On Saturday morning, Democrats appeared to score a coup: Winning a surprise vote on calling witnesses in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump.
On Saturday afternoon, Democrats agreed to end the trial without calling any witnesses.
If that seems odd to you, well, you are far from alone. The Democrats’ rapid backtrack left almost everyone not in the Senate scratching their heads, wondering why the party blinked when it appeared to be on the verge of getting more testimony that would shine a light on exactly what Trump knew and when he knew it during the January 6 riot at the Capitol.
(Sidebar: Senate Democrats will point to the fact that they got a statement from Washington GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler detailing her side of an angry call between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump on the day of the riot. Sure. But why not depose Beutler as a witness?)
So, why did they do it? And then undo it?
The obvious answer is that President Joe Biden (or his surrogates) made clear to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that he did not want this trial dragging on – especially if the outcome is not in doubt.
Biden has largely avoided commenting about the ongoing trial other than to say that he is interested in seeing how Republicans vote on whether to convict or acquit Trump. But, behind the scenes, the Biden folks have made no bones about their desire for the trial to conclude quickly so that the attention of the country (and the Congress) can return to the President’s efforts on battling the Covid-19 pandemic and the Senate can refocus on confirming his Cabinet nominees.
Calling witnesses would, without any question, have lengthened the trial – likely by a considerable amount of time. In the aftermath of the vote, Republicans aligned with Trump were saying that they had a list of 300 witnesses they would try to call. And there appeared to be a desire among the centrist wing of the Democratic Party – West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, in particular – to allow both sides to call an equal number of witnesses.
And, remember, that the Senate is coming up on a week-long President’s Day recess, meaning that if Democrats had stuck to their guns on witnesses, the trial could have extended into into early March (or much later).
There also wasn’t any obvious path to convicting Trump – even if there were more witnesses. The expectation going into Saturday was that there were five or six Republican senators who would likely vote to convict – and that number solidified after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had suggested he was keeping an open mind on Trump’s guilt, said Saturday morning that he would be voting to acquit.
With McConnell on the “acquit” side, the chances of Democrats securing the 17 Republican votes they would need to convict Trump were, roughly, zero.
Given that, spending additional days (or, more likely, weeks) deposing witnesses would be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
What We Expect Today
So, yeah, I get it. But what I don’t get is why Democrats voted FOR witnesses Saturday morning. All of these pitfalls were totally visible for Senate Democrats before they voted.
By voting in favor of witnesses before voting against them, Democrats hamstring their own case. If hearing from witnesses would have helped House impeachment managers make their case that Trump had incited the Capitol riot on Saturday morning, why was just putting Herrera Beutler’s testimony into the record fine and dandy by Saturday afternoon?
It all had the feel of a non-serious move by Democrats. And a very weird way to end an impeachment trial in which Trump’s conduct – and the ongoing timidity of Senate Republicans to break with him – was on full display until Saturday morning.