Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith is failing to uphold her "sacred oath to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law in this country" with her vow to protect President Donald Trump from impeachment, potential Democratic opponent Mike Espy claimed in an email missive to supporters on Dec. 12.
If a majority of the U.S. House votes on Wednesday to send articles of impeachment to Congress' upper chamber, Hyde-Smith will be a juror in the Senate trial over Trump's alleged abuses of power and efforts to obstruct justice. In a Tweet on Friday afternoon, though, Mississippi's junior Republican senator promised to protect him in a likely Senate trial that could result in his removal from office.
"I will stand up for our president & against this shameful process," Hyde-Smith wrote.
In his letter late last week, Espy criticized the Republican for "habitual hyper-partisanship."
"It is truly discouraging that once again, Mississippi must suffer as her words and short-sightedness put our beloved state in a very bad light," Espy wrote, likely alluding to a firestorm Hyde-Smith's "public hanging" quip created last year. "... If you have a Senator who only blindly follows the party bosses in Washington, then does Mississippi really have a senator?"
The House Judiciary Committee passed two articles of impeachment to the full House on Friday morning. One accuses the Republican president of abusing his power, citing his attempt to withhold congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine unless the country's president agreed to help him in his 2020 re-election campaign. The other charge, obstruction of justice, cites his decision to block legally subpoenaed witnesses from testifying or turning over evidence.
Espy: Jurors Should Be 'Arbiters of Truth'
In an interview after he announced his 2020 campaign last month, Espy told the Jackson Free Press that he doubts that the Republican-led Senate would convict and remove Trump, which would require the support of two-thirds of its members. Still, he said, senators have a duty to "take the process very seriously."
"I would be sober and objective, and I would look at all the evidence before me as an impartial juror, and I would make a decision that was in the best interest of the United States," Espy said. "I am very concerned that the president has abused his power. He said, 'Look at the transcript.' I've read the transcript.'"
Espy was referring to a White House transcript that shows Trump asked Ukrainian PPresident Volodymyr Zelensky to announce a sham investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate, in exchange for releasing congressionally approved military aid and an official White House visit. Some Democrats have claimed that act amounted to bribery or extortion.
"It seems to me that an offer was made to the president of a foreign country to please go ahead and dig up dirt on a political opponent," Espy told the Jackson Free Press. "And the inducement to do that was withholding the foreign aid that Ukraine desperately needed."
When the likely Senate trial begins, all U.S. senators will have to swear the following constitutionally required oath before serving as jurors: "I solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of Donald J. Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God."
Hyde-Smith's recent remarks, though, raise questions about how she would be able to take that oath sincerely. Her office did not respond to a request for comment by press time on Monday afternoon.
If he were in the Senate currently, though, Espy told the Jackson Free Press last month, he "certainly wouldn't forecast (his) vote" or "indicate any bias."
"Because jurors are supposed to be objective arbiters of the truth," he said. "Cindy Hyde-Smith said back when all this started that the Democrats were 'grasping at straws.' Well, that's certainly been proven incorrect."
'I'm Not Trying to be a Fair Juror Here'
Hyde-Smith is far from the only likely Republican juror in Trump's impeachment trial who has telegraphed her plans ahead of time. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News last week that he is working with the Trump administration to ensure that Trump's own Senate trial is crafted around the president's preferences and will not result in his removal from office.
"There is no chance the president is going to be removed from office. ... We'll be working through this process hopefully in a fairly short period of time, in total coordination with the White House counsel's office and the people that are representing the president," McConnell said in that interview.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and Hyde-Smith's friend, told Fox News late last week that he has already decided to vote to acquit Trump. "I am trying to give a pretty clear signal. I have made up my mind. I'm not trying to be a fair juror here," Graham said.
Over the weekend, USA Today contributor Windsor Mann shared a 21-year-old clip in which Graham, then a U.S. House member on the judiciary committee overseeing Bill Clinton's impeachment, sang a strikingly different tune.
"Members of the Senate have said, I understand everything there is about this case and I won't vote to impeach the president. Please allow the facts do the talking. ... People have made up their mind in a political fashion that will hurt this country long term," a noticeably younger Graham says in the old clip. He was referring to charges that President Bill Clinton lied under oath about his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and sought to obstruct the investigation.
"If you can't vote for impeachment, do justice to the case, don't decide the case before the case is in. And this bothers me greatly," Graham continues in the November 1998 footage.
Sen. Wicker Parties With Trump, Signals Support
Mississippi's other U.S. senator, Republican Roger Wicker, has not been as vocal about his opposition to Trump's impeachment as Hyde-Smith and Graham, but he has suggested that he, too, likely has already made up his mind.
"(U.S. House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi will not erase Mississippi's 678,457 votes for Trump," reads one graphic Wicker shared on his Facebook page on Dec. 11.
Like Graham, though, Wicker's old comments from Clinton's impeachment trial could come back to haunt him.
"The rule of law means that the commander-in-chief of our armed forces could not be held to a lower standard than his subordinates. The rule of law is more important than the tenure of office of any official," Wicker, then a U.S. House representative, said on the House floor in 1998. He showed no hint then that he considered impeachment tantamount to "overturning" Clinton's landslide 1996 re-election victory.
On Friday evening, Wicker signaled again that he has no intention of putting distance between himself and the president ahead of his likely role as a juror in the Senate trial, posting to his social-media accounts a photograph of himself and his wife, Gayle, posing with Donald and Melania Trump at a White House Christmas Party.
Wicker has broken with Trump in the past, like when he opposed the president's attempt to use an executive order to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year.
Recently, though, Wicker ignored warnings from intelligence officials as he helped the White House spread false talking points on the Ukraine matter that originated with a Russian-led disinformation campaign.
Hyde-Smith Distorts Facts, Calls Vote a 'Sham'
In her tweet Friday, Hyde-Smith claimed the Judiciary Committee's vote to advance articles of impeachment earlier on Friday morning amounted to a "sham."
"This morning the Democrats voted to adopt two articles of impeachment against President Trump, & it took less than FIFTEEN MINUTES. This sham will come to a swift end in the U.S. Senate," she wrote.
Hyde-Smith's accusation of a 15-minute "sham" distorts the facts, though. The Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee voted to move forward with two articles of impeachment against Trump Friday morning. But that followed prolonged debate spread across 14 hours on Thursday.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler had initially planned to hold a vote on the impeachment articles after debate on Thursday, but Republican members of the committee used procedural stalling tactics to push debate late into the night. When debate ended around midnight, Nadler moved the vote to Friday morning.
After the committee adjourned just before midnight on Thursday, committee member Jamie Raskin theorized that Republicans had hoped to force Democrats to hold the vote at midnight in order to craft a talking point they could use to paint the proceedings in a sinister light.
"We started at 9 a.m. (on Thursday), and I think we went to 11 (at night) or a little past that, and we suspect there was some strategy to try to drag us into the middle of the night so they could say, 'The Judiciary Committee did this in the middle of the night, in the thick of night, and so on,'" Raskin told CNN host Don Lemon.
Republicans used a similar messaging tactic to drive down the popularity of President Barack Obama's signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, after Democrats passed it in a late night. Seven years later, Republicans attempted to repeal the ACA with a 1:10 a.m. vote—until Sen. John McCain killed it with a thumbs down. Months later, on Dec. 2, 2017, Republicans passed a controversial $1 trillion tax cut at 2 a.m.
Democrats wanted to avoid appearances that they had anything to hide from the public when it comes to impeachment, though, Raskin told Lemon on Thursday night. "And so, we want to do it in broad daylight. So, first thing in the morning, so everyone can see exactly what's going on," he said.
Because the prolonged debate wrapped up late Thursday night, the committee only needed to formally vote on articles of impeachment on Friday morning. All 23 Democrats on the committee who were present voted to move forward with the articles of impeachment; all 17 Republicans voted no.
Espy: 'Cindy Hyde-Smith Will Blindly Follow Her Party Bosses'
Without the "dead of night" talking point, Hyde-Smith and other Republicans sought to make the quickness of Friday morning's vote an issue, while omitting the fact that the committee's debate followed debate spread across 14 hours on Thursday.
Hyde-Smith's "sham" accusation also omits the fact that Democrats and Republicans on the committee heard more than 100 hours of testimony from 17 witnesses, including some witnesses chosen by the minority party—or that the White House blocked key witnesses from testifying.
On Friday afternoon, Espy once again criticized Hyde-Smith's handling of the impeachment proceedings in a tweet.
"I've said it before and I'll say it again: any Senator who refuses to look at the facts as an independent and impartial judge, has no place in the Senate. We already know Cindy Hyde-Smith will blindly follow her party bosses no matter the findings," Espy tweeted.
When Espy first ran against Hyde-Smith in 2018, she touted her "100%" pro-Trump voting record, pointing to political statistical analysis site FiveThirtyEight's ranking of how closely senators' votes align with the president. Hyde-Smith's pro-Trump ranking on the site has since slipped from a perfect 100% to 93.3%, though. She scores 89.7% for votes cast this year, bumping her down to no. 14 among senators in the pro-Trump-vote tracker.
'The Answer is Yes'
In congressional hearings over the past two weeks, current and former members of the Trump administration described a plot in which the U.S. president and his allies sought to hold up congressionally approved military aid unless Ukraine President Zelensky agreed to publicly announce two sham investigations.
The U.S. has been providing Ukraine with significant military assistance since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded the country in 2014, seizing the Crimea region. He has continued to launch attacks on the country ever since.
One of the investigations Trump wanted was intended to cast doubt on whether or not former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden might be tied to corrupt dealings in Ukraine through Burisma, a company whose board his son, Hunter Biden, sat on. The other would-be investigation was meant to bolster Russia's false narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections—and that they did so to help Hillary Clinton, not Trump.
Trump released the Ukraine aid in September, but only after the news of his attempts to pressure Ukraine into helping him went public. Initially, Republicans argued that it would only have been wrong if there was a "quid pro quo," which is Latin for "a favor for a favor." Then, the White House released its incomplete transcript of Trump's July 25 phone call with Zelensky—which Trump's staff had hidden on a secret service after determining it could be damaging.
In the semi-transcript, Zelensky brings up his country's need for the aid.
"I would like you to do us a favor, though," Trump said, explaining the two investigations he wanted Ukraine's new president to launch.
Trump backers claimed the call was about corruption in Ukraine in general—an assertion that subsequent facts have undermined.
"I think the phone call ... was legitimately about corruption in Ukraine," Mississippi's senior U.S. senator, Roger Wicker, told "Meet the Press" on Nov. 24, even though Trump never mentions any other instances of "corruption" in the transcript.
Testimony from multiple officials in the Trump administration contradicted that testimony as well. Gordan Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the European Union, testified that he worked with Trump's personal attorney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine into launching the investigations at Trump's direction.
"I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a 'quid pro quo?' As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes," Songland testified.
Former U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who has ties to former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and his lobbying firm, testified on Nov. 20 that Trump's circle "saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company, 'Burisma' as equivalent to investigating former Vice President Biden."
Putin: 'Now They're Accusing Ukraine'
Fiona Hill, another impeachment witness and a former Trump foreign policy adviser on Russia and Europe, warned members of Congress during her testimony against repeating claims that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and sought to change the outcome of the election.
"Right now, Russia's security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference," Hill said. "We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests."
Trump has repeated false claims about Ukrainian interference anyway, as have some Republicans in Congress, including Wicker.
At an economic forum in Moscow in November, Putin expressed pleasure at the growing chorus of Republicans in the U.S. who are pinning the blame on Ukraine.
"Thank God no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore," the Associated Press reported him saying. "Now they're accusing Ukraine."
'He Will Be Impeached'
On Friday, U.S. House Rep. Trent Kelly, a Republican from Mississippi's First Congressional District, claimed that the articles of impeachment are "unconstitutional" and amount to a "blatant attempt to overturn the election and prevent (Trump) from winning 2020." He did not explain how they are unconstitutional, however.
Hours later, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democratic member of Congress from Mississippi's Second Congressional District, predicted the full house will vote to impeach Trump. "The President obstructed justice. Republicans can whine and lie all they want, but he will be impeached," Thompson wrote.
The Jackson Free Press first reported Thompson's support for impeachment in May—before the Zelensky phone call. Then, Thompson cited Robert Mueller's findings in his investigation into whether or not Trump coordinated with the Russian government's efforts to help him win the 2016 election and his apparent attempts to obstruct that probe.
"I support impeachment. The President has egregiously obstructed justice," Thompson told the Jackson Free Press in May.
Democrats opted not to include Mueller's findings in its articles of impeachment, but did cite a "pattern" of Trump obstructing justice and abusing power.
The full U.S. House is set to vote on articles of impeachment on Wednesday. If either or both articles win majority support, the Senate would hold its trial sometime afterward, likely after the holidays.
Follow Jackson Free Press State Reporter on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].
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