The Day the Momentum to Call Witnesses Died

After a push from Senate Republicans, the debate over calling witnesses became intense for House Democrats-but it all halted just as quickly as it started, when the GOP retreated to their playbook.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks from his office to the Senate Chamber for former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial at the US Capitol on Saturday, February 13, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/via Getty Images)

After the Friday night session of Trump’s impeachment trial concluded in the Senate, the proposition of making one last, final argument to call on witnesses to dispute the blatant lie by Trump’s counsel was firmly on the table. Michael van der Veen, the personal injury lawyer who was the only sucker willing to play a Conditional Law Professor for reality TV, had made the glaring mistake of lying in response to a posed question.

Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) asked the question of whether Trump was aware that Pence had been rushed to safety when Trump sent a tweet attacking Pence for not having “the courage to do what should have been done.” The question was asked of both sides (see video embedded in tweet below), but Trump’s side proceeded to lie and say, “The answer is no — there is nothing at all in the record on this point."

Not only was this false, the record had already proven the accusation to be true, with statements from Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Mike Lee being added to the strong case brought by Democrats. The mistake by Trump’s team was later seized upon by Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA), also a member of the Republican Party who had been on the fence ever since jumping ship to vote with Democrats over the issue of the Senate being the proper venue to proceed.

Cassidy kept the issue of Trump’s extreme betrayal against Pence in play, and asked the parties if Trump had been “tolerant of the intimidation” of his vice president? Trump’s lawyer attempted to maneuver around another question and proceeded to launch another direct attack on the evidence already supplied by House Democrats. Mr. van der Veen insulted Senator Cassidy by accusing him of posing a question based on hearsay and gossip and then made a statement that both sides found shocking: “I’m sure Mr. Trump very much is concerned and was concerned for the safety and well-being of Mr. Pence and everybody else that was over here.”

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The Senate convened on Friday night with Democrats split on the issue of calling witnesses moving forward. According to The Washington Post, Democrats retired on Friday night to “an ornate room just off the Senate floor, a few steps away from the office suite of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer” and proceeded to debate over the pros and cons of moving forward on a vote to call witnesses.

Hearing from credible witnesses that could refute what had just been said in Trump’s defense might finally sway more Republicans and would definitely impact the viewing public. On the other hand, more testimony would be time-consuming and could hold up movement on critical Biden confirmations and push back critical covid relief work.

While the internal debate among Democrats ensued, CNN confirmed an intense phone call between Trump and then House Majority Leader McCarthy on Jan. 6, during the attack on the Capitol, that included a new quote. “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump had purportedly told McCarthy, who had identified the mob as Trump supporters and begged the former president to call them off.

The quote had been relayed by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA), who confirmed her account by issuing a direct statement later Friday night. She explained that McCarthy had notified Trump of the events and the immediate danger to Congress and Mike Pence during this phone call. Beutler concluded her written release by urging those who had firsthand knowledge of Trump’s actions that day to speak up. “To the patriots who were standing next to the former president as these conversations were happening, or even to the former vice president: If you have something to add here, now would be the time,” she said.

This clearly made an impact on influential swing voters within the GOP, as well as other conservatives who were concerned about public appearances over what might be perceived as a lack of inaction. By Saturday morning, Democrats had basically decided not to press the issue of calling for witnesses too hard — but, it was moderate Republicans, who pushed the vote over the top.

Both sides retreated for off-camera negotiations, and returned after several hours with a somewhat lack-luster agreement to read Herrera Beutler’s statement into the record and move the process along. The sudden shift in momentum for Democrats that had seemingly brought the trial back to life, was now over, leaving many to wonder what had really happened to cause the initial shift and what had been done — most likely by Mitch McConnell — to stop it.

One obvious reason Democrats may have backed down on witnesses was the looming threat of Republicans retaliating by grinding the entire US Senate to a halt, and intentionally holding up Biden’s coronavirus relief package and his remaining cabinet nominations. Republican Senator Joni Ernst pretty much confirmed that this threat had either been made or was understood by telling a reporter: “If they want to drag this out, we’ll drag it out. They won’t get their noms, they won’t get anything.”

The debate among House Democrats was again reignited and a lengthy deliberation began. The likelihood of the trial extending several days, if not weeks, so that both sides could depose witnesses, was also an obstacle that would come with a cost. A substantial increase in trial time could mean that newly supportive Republicans might be alienated. Those in the GOP who were furious might attempt to delay confirmation on Biden’s nominations or worse, delay critical covid relief aid — Earnst’s statement appeared to be a threat of sorts to remind Democrats of what was at stake.

The Post reported that, “key members of the Democratic team — particularly Raskin and House Counsel Barry Berke — saw the witness vote as a final opportunity to hold Trump accountable and get new voices on the record.” It was at this time that Raskin and Berke got in contact with someone from Pence’s team that told them not to expect any public support from the former Vice President.

We have no further details yet of other threats made by Republicans behind the scenes. But, the immediate statement by Mitch McConnell (R-KY), made on the Senate floor following his vote to acquit Trump of incitement (see tweet below), was as obvious as it was insulting. McConnell also went on to pen an OpEd for the Wall Street Journal that was published on Monday, where he attempted to justify the vote of most Senate Republicans by saying it "vindicated the Constitution, not Trump."

The public reminder made by Ernst was most likely sent from another source who needed to keep his hands clean so that he could make speeches and write Op Eds. The content of McConnell’s statements are so glaringly backward, that it is clear he continues to proceed with the tactics embedded firmly in the GOP playbook: intimidate and threaten; deny and ignore; and then accuse those who dare to accuse you. McConnell also made a point to offer another carrot, perhaps to Democrats, perhaps to the American public: “President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office as an ordinary citizen— he didn’t get away with anything — yet.”

House Democrats ultimately chose to enter the witness statement of Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler into the record, after deciding that calling witnesses would be to their detriment, and that they had made their case. Next stop was a series of interviews to drive home the point that all of the evidence was in the complete record, and the truth had been exposed for everyone to see. House Manager Stacey Plaskett said: “We didn’t need more witnesses, we needed more senators with spines. We believe that we proved the case, we proved the elements of the article of impeachment. It’s clear that these individuals were hardened, that they did not want to let the [former] president be convicted, or disqualified.”

Raskin told NBC’s Meet the Press: “These Republicans voted to acquit in the face of this mountain of unrefuted evidence,” he explained. “There’s no reasoning with people who basically are acting like members of a religious cult.” He also went on to add that “we have no regrets.” This signals that Democrats had many things to weigh, in that ornate room near Schumer’s office during the break on Saturday, and they know the totality of the risks that were involved and continue to be in play.

The leadership and judgement of Raskin has been steadfast, and his team of House Impeachment Managers has been sharp and impeccable. I trust that they are in a better position to know what the cost for witnesses would have been, and that their determination was solid. The decision not to call witnesses and continue the dramatic display that the impeachment trial could provide was likely a price that was too high for Democrats, and one that Americans simply can’t afford right now.

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Amee Vanderpool is an independent journalist and attorney, who lives in Washington, DC. In addition to writing the SHERO Newsletter, she is a contributor to newspapers and magazines, and an analyst for BBC radio, often appearing in podcasts and radio interviews. You can follow Amee on Twitter under @girlsreallyrule and she can be reached at avanderpool@gmail.com.

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