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Trump trial: Ken Starr and no stripes

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Updated 9:20 PM ET, Sun January 19, 2020

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(CNN)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."

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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........