WASHINGTON (CN) – In a rare foray by local prosecutors into congressional politics, Republican attorneys general from 21 states sent a letter to senators on Wednesday urging President Donald Trump’s acquittal at his impeachment trial.
“We’re asking the United States Senate on constitutional and legal grounds, as well as lacking in factual sufficiency, to reject these articles,” South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson told reporters Wednesday at a press conference held on a grassy patch in front of the Capitol known as the Senate Swamp.
The Republican Attorneys General Association, which organized the event, called the maneuver an unprecedented display of opposition to a presidential impeachment.
“As attorneys general of 21 states whose citizens and electoral college delegates voted in the 2016 presidential election, we have a special duty to defend the integrity of the votes cast by those citizens and electors during that election,” the prosecutors wrote in a 14-page “Friend of the Senate” brief, riffing off of the Latin-derived “amicus” briefs common in litigation. “However, our interests go well beyond that particular election.”
The Democratic Attorneys General Association labeled their Republican counterpart’s effort a political stunt.
“The people in these states deserve more than politicking and pandering from their state attorneys general—and that’s clearly all this was,” the association’s executive director Sean Rankin wrote in a statement.
Joining Wilson at the press conference were Louisiana’s Jeff Landry, Alabama’s Steve Marshall, Arkansas’s Leslie Rutledge, and Curtis Hill of Indiana, who stood beside Republican lawmakers like New York Congressman Lee Zeldin.
Attorneys general from Utah, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia also joined the effort.
Former Southern District of New York prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers noted that state AGs frequently chimed into federal politics in a flood of lawsuits challenging Obama administration policies.
She described the letter by Republican AGs as an acceleration of this trend.
“It does seem a bit unseemly to try to insert themselves into this process, which they really don’t have a stake in,” Rodgers told Courthouse News, adding later: “I view it as an overtly political statement, Republican elected officials saying they think the president should be acquitted.”
Senate Republicans approved impeachment trial rules that Democratic lawmakers described as a cover-up, in a party-line vote recorded at around 2 a.m. Wednesday.
The freshly approved rules leave unclear whether House impeachment managers will be able to seek evidence or call witnesses.
When asked whether they had ever prosecuted cases without witness testimony or evidence discovery, Louisiana AG Landry paused a few seconds—before changing the subject to the adequacy of the House’s investigation.
“The first thing that I would tell you is that before you’d even bring a case, you have to meet a litmus of fundamental evidentiary standards, and the problem that we have here is exactly that,” Landry told Courthouse News. “What we have today is a fishing expedition.”
Asked about how their inquiry advances their interests of the citizens of their states—rather than their political interests as Republican prosecutors—South Carolina AG Wilson called the issue a matter of election integrity.
“Well, initially, the citizens of South Carolina and my colleagues would say the citizens of their states voted in the last presidential election,” Wilson replied, claiming all future elections are at stake.
If Senate Democrats persuade their Republican counterparts to remove Trump from office, Hillary Clinton would not become president. Vice President Mike Pence would ascend to the presidency.
In a follow-up interview, Wilson argued the line of succession does not undermine his election-integrity argument.
“President Trump was the one who was elected, Vice President Pence was his running-mate, but it was President Trump who led the ticket,” Wilson noted.