WASHINGTON (CN) – For the second day in a row, President Trump’s trial represented a long day’s journey into night marked by a tenacious fight by Democrats calling for the fall of the Senate GOP’s evidence stonewall.
After vigorously debating the ground rules until well after midnight last night, House impeachment managers plunged headlong into similarly lengthy and fiery opening arguments Wednesday. Delivering arguments until 9:30 p.m., Democrats chafed at highly restrictive Senate rules leaving unclear whether evidence collection will follow.
“We went well in the morning as you know,” said Representative Adam Schiff, a House impeachment manager and frequent Trump foil, this morning in his opening remarks.
Fatigue was writ large across the faces of many senators listening to opening arguments inside the chamber as Wednesday afternoon turned into early evening.
Republicans and Democrats had traded searing recriminations leading up the roughly 2 a.m. vote on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s resolution, but come Wednesday afternoon Schiff offered an olive branch.
“You paid attention to every word and argument that you heard from both sides,” the California Democrat said, “and we are deeply grateful to that.”
With adrenaline flowing, Schiff said, the California Democrat alternated between cajoling, persuasion and accusation, telling reluctant Republican colleagues that they too should demand the production of evidence that could either incriminate or exculpate their party’s president.
“We’re not afraid of those notes,” Schiff goaded, referring to the minutes taken by Vice President Mike Pence’s assistant Jennifer Williams on Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “We haven’t seen them.”
“Maybe those notes say, ‘No quid pro quo.’” Schiff continued. “Maybe those notes say that it’s a perfect call!”
Schiff, it should be emphasized, expects to find no such scribblings, as demonstrated by his bracing description of the Ukrainian scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment.
“Such a wholesale obstruction of a congressional impeachment has never before occurred in our democracy, and it represents one of the most blatant efforts at a coverup in our long history,” Schiff declared earlier in the day.
“If not remedied by his conviction in the Senate and removal from office, President Trump’s abuse of his office and obstruction of Congress will permanently alter the balance of power among our branches of government, inviting future presidents to operate as if they too are also beyond the reach of accountability, congressional oversight, and the law,” his blistering oration continued.
So launched Day 1 of opening arguments for the Democrats, exclusively holding the Senate floor for up to three days before turning the dais over to the White House’s lawyers.
Democrats have called the Senate rules governing the trial an extension of that cover-up, leaving unclear whether the Senate will hear any new witnesses or evidence supporting the two articles of impeachment against President Trump: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
“It was a dark day and dark night for the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters at a press conference Wednesday morning. “As a consequence, the impeachment trial begins with a cloud hanging over — a cloud of unfairness.”
All too briefly for Democrats, it appeared those clouds would part. Republicans backed down initially from one provision that left in doubt whether the Senate would receive impeachment evidence amassed by the House of Representatives, and they warmed to time constraints that would prevent opening arguments from beginning in the predawn hours.
But the retreat proved limited: Senate Republicans ultimately shot down each of Schumer’s 11 amendments seeking witnesses and evidence.
In its wake, Senate Democrats have been combing through the public domain to supplement the record amassed by the House of Representatives. Colorado Representative Jason Crow, one of the impeachment managers, noted that the nonprofit group American Oversight steadily wrested documents from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), showing the inner workings on Trump’s hold on aid designed to assist Ukraine in its hot war with Russia. Democrats have characterized that delay as an attempt to shake down Ukrainian President Zelensky into ginning up political investigations to benefit Trump and kneecap Joe Biden, his political rival.
Congressman Crow noted that the latest batch of files that the agency released pursuant to American Oversight’s lawsuit – mere minutes before midnight last night – were almost entirely redacted.
“Unfortunately, as you can see, there’s not a lot to read here, as it’s all blacked out,” Crow told the senators, holding up the papers.
California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, another House manager who served as a House Judiciary Committee staffer during the Nixon impeachment, called for the declassification of an addendum to testimony by Williams, the ex-Pence aide.
“Now, I’ve read that testimony,” Lofgren noted, urging senators and the White House to make it public. “I will just say that a cover-up is not a reason to classify a document.”
In addition to these requests, Schumer has made clear his intention to seek testimony by four witnesses and records currently being withheld — on orders from the White House — by agencies like the Pentagon, State Department, and the Office of Management and Budget. Though McConnell said Democrats will have the opportunity to seek evidence later in the trial, echoing the White House’s messaging, it will likely be another week before it is determined whether the witnesses will actually be called.
Senate Republicans have largely been opposed to witness testimony, though they have insisted throughout the trial they would need to hear from both sides before deciding on the issue.
When they have embraced witnesses, their most frequent choice has been Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on Wednesday raised the specter of such testimony again during a press conference but balked when asked if he would force a vote for a subpoena.
“The decision on calling witnesses is a decision in the first instance for the parties and the parties’ counsels and so the question of calling Hunter Biden is going to be a decision for President Trump’s lawyers to make initially,” Cruz said.
North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows told reporters Wednesday that his conversations with GOP Senate counterparts led him to believe that Trump’s acquittal is an inevitability.
“Yet a lot of them based on what they’ve already read, have made up their minds,” Meadows said, a remark that if true would contradict his colleagues’ sworn oaths to administer impartial justice. “But I don’t have a count.”
Whether or not GOP senators are persuadable, Schiff noted that impeachment managers are playing to two audiences.
“We’re trying this case over two juries: the Senate and the American people,” Schiff noted.
And so is the White House. Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow noted that his team deemed it unnecessary to file any other motions ahead of opening arguments.
“We’re prepared to proceed to acquittal,” Sekulow said.
Dusting off the speeches delivered Tuesday by House impeachment managers, he continued: “To be very clear, we anticipated what they were going to say, and they said it.”
At least one moment by House impeachment managers seemed to catch Sekulow off guard. Representative Val Demings of Florida alluded Tuesday to revelations from a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act that revealed new emails linking the White House to the hold on Ukrainian aid.
Mishearing the FOIA abbreviation, Sekulow was indignant that Democrats would harp on “lawyer lawsuits.”
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat and impeachment manager, also got under Sekulow’s skin in effectively accusing the White House and its Senate Republican allies of disloyalty to the United States, by pursuing an “absolutely indefensible vote, obviously a treacherous vote.”
Sekulow hit back at the gibe on Wednesday.
“Talking to U.S. Senate about their oath was a very dangerous move,” he said.
Chief Justice Roberts, who made his way to the impeachment trial after presiding over early morning arguments in the Supreme Court case Espinoza v. Montana, admonished Democrats and Republicans for overt characterizations on Tuesday night.
Louisiana Senator John Kennedy said in an impromptu press conference he thought the warning was fair and likely aimed at Nadler directly.
“I mean, I’ve been in a lot of courtrooms, and you get tired, you get a little emotional and sometimes you demonstrate more zeal than wisdom,” Kennedy said. “I don’t think it’s fair to call your opposing counsel a liar, and I don’t think it’s fair to say that senators who don’t vote like I tell you to vote are involved in an illegal action or a coverup. I think that’s over the top.”
President Trump attacked the impeachment trial during a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and doubled down via Twitter as House impeachment managers delivered their opening arguments.
Trump behaved similarly when the impeachment inquiry was in the House, regularly lashing out at lawmakers, panelists and witnesses like former National Security Council Russia adviser Fiona Hill and former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
Whether Trump’s habits on Twitter hurt or help his case as it unfolds in the Senate, at least one Republican employed a hands-off philosophy.
“I’m not advising the president to be anyone other than who he is,” said Meadows of North Carolina.
Though Senate trial decorum rules stipulate no movement by lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike moved almost freely through the chamber as they breezed in and out of nearby entries to cloakrooms where they could refuel. In between racing to interviews—subject to unprecedented press restrictions—senators grabbed a quick meal during a half-hour dinner recess.
Senator Chris Coons told reporters after the Senate recessed Wednesday that he has received “strikingly little” outreach from Republicans thus far in the trial.
In a comparably bitter standoff between the parties in 2018, the Delaware Democrat was key in working across the aisle — particularly with former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake — as the Senate considered whether to hear more evidence during Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
When asked Wednesday if he feels he has the relationships to do the same during the Senate trial, Coons paused for nearly three seconds, contemplating the question.
“We’ll see,” Coons said.