WASHINGTON — The Senate reached a deal on Saturday to skip witness testimony in the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump.
The agreement averts a prolonged trial and sets up closing arguments from both sides on Saturday.
Five Republican senators including Susan Collins of Maine voted Saturday to consider hearing from witnesses in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.
The last-minute fight over witnesses followed Friday night revelations from a Republican House lawmaker about a heated phone call on the day of the riot between Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that Democrats say establishes the former president’s indifference to the deadly Capitol siege on Jan. 6. He is charged with inciting the riot.
At issue at first on Saturday was whether to subpoena Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state, one of 10 Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment in the House. She said in a statement late Friday that Trump rebuffed a plea from McCarthy to call off the rioters. Democrats consider it key corroborating evidence that confirms the president’s “willful dereliction of duty and desertion of duty as commander in chief.”
The situation was resolved when Herrera Beutler’s statement on the call was read aloud into the record for senators to consider as evidence. As part of the deal, Democrats dropped their planned deposition and Republicans abandoned their threat to call their own witnesses. Collins was among the five Republicans who voted to consider witnesses, a signal that she may vote to convict the president later on. The case then proceeded to closing arguments, where Democrats again alleged that Trump was responsible for the deadly Jan 6. siege on the day the Senate was certifying the election results.
“He abused his office by siding with the insurrectionists at almost every point, rather than with the Congress of the United States, rather than with the Constitution,” said lead House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, that he will vote to acquit Trump, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Closely watched, the GOP leader’s view could influence others in his party. While most Democrats are expected to convict the former president, acquittal already appeared likely in the chamber that is split 50-50 with Republicans. A two-thirds majority is required for conviction.
The outcome of the raw and emotional proceedings is expected to reflect a country divided over the former president and the future of his brand of politics. The verdict could influence not only Trump’s political future but that of the senators sworn to deliver impartial justice as jurors.
“What’s important about this trial is that it’s really aimed to some extent at Donald Trump, but it’s more aimed at some president we don’t even know 20 years from now,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
The nearly weeklong trial has delivered a grim and graphic narrative of the riot and its consequences in ways that senators, most of whom fled for their own safety that day, acknowledge they are still coming to grips with.
House prosecutors have argued that Trump’s rallying cry to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell” for his presidency just as Congress was convening Jan. 6 to certify Biden’s election victory was part of an orchestrated pattern of violent rhetoric and false claims that unleashed the mob. Five people died, including a rioter who was shot and a police officer.
Trump’s lawyers countered in a short three hours Friday that Trump’s words were not intended to incite the violence and that impeachment is nothing but a “witch hunt” designed to prevent him from serving in office again.
Only by watching the graphic videos — rioters calling out menacingly for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding over the vote tally — did senators say they began to understand just how perilously close the country came to chaos. Hundreds of rioters stormed into the building, taking over the Senate. Some engaged in hand-to-hand, bloody combat with police.
Many Republicans representing states where the former president remains popular doubt whether Trump was fully responsible or if impeachment is the appropriate response. Democrats appear all but united toward conviction.
Trump is the only president to be twice impeached and the first to face trial charges after leaving office.
Unlike last year’s impeachment trial of Trump in the Ukraine affair, a complicated charge of corruption and obstruction over his attempts to have the foreign ally dig up dirt on then-campaign rival Biden, this one brought an emotional punch over the unexpected vulnerability of the U.S. tradition of peaceful elections. The charge is singular, incitement of insurrection.
On Friday, Trump’s impeachment lawyers accused Democrats of waging a campaign of “hatred” against the former president as they wrapped up their defense.
His lawyers vigorously denied that Trump had incited the riot and they played out-of-context video clips showing Democrats, some of them senators now serving as jurors, also telling supporters to “fight,” aiming to establish a parallel with Trump’s overheated rhetoric.
“This is ordinary political rhetoric,” said van der Veen. “Countless politicians have spoken of fighting for our principles.”
Democratic senators shook their heads at what many called a false equivalency to their own fiery words. Impeachment managers say that Trump was the “inciter in chief” whose monthslong campaign against the election results was rooted in a “big lie” and laid the groundwork for the riot, a violent domestic attack on the Capitol unparalleled in history.
“Get real,” Raskin said at one point. “We know that this is what happened.”
Six Republican senators who joined Democrats in voting to take up the case are among those most watched for their votes.
Early signals came Friday during questions for the lawyers.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked the first question, Two centrists known for independent streaks, they leaned into a point the prosecutors had made, asking exactly when Trump learned of the breach of the Capitol and what specific actions he took to end the rioting.
Democrats had argued that Trump did nothing as the mob rioted.
Another Republican who voted to launch the trial, Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, asked about Trump’s tweet criticizing Pence moments after the then-president was told by another senator that Pence had just been evacuated.
Van der Veen responded that at “no point” was the president informed of any danger. Cassidy told reporters later it was not a very good answer.
Story by Lisa Mascaro, Eric Tucker and Mary Clare Jalonick. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.