What Did We Learn on Day One of the Impeachment Trial?
A U.S. Capitol Police officer stands guard inside the Capitol building where the Senate impeachment trial began on Monday. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
In a long, long proceeding in the Senate that began early Tuesday afternoon — wherein we got to hear from the House impeachment managers and the president’s attorneys at considerable length — there were two concrete, and arguably contradictory developments.
A moment prompting a lot of speculation occurred at the beginning of the session, when Mitch McConnell’s “organizing resolution” was read to the Senate. The reading revealed that McConnell had made two changes of some significance since the resolution was first made public on Monday: Altering the original two-day timetable for each side’s arguments (which would have required grueling, into-the-wee-hours 12-hour sessions) to three days, and deleting a requirement that the Senate vote on introduction of the House impeachment record into evidence. It was quickly reported that these changes were made at the request of Republican senators — presumably at a GOP conference luncheon today — which is why they were hand-written onto the resolution at the last minute.
For the rest of the day, political observers speculated about the greater meaning of the changes. Some think Mitch McConnell’s grip on his senators has slipped, and that when push finally comes to shove, enough Republicans will defect to join Democrats and force witnesses and new evidence into the trial (a claim reinforced by a statement from Susan Collins suggesting she might go that way later in the trial). Personally, I wonder if Mitch decided to make relatively easy concessions now (in part to give Republicans cover in claiming independence and impartiality) in order to increase his ability to crack the whip later.
The second big takeaway is that Republicans, so far anyway, seem to be pretty united when it comes to voting. As of this writing, five Chuck Schumer amendments to the organizing resolution demanding documents and witnesses have gone down on identical 53-47 party-line votes, and prospects are no different for additional amendments Schumer is expected to offer. The same is true for McConnell’s organizing resolution itself, which cuts off the possibility of considering witnesses and evidence until after the two sides have completed their main arguments (unless Democrats attempt some sort of guerrilla assault on the exclusion of evidence at an earlier time, which is almost certain to fail). If, as some TV pundits seemed to believe, McConnell has lost control of his conference, it wasn’t apparent during a long afternoon and evening of votes.
For those watching the impeachment trial, of course, most of what they saw was not by senators laconically voting, but rather arguments being made by House managers and Trump’s counsel, who are obviously playing to a TV and streaming audience more than a senatorial one. While a lot of the specifics — or even the context of an amendment to a procedural motion —may have eluded non-expert viewers, the differences in tone and basic approach of the two sides was reasonably clear.
The House managers (led by the especially effective Adam Schiff) were lawyerly, well-prepared, and alternated between recapitulating the case for impeaching Trump in the first place and arguing that (a) an impeachment trial without new evidence and witnesses is unprecedented and (b) any trial without openness to new evidence and witnesses before “closing arguments” are made is no real trial — particularly when one of the articles of impeachment involves the president’s efforts to suppress the documents and testimony Democrats are seeking. They tailored their arguments, of course, to the documents and testimony sought in each Schumer amendment.
The president’s attorneys were more emotional — with the prevailing emotion being anger. One favorite argument was that House Democrats never took the time to secure documents and witnesses in their haste to get impeachment done quickly, and were ignoring both executive privilege claims and the role of the courts in adjudicating them. But they returned again and again to the MAGA-base-pleasing message that the House’s impeachment proceedings were a flimsy and clumsy effort to frame Trump without evidence of crimes (which Team Trump fatuously claims are necessary for impeachment). Characteristic was White House Counsel Pat Cipollone’s metronomic labeling of the case against his boss as “ridiculous.”
So in some respects we heard a reasonably thorough preview of what we are likely to hear when the two sides make their formal arguments beginning later this week — particularly when it comes to the article of impeachment charging Trump with obstruction of Congress. House Democrats want the Senate to repair the damage by forcing evidence into the record about the other and more urgent article of impeachment concerning abuse of power in pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation of the Bidens to help the president’s reelection bid. Meanwhile, the White House wants to shut it all down as a witch hunt. That basic dynamic is unlikely to change. And if Democrats can’t hang together (they have so far) and secure four Republicans (they haven’t so far) to take their side on the issue of documents and witnesses, that’s likely where it will all end — with a quick party-line acquittal and then a longer trial in the court of public opinion.