw up articles of impeachment against Trump.

"The president leaves us no choice but to act. Today, I am asking our chairman to proceed with articles of impeachment,” Pelosi said in her announcement. “If we allow a president to be above the law, we do so at the peril of our republic.”

Pelosi made her announcement after several experts on constitutional law told the House that Trump had abused his power by exerting pressure on Ukraine to open up investigations that would benefit him politically.

“[Nancy Pelosi] & the Democrats should be ashamed,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham tweeted in response to Pelosi’s announcement. “[Donald Trump] has done nothing but lead our country - resulting in a booming economy, more jobs & a stronger military, to name just a few of his major accomplishments. We look forward to a fair trial in the Senate.”

The impeachment inquiry into Trump began after it was revealed that the president had solicited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a July 25 phone call to open an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter. Despite a wealth of conspiracy theories, neither Biden has been to have committed any wrongdoing.

Because Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives and a simple majority is all that is required to impeach a president, the president could be impeached if the House members align along a straight party-line vote. Since a two-thirds majority is needed in the Senate to remove a president from office, and Republicans currently control that body, no fewer than 20 Republican senators would have to join all of that body’s Democrats in order to remove the president.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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