WASHINGTON (CN) — Impeachment managers closed their opening arguments Friday with a warning that if the president of the United States cannot be impeached for obstruction of Congress, it will remove the most powerful check the storied body has on a president — any president.
“President Trump has demonstrated he will remain a threat to the Constitution if allowed to remain in office and acts in a manner grossly incompatible with governance and rule of law. Whether he will be allowed to continue this, is up to you,” Schiff said in his closing address to the Senate.
Concluding the final seven hours and 53 minutes they had left to present their case for President Donald Trump’s removal, impeachment managers asked senators to consider both the speed of Trump’s unprecedented coverup and how his obstruction of Congress hastened his unconstitutional efforts to boost his chances in the 2020 election.
Impeachment managers pored over the timeline of events that unfolded in the White House, starting with the July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky which led to the Aug. 12 whistleblower complaint and then to what Democrats contend was a long series of cloak-and-dagger activities undertaken by the president and his yes-men to hide their unconstitutional actions.
Presenting for the last time all of their evidence to support articles of impeachment including abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Schiff emphatically asked senators to consider not just the legal arguments but the very gravity of the moment they find themselves in.
So much of what has been presented in private and public testimony, following an extensive investigation by the House, has been proved, the California Democrat said repeatedly Friday night.
Now senators must consider something far bigger than a single presidency, a single administration or a single scandal.
“If the Congress cannot — because the president prevents it — investigate the president’s own wrongdoing, there will never be an Article I,” Schiff said. “Because there will be no more impeachment power. It will be gone.”
Similar stark warnings about the future of the Republic were offered by impeachment manager and House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler.
“President Trump is an outlier. He’s the first and only president ever to declare himself unaccountable and to ignore subpoenas backed by the Constitution’s impeachment power,” Nadler thundered from the Senate floor. “He does not have to respect the Congress. He does not have to respect the representatives of the people. Only his will goes. He is a dictator.”
Another House impeachment manager, Jason Crow, implored senators to eschew the “bizzare legal theories” Trump employs to defend himself.
They are only more proof of his obstruction, Crow argued.
“He has sued to block third parties from complying with congressional subpoenas and most remarkably, he claims Congress can’t investigate his conduct outside an impeachment inquiry, while simultaneously claiming Congress cannot investigate his conduct inside an impeachment inquiry,” the Colorado Democrat said.
After an arduous and exhausting first week of arguments, the Senate chamber was fairly still as Friday night wore on and Schiff delivered his final thoughts.
The relative tranquility in the room, however, was jolted after the lead impeachment manager made reference to a CBS report from Thursday that suggested Republicans who did not fall in line with Trump would see their heads “put on pikes.”
“That’s not true,” Senator Susan Collins cried out as other GOP lawmakers tut-tutted in agreement from the floor.
Oklahoma Senator James Lankford said the report was completely false.
“Not true. None of us have been told that by the president, there’s been no indication of that at all,” Lankford said. “I was visibly upset, the whole room was visibly upset on our side of it. To say that is insulting and demeaning to everyone to say we somehow live in fear and that the president has threatened all of us to put our head on a pike — I don’t understand even where he comes off on that.”
Early Friday, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, one of seven Democratic impeachment managers who act as prosecutors in the trial, emphasized that Senators should consider that there was a “two-pronged approach” to Trump’s obstruction.
“The first prong: block Congress and the American people from learning about the whistleblower complaint,” Jeffries said. “Second, try to convince President Trump to lift the hold on security assistance before anyone can find out about it and use that evidence against them.”
As to the transcript of the July 25 call, Jeffries asked senators to consider the involvement of John Eisenberg, general counsel for the National Security Council, in reviewing the transcript and moving it then to a private server.
According to the House impeachment managers’ brief, Tim Morrison, former top national security adviser to Trump, raised issue with the call to Eisenberg and other NSC attorneys saying the summary would be “damaging” if leaked publicly.
For some yet undiscovered reason, Jeffries said, Eisenberg and his deputy Michael Ellis, ended up restricting access to the call transcript by placing it on a highly classified server although it did not contain any highly classified information.
To drive that point home, senators were played a clip of Morrison’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee where he dubbed the action “a mistake” last month.
Jeffries’ voice boomed through the chamber.
“Why did Eisenberg place the summary on a server for classified material?” he asked. “Did anyone senior to Eisenberg direct him to hide the call record? Why did the call record remain on the classified server, even after the so-called error was discovered? Who ordered the cover up?”
When impeachment manager Val Demmings stepped to the podium after a short recess Friday, she said Trump’s obstruction of Congress was “categorical, indiscriminate and unprecedented.”
It wasn’t just the White House that refused to comply with five congressional subpoenas for witness testimony and other documents, it was the entire executive branch, she said.
That “total defiance” of the House’s impeachment inquiry, Demmings said, left no question that Trump directed the refusals.
Trump seemed to confirm that defiance this week when he told reporters gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “Honestly, we have all the material. They don’t have the material.”
Demmings conceded that the president is afforded privileges no other American dare imagine, but told fellow lawmakers that executive power does not come without strings or restraints.
“Executive power without any sort of restraint, without oversight and without any checks and balances is absolute power,” she said. “And we know what has been said about absolute power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Now, I know, no other American could seek to obstruct the investigation into his or her wrongdoing in this way.”
Texas Representative Sylvia Garcia, another Democratic impeachment manager, worked to persuade lawmakers that the Trump administration’s brazen cover-up happened “in plain sight.”
“Trump issued an order barring the entire executive branch from participating in the inquiry,” she said. “No cooperation. No negotiation. Nothing. Or, as we say in Texas, ‘nada.’”
Garcia appeared to bristle from the floor when she rattled off a list of records the White House has flatly refused to provide Congress, among them former ambassador John Bolton’s notes and a first-person cable from senior Ukraine diplomat Bill Taylor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Then, she noted, there were the hundreds of emails between the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies that followed Trump’s directive to hold aid to Ukraine.
Those documents may never have become public, let alone come under congressional scrutiny, if they were not turned over to third parties by way of a court order under the Freedom of Information Act.
American Oversight, a nonpartisan, nonprofit ethics watchdog, filed a request for some of these related documents — which the OMB fulfilled two minutes before their deadline to respond. The documents, while heavily redacted, contained references to the organization’s Acting Director Russell Vought and Michael Duffy, the OMB’s associate director for national security.
Before focusing on obstruction Friday, lead House impeachment manager Adam Schiff concluded the presentation on Trump’s abuse of power.
If American foreign policy was guided by a wheeling and dealing mentality, it would “wither and die,” Schiff said.
Russia has not only been emboldened on the battlefield after the aid was withheld but it also harmed Ukraine’s negotiating prowess. Without American backing — U.S. aid contributes to 10% of Ukraine’s defense budget — it put the U.S. and Ukraine in the crosshairs of a potential diplomatic and national security crisis.
“It’s painful to see our allies distance themselves from the United States,” Schiff said. “It’s more than painful, it’s dangerous.”
House Democrats laid out the argument earlier this week to remove Trump from office because he abused his power when he withheld $391 million in military aid and a coveted White House meeting from Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky. The meeting was contingent on Zelensky announcing both an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden — a top 2020 political rival — and a discredited theory about the 2016 presidential election.
This theory, which involved the Bidens and the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, drew interest from Republican senators during the trial Friday. Lawmakers like Lindsey Graham and James Risch could be seen with a handout titled, “BURISMA TIMELINE,” accompanied by yellow highlighters and notations.
On Saturday, the baton is passed to Trump’s defense team for opening arguments, a welcome transition for impeachment managers like Schiff who admitted Friday, with deep bags beneath his eyes, that he was wearied.
“I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I can only imagine how you feel but I’m also very deeply grateful for how you have attended to these presentations and discussions,” Schiff said.
Striving to keep the impeachment managers’ closing arguments succinct, the California Democrat also quipped, “To be immortal, you don’t have to be eternal. And I will try my best not to be eternal.”
As for the White House’s opening arguments, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed Friday that they would begin on Saturday at 10 a.m. and rest around 1 p.m.
However long resting the defense may take, once over, lawmakers then submit questions to Chief Justice John Roberts over a 16-hour period. As chief arbiter, Roberts has authority to select which questions are asked. He will also identify which senator posed each question.
Though Friday’s closing arguments from impeachment managers is the final chance to reiterate the case for removal, the looming trial schedule puts the White House in position to have the last word.
Though many Republican Senators have emphasized throughout the trial they would like to skip witnesses and wrap up impeachment proceedings to return to the regular workday, some remain coy about where they will ultimately come down on the witness question.
The contention over the need to call witnesses heated up on Friday as reporters pressed Jay Sekulow about a recording of the purported voice of Trump, demanding that his former Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovtich be removed from her post.
While Sekulow declined to comment then to a scrum of reporters, a source from Trump’s legal team said in a background call on impeachment Friday, they would not address the president’s alleged comments to “get rid of her.”
Notably, though the days and nights of impeachment are long, the proceedings continue to hold the interest of Americans watching from home.
According to the Nielsen television rating system, some 7.5 million people tuned in during the primetime slot from 8 to 11 p.m. on Day 1 of the trial. Former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment garnered 2.3 million viewers, though the advent of a 24-7 news cycle available through every phone, computer and television wasn’t as prominent at the time.
In comparison to special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on his final report last July, impeachment viewership comes close. Some 12.9 million viewers tuned in for the special counsel’s testimony. All news networks combined registered 11 million viewers for the first two days of impeachment.
Viewership declined over all six major news networks on Day 3, however, with just 8.8 million viewers tuning in. That could soon change when Trump’s attorneys, who have exhibited a fierce defense of the president so far, take the floor on Saturday.