It's been more than two decades since a President of the United States went on trial in the Senate. Then it was Bill Clinton, today it is Donald Trump. And as different as the two impeachments are, there are some common elements. One that surprised many was Trump's choice this week of Kenneth Starr as one of his defense lawyers. Starr led the controversial investigation of Clinton's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky that provided the impetus for the impeachment.

At trial in the Senate in 1999, Clinton won a resounding acquittal. So why, some wondered, would Trump pick Starr to help defend him?

"The President is deliberately creating a circus show bringing back some of the best acts from the last three decades," wrote Joe Lockhart, Clinton's White House press secretary during the impeachment. "It seems he hopes to entertain his supporters, rather than defend his conduct. And the 40% of the country that still approve of Trump will be undoubtedly entertained."

"But the rest of the country will get a real window into the character of our President. Rather than mount a defense of his conduct with the best legal team, he's choosing a group mired in controversies including scandal, corruption, and misogyny. The majority of America, in my view, will be repulsed. But they won't be surprised. The President let us know who he was when he stepped off that Access Hollywood bus. And now he's picked a legal team that has no problem at all with it."

Another new member of the team, Alan Dershowitz, argued Friday that "abuse of power" is not an impeachable offense, noted Julian Zelizer. "Based on the Constitution, and what we know of the founders, Dershowitz's thoroughly Nixonian claims are wrong. The founders created a system of democracy explicitly meant to check any single branch of government from accumulating excessive power and authority."

The oath

William Rehnquist, the chief justice who presided over Clinton's impeachment trial, appeared in the Senate chamber back then wearing four gold stripes on the sleeves of his judicial robe, a look he had adopted a few years earlier from a local production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe."

So when current Chief Justice John Roberts arrived Thursday to take an oath and administer it to the full Senate at the start of Trump's trial, some were disappointed to see that he wore only a plain black robe.

The trial involves a lot of choices that are much more serious than the sartorial.

Will there be witnesses? What is the meaning of the oath requiring senators to "do impartial justice?" Will newly disclosed evidence be considered? And will the chief justice actively intervene -- or follow Rehnquist's ceremonial approach to the job?

Michael Zeldin wrote that the nature of the trial "requires that all relevant witness and documentary evidence that bears on the guilt or innocence of the impeached officeholder be brought forth and evaluated. This occurs every day in criminal trials across America, and has been the norm in every other impeachment trial conducted by the Senate. The oath requires nothing less."

In the first presidential impeachment trial, that of President Andrew Johnson in 1868, "41 witnesses were called: 25 by the prosecution and 16 by the defense," Dean Obeidallah noted. "And in President Bill Clinton's 1999 impeachment trial, three witnesses were called to testify." But it's an open question whether there will be enough votes in the GOP-controlled Senate to call even one witness. (In Obeidallah's view, the one witness America really needs to hear from is the one who knows the most about what happened: President Trump.)

Vice President Mike Pence invoked the Andrew Johnson trial in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, calling on Democrats to follow the example of Senator Edmund Ross who voted against removing the president. Jeremi Suri said that if Pence had looked further into the story of Ross, he would have learned that historians believe the senator essentially sold his vote for favors.

"No one believed that Ross was a man of conscience or principle," Suri observed. "He used his vote to benefit himself. And he protected a president who did everything he could to prevent the enforcement of the Constitution's protections for African American civil rights, as stipulated in the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866."

Enter Lev Parnas

In a round of television interviews this week, Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, asserted that Trump knew all about the effort to extract a political favor from Ukraine's president in return for announcing an investigation that would harm former vice president Joe Biden's candidacy.

If Parnas is to be believed, the President's withholding of US aid from Ukraine wasn't about fighting corruption but about re-electing Trump in 2020, observed Frida Ghitis: "It all fits with the rest of Trump's behavior, his payment of hush money to cover up alleged sexual encounters, his mob lingo to insult former friends -- remember when he called Michael Cohen a 'rat' -- his browbeating and intimidation of aides?"

Asha Rangappa noted that "Trump finally got Ukraine to announce an investigation — though not the one he was hoping for." The Interior Ministry said it would examine alleged surveillance of the former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, "by people linked to Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani," Rangappa wrote.

Yet Parnas' statements and documents provided by his lawyer are unlikely to sway the outcome of the impeachment trial, wrote Paul Callan. The House committees' investigation "was terminated before court rulings could have affirmed the legitimacy of congressional subpoena power. Instead, the House rushed its investigation and compounded the problem by stalling the transfer of the articles of impeachment to the Senate. Meanwhile, the public lost interest."

It's a good bet that the defense lawyers and the House managers making the case for impeachment will attract more controversy than John Roberts. In the Clinton impeachment, Rehnquist's decision to wear stripes "was among the most consequential decisions he made at the trial," wrote Adam Raymond in New York Magazine. "As he later put, quoting Iolanthe, 'I did nothing in particular, and I did it very well.'"

It's getting tense

The lasting takeaway from the Democratic debate in Iowa may be what happened the moment it ended.

Senator Elizabeth Warren walked over to Senator Bernie Sanders, declined to shake his hand and said, "I think you called me a liar on national TV."

David Axelrod was not surprised. The former advisor to President Barack Obama wrote, "a clash between these erstwhile allies, who avoided confrontation throughout 2019, seemed inevitable. And it's a sure sign that voting is near."

He knows whereof he speaks: Axelrod described a bitter exchange between presidential rivals Obama and Hillary Clinton in December 2007, as they also were angling for a strong showing in the early primary voting.

Asked to meet for a brief conversation with Clinton when the two candidates found themselves at a Washington airport en route to an Iowa debate, Obama sought and received an apology for the negative remarks of a Clinton supporter, Axelrod recalled. "But when Obama raised other actions by her campaign he felt were out of bounds, Clinton became incensed and disgorged her own litany of complaints about our campaign tactics." Clinton later served in Obama's administration and he endorsed her candidacy for president in 2016.

Sanders and Warren should also patch it up, wrote Carl Gibson and David Weissman: "There's far too much at stake for progressives who support Sanders and Warren to allow their own personal preferences for any one candidate to jeopardize progressives' chances to win the White House."

Republican Scott Jennings was hoping for some more fireworks. "Why do the Democrats just stand there and let things happen to themselves," he asked. "Biden is ahead nationally, and nobody did anything to stop him. Warren is effectively calling Sanders a backwoods misogynist and he slinked off into a corner. How do these folks hope to get the nomination or win the White House in such a pitiful crouch?"

Aisha C. Moodie Mills wrote that "missing from the conversation are a range of issues that would ... speak to the hearts and interests of the Democratic base." She asked on Twitter about the issues people want to "hear more about." Among them: "voting rights; election protection; criminal justice reform; immigration and family separation; the future of work; curbing the rise of white nationalist terrorism; women's rights and reproductive health; gun control...LGBTQ rights -- and the list goes on."

Bloomberg: Why Iowa?

Michael Bloomberg's last-minute campaign, funded by the billionaire entrepreneur and former New York City mayor, is skipping the Iowa caucus and the three other first primary states, and focusing on the March primaries. Last week, he went one step further by arguing in a CNN Opinion piece that it was a major mistake for the party to begin the voting with two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, that lack the diversity of the Democrats' national base.

"The problem is compounded by the fact that the two early voting states are unlikely to be consequential in the general election. So as a party, we are spending all of our time and resources outside of the battleground states we need to win," wrote Bloomberg. "Meanwhile, President Trump is spending his time in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina -- all states we lost in 2016 by razor-thin margins."

Two other presidential candidates offered their views on foreign policy. Joe Biden wrote on the Trump administration's strategy on Iran in the wake of the targeted killing of General Qasem Soleimani. "Trump has no strategy here. No endgame," Biden wrote. "The only way out of this crisis is through diplomacy -- clear-eyed, hard-nosed diplomacy grounded in strategy, that's not about one-off decisions or one-upmanship."

Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna wrote, "We are feeling a sense of déjà vu right now. A Republican administration is lying to the American people about the 'imminent threat' posed by a Middle Eastern country. The vice president is falsely claiming that the government in question is linked to the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks. Hawkish lawmakers in Washington accuse voices of restraint of 'strengthening our enemies' and being 'in love with terrorists.' "

A similar frenzy, they argued, took hold before the Bush administration attacked Iraq President Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, which they called "the worst foreign policy disaster in modern American history."

The bravest woman

Evelyn Yang, who's married to presidential candidate Andrew Yang, spoke powerfully in an interview with CNN's Dana Bash about the repeated sexual abuse she says her obstetrician committed against her and many other women -- and the failure of authorities to ensure that he could no longer practice medicine after the first complaints emerged.

"I cried as I forced myself to get through reading this woman's story," wrote Anushay Hossain. "Yang's sheer courage is undeniable, but it also made me think of the unmitigated horror she went through, how hard she fought even as both medical and criminal justice institutions apparently failed her, and how purely fearless she is not only to share her story now but continue to give a voice to survivors."

Social justice crusader

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a holiday set aside to remember the great champion of civil rights who was assassinated in 1968. But which Martin Luther King does America honor?

Historian Peniel Joseph suggested that political leaders "embrace the most seemingly non-threatening aspects of King's legacy, namely his Christian religious faith and philosophy of non-violence. Turning King into a sanctified figure shorn of rough political edges allows us to celebrate the civil rights movement as a children's bedtime story, one with a happy ending."

It's impossible to reckon fully with King unless you understand his commitment to achieving social justice, Joseph noted. "The most powerful way Americans can honor King now is through the pursuit of new national voting rights legislation that ends voter suppression, ID laws, allows prisoners to vote and automatically registers very 18-year-old citizen to vote."

Cheaters win?

Major League Baseball delivered a stunning report on cheating by the 2017 world champion Houston Astros, and heads rolled. Managers of three teams (two of whom formerly worked for the Astros) were axed, as was the Astros' general manager.

But no players were disciplined, to sports columnist Mike Downey's chagrin. "Trouble is, nobody took away their loot. The championship trophy is still theirs. The banner can still wave. ... Not a single Houston player ... has gotten the heave-ho or lost a red cent. Everybody's free to report back for duty in 2020, either with the Astros or whomever their current employers might be. No suspensions, no recriminations, no accomplishments rescinded, no records corrected, no asterisks next to their stats."

Downey's verdict: "The bad guys won."

Vlad the improviser

Enmeshed in the US constitution's impeachment machinery, President Trump might have looked enviously this week at what the president of Russia was doing.

Vladimir Putin flicked away all of his ministers, picked a new prime minister and proposed an overhaul of the nation's constitution that could ensure he stays in effective control as far as the eye can see. Russia scholar Daniel Treisman wrote, "Facing a hard term limit in 2024 and falling approval ratings as the economy stagnates, Russia's president has taken an unexpected gamble to increase his options by reshaping the political system."

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Big Ben: No comment

Big Ben, the iconic bell in London's Elizabeth Tower, has long been rung when the UK marks big occasions, including the London Olympics, the new year and "the state funerals of monarchs on three occasions, a toll per year of each of their lives," observed Holly Thomas.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson thought it only fitting that it also should toll on January 31, "Brexit" day, when his nation leaves the EU.

The problem: Big Ben is being renovated and it would cost about 500,000 pounds to get it to toll for this special occasion. Johnson proposed "bung a bob for a Big Ben bong" -- a special collection from the public to pay for it, and he chipped in some of his own money.

But emotions are still raw over Brexit, Thomas wrote: "Across the country, bells have become an emblem of victory for some, yet another waste of breath for many, and an outright insult for others."

In the face of doubts and opposition, Johnson's office backed away from the plan Thursday. There will be other "events" to mark the day ... and Big Ben will get the day off.


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