Senate Skips Witnesses in Impeachment Trial

In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., speaks about the motion to call witnesses at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Saturday. (Senate Television via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — After calling for witness testimony in a 55-45 vote, Senate Democrats demurred and instead moved to present closing arguments in the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.

Republicans Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina sided with Democrats to bring witnesses to the Senate chamber virtually, though Graham changed his “no” vote after an initial roll call. 

A two-thirds majority is needed to convict Trump, a one-time television host turned political neophyte charged with incitement of insurrection just a week after the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. The attack began after Trump delivered a fiery speech riddled with falsehoods about the 2020 election to a crowd of thousands who for weeks had planned to assemble there at his invitation.

Raskin called for witness testimony before the vote.  In a public statement and as reported first by the New York Times, Representative Jamie Herrera Beutler, a Republican from Washington, had knowledge of Trump telling House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy during the siege that the rioters were “more upset about the election than you are.”

“When McCarthy finally reached the president on January 6 and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the president initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol,” the congresswoman said in a statement

The FBI has said there is no indication antifa activists were involved in the attack.

After about 45 minutes, both sides came back to the chamber where they announced they’d agreed to entering Beutler’s statement into the record as evidence in lieu of calling witnesses, of which, Republicans had reportedly more than 300.

Raskin in his closing remarks said to senate jurors: “I have no doubt you have noticed, despite the various propaganda reels, Trump’s lawyers have said nothing to overcome evidence of Trump’s conduct much less have they brought their client forward to tell his side of the story.” 

Trump had his chance to appear but as he did in his first impeachment, refused to testify. 

The trial again was delayed Saturday as both sides closed. While Raskin again broadly outlined House impeachment managers’ two-day evidentiary presentation, van der Veen objected to statements from another House manager David Cicilline who presented a tweet published last night from Josh Dawsey.

Dawsey reported Vice President Mike Pence’s team didn’t agree with the Trump counsel assertion that the 45th president was concerned with Pence’s safety. As Cicilline finished a presentation focused on Trump’s incitement, Senator Mike Lee again objected to House impeachment managers’ characterization of a phone call Trump mistakenly placed to the Utah Republican — when he had meant to call Senator Tommy Tuberville.

The Senate briefly went into a quorum call, then Leahy said the evidentiary record had been closed, referencing Cicilline’s recitation of a 20-hour-old tweet.

“S. Res. 47 describes the scope of those things not admitted to evidence as those referenced in trial,” he said. “New evidence is not permitted in closing argument. References to such new evidence will be stricken.”

On Saturday, Raskin said: “Congresswoman Beutler further stated that she hopes other witnesses to this part of the story, other ‘patriots’ as she put it, would come forward and if that happens, we would seek the opportunity to take their depositions via Zoom.”

Trump counsel Michael van der Veen, visibly angered by this idea, said if the trial should have witnesses: “I’m going to need at least over 100 depositions, not just one.” 

At one point, when van der Veen suggested depositions be done “in person, in my office, in Philadelphia,” the chamber erupted in laughter. President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy admonished both sides following the outburst. 

“I haven’t laughed at any of you and there’s nothing laughable here,” van der Veen said.

Both sides only debated the matter for about 15 minutes with both Raskin and van der Veen trading rebuttals of the other side’s argument. 

Raskin noted Herrera-Beutler’s evidence was only revealed late last night, which, he said, sheds light on the critical question: Did the president inhibit or aid the National Guard and other reinforcements from arriving at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6? 

“And the information that came out last night by Congresswoman Beutler apparently backed up by contemporaneous notes that she had taken, I think, will put to rest any lingering doubts raised by the president’s counsel who now says he wants to interview hundreds of people,” Raskin said. “There’s only one person the president’s counsel really needs to interview and that’s their own client.” 

Van der Veen then attacked Raskin’s sourced information from the New York Times as “rumors” calling the information irrelevant. 

If the Senate called Rep. Beutler, he said, it should also call Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris. 

And as for Trump making the trip to testify, van der Veen raged: “That is not the way it’s done.” 

“If he wanted to talk to Donald Trump,” van der Veen said of Raskin, “he should have put a subpoena down like I’m going to slap subpoenas on a good number of people if witnesses are what is required here for them to try to get their case back in order.” 

Van der Veen presented a closing argument for Trump’s defense counsel noting “it would not be so long.” He again decried due process violations at the hands of Democrats, noting they had delayed sending evidence until the trial was being argued while complaining some evidence “was flat wrong.” 

“They tried to use evidence that they had never presented in their case in their closing argument,” van der Veen said. “That is a very desperate attempt by a prosecuting team – nine of them – by a prosecuting team that knew that their case has collapsed.”

In addition to Beutler, questions began swirling Friday night when Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana probed for insight regarding a conversation between Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville and Trump on the afternoon of the insurrection.

Tuberville has said publicly he told Trump Vice President Mike Pence was removed by security from the Capitol the attack on the day. 

If accurate, it could mean, Trump may have learned of how dangerous the situation had become. Footage played at trial depicted, at multiple times, irate rioters calling to execute Pence as they stormed the building. 

That growing frenzy, according to Tuberville’s account, coincides with the evidence from impeachment managers that showed the calls to execute Pence from the mob notably intensified in the moments after Trump tweeted admonishments at Pence for refusing to overturn the results of the election or disrupt the counting of the already-certified votes unfolding inside House and Senate chambers. 

Van der Veen dismissed Cassidy’s question as hearsay. 

Whether witness testimony will push any more Republicans to join forces with Democrats to convict is uncertain and at this point unlikely.

Cassidy, for example, two weeks ago voted in favor of dismissing the trial altogether but voted against calling witnesses Saturday. He was photographed last night holding a draft statement supporting Trump’s acquittal, but told reporters on the opposite side was a draft statement in support of Trump’s conviction.

Just five other Republican senators have more regularly or outwardly suggested they could align with Democrats to convict. They include Sasse, Romney and Murkowski as well as Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins of Maine. Unlike Collins who voted in favor of calling witness testimony Toomey voted against. 

All have aired grievances publicly about Trump’s conduct: Toomey, who is set to retire, openly described what Trump did on Jan. 6 as “impeachable.” Murkowski called for Trump to resign in the aftermath. 

But with the onetime commander-in-chief now a private citizen, her vote to convict may be elusive. 

Sasse, reportedly eyeing a presidential run in 2024, has slammed Trump for his false claims of election fraud during and after the election. Sasse has said too the former president should be held accountable for the consequences of the siege that left five dead and more than 140 law enforcement officers injured. His critiques of Trump earned him censure by his state’s Republican party but incidentally, according to FiveThirtyEight analysis, Sasse voted in line with Trump policy or positions 84.8% of the time. 

Toomey has voted in line with the Trump administration slightly more often at 85.8% where Romney, who voted to convict Trump during his first impeachment for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, sided with the administration 75% of the time. 

Murkowski clocked in at 72.6% and Collins voted in line with Trump 65.1% of the time. 

Cassidy has voted with the Trump administration more than any of the other potential Republican party holdouts at 89.1%

Witness testimony could firmly underline for the public statements from Trump that were played verbatim to lawmakers for two consecutive days of opening arguments featuring visceral evidence of the Jan. 6 attack

Some of that included new security footage showing how lawmakers and staffers were, at times, but a few dozen paces removed from danger. The outcome might have been worse, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have agreed, if not for the quick thinking and courage of Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman. 

On Friday, both sides paused to award him the Congressional Gold Medal. Standing at the back of the Senate chamber, lawmakers gave him a standing ovation. 

This story is developing …

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