Impeachment trial surprise as Senate approves, then abandons, move to call witnesses

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·6 min read

House impeachment managers threw a curveball on Saturday morning, asking to be allowed to call witnesses on what was expected to be a final day of closing arguments — but then quickly changed their mind.

The initial motion to call witnesses was approved by the Senate, throwing the chamber into confusion. It meant that the impeachment trial, which had been expected to end Saturday, might be extended for an unforeseeable period of time.

But after a break that went on for more than an hour — giving senators and managers time to huddle and discuss what exactly they wanted to do — the House managers backed off and decided they did not want to call witnesses after all.

Former President Trump’s lawyers agreed to admit a statement from Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., and that was it. Closing arguments began immediately, and the trial moved toward its conclusion, with only a handful of Republicans expected to find Trump guilty. A two-thirds supermajority of 67 votes is required to convict.

Lead manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., just after 10 a.m., had initially said they wanted Herrera Beutler to subpoena to testify via Zoom call. The Senate then voted on a motion regarding whether to call witnesses at all, and the Senate approved the motion 55 to 45, with five Republicans joining all the Democrats in supporting the measure.

A separate vote would have been needed for each witness requested, but even before that there was a requirement that Senate Democrats and Republicans approve a resolution that would set the rules for witnesses. This would have required a 60-vote supermajority to pass, which is likely why House managers backed off their witness request.

A negotiation with Senate Republicans would have meant granting some of their demands to call witnesses designed to score partisan points and would have slowed down the trial to a crawl, potentially crippling the Senate’s ability to pass legislation that is important to President Joe Biden, such as a COVID-19 relief package.

Herrera Beutler, who was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump last month, released a statement on Friday night saying that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had related to her that when he spoke to Trump by phone on Jan. 6, while rioters were assaulting the Capitol and lawmakers’ lives were in danger, the president refused to do anything to stop the violence.

“The president initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol,” Herrera Beutler said. “McCarthy refuted that and told the president that these were Trump supporters. That’s when, according to McCarthy, the president said: ‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.’”

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., speaks during a news conference on the House steps in Washington In December. (Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., speaks during a news conference on the House steps in Washington In December. (Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images)

Herrera Beutler had already related this call in a statement before the House impeachment vote, but she added an exhortation Friday to others who might have information about the president’s state of mind before or during the insurrection.

“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.

The relevance of this goes to whether it can be proved that Trump intentionally incited the violence at the Capitol and intentionally sought to stop the process of certifying the 2020 election results in an attempt to hold on to power.

The decision to call witnesses was not expected but was made after senators from both parties began to signal on Saturday morning that they supported the idea.

The Republicans who voted for the witnesses motion were Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Sen Mitt Romney of Utah, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who was one of six Republicans who sided with Democrats on the trial being constitutional, voted against calling witnesses.

Graham voted against the motion at first, and then changed his vote as the tally was being counted.

The Senate voted 55-45 in favor of calling witnesses during impeachment trial on Saturday. (Reuters Video)
The Senate voted 55-45 in favor of calling witnesses during impeachment trial on Saturday. (Reuters Video)

As a Senate veteran, Graham was one of the senators who knows Senate procedure well enough to understand that the next step after the vote would be a negotiation over the ground rules for calling individual witnesses.

Other senators were caught off guard in the confusion. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, after he voted against the motion, asked Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the presiding officer for the trial, what he had just voted on.

The House managers made the request for witnesses at the appropriate point in the trial, according to the agreement reached between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Graham’s position in favor was a hint that he wants to argue that his own witness requests should be granted since he had supported witnesses being called in the first place. This is part of what appears to be a strategy by Graham and other Trump loyalists to turn the trial into lengthy affair that bogs down the Senate in an ugly and partisan affair and stymies its ability to pass some of the President Joe Biden's top-priority pieces of legislation.

“If you want a delay, it will be a long one with many, many witnesses,” Graham tweeted.

He also complained about “liberal news reports” published on Friday night about McCarthy’s call with Trump on Jan. 6, comparing it with the publication of damaging stories about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh at critical times during his confirmation process.

In this case, however, the sources for the news reports about the Trump call with McCarthy are Republicans, starting with Herrera Beutler.

Trump’s lawyer Michael van der Veen expressed anger by the move, slamming his hand on the rostrum at one point and raising his voice in the chamber.

“We should close this case out today,” said van der Veen, a criminal and personal injury attorney from Philadelphia whose bombastic performance at the trial has garnered attention and some ridicule. But he also said that if the House managers wanted to call one witness, he would want to call more than 100. Many of the senators in the chamber from both parties laughed out loud at van der Veen’s demand that he be able to interview witnesses at his law firm offices in Philadelphia.

“I haven’t laughed at any of you,” van der Veen said, scowling.

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