In the end the Democrats couldn’t help themselves. Their lead manager, Congressman Schiff, paused in the middle of his summation of the case against President Trump to say that CBS news reported that a “Trump confidant” claimed that “GOP senators were warned, ‘Vote against your President, vote against the President, and your head will be on a pike.’”
It was a shocking error of judgment to say such a thing on the floor of the Senate. Mr. Schiff compounded his blunder by adding that he didn’t know whether the CBS report is true. “I don’t know whether that’s true,” is how he put it. Imagine that. This is the most solemn moment in his political life, and he spends it by parlaying information he knows might be false.
It’s such an off-putting blunder that even the Times, which is seething for a conviction, reckoned that Mr. Schiff’s oration “appeared to alienate the very Republicans he was trying to win over.” The Times reported that when Mr. Schiff brought up the business about the pike, several GOP senators “vigorously shook their heads and broke their sworn silence: ‘not true.’”
“I hope it’s not true,” Mr. Schiff dissembled.
This is an example of the rhetorical tactic of preterition — advancing a libel by denying it or, in this case, claiming to hope that it’s untrue. The trick is warned of in “The New York Sun Reporters Handbook” with a limerick: “The reporter was full of contrition / For putting him under suspicion: / ‘Far be it from me / ‘To suggest that he / ‘Is a crook.’ It was pure preterition.”
Mr. Schiff’s preterition is classic demagoguery. Then again also, too, it’s of a piece with the Democrats’ suggestion that the Senate needs to convict the president so as to forestall the danger of him cheating in the next election. That is, it wants him convicted for high crimes and misdemeanors of which he has been neither convicted nor even charged -- indeed, that he has not yet committed.
Then there’s the question of character, which the Washington Post summed up in a headline that read: “Democrats focus on Trump’s character as they argue for removing him from office.” The idea, as articulated by the Post, is that Mr. Trump suffers from a “lack of character that will backfire on Republicans if they do not help remove him from office.”
Call it the Schiff Amendment, so that Article II, Section 4, ordains that the President “shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, lack of character, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Let’s see which thunder-thud in Washington is in a position to hang onto high office under that standard.
By our lights, the character question hangs over the Democrats more than the President. The first point in the President’s defense, judging from the session this morning, lies in the failure of the Democrats to disclose, present, and address exculpatory evidence. That is itself a character fault — of the Democrats. Mr. Trump’s lawyers were exceptionally effective on this head.
We don’t rule out last minute surprises in this drama. Who would after the Democrats’ performance in, say, the hearings for Justices Clarence Thomas or Brett Kavanaugh? Absent last minute surprises, though, the trial of President Trump fairly begs for a motion of dismissal. Our own instinct is that it would be no less a vindication for Mr. Trump than holding out for a full acquittal.