About four hours into Thursday’s session of the Senate impeachment trial, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the House’s lead impeachment manager, had yet another video clip queued up to show senators in order to help make Democrats’ case for President Trump’s removal.
Taking full advantage of their video privileges, the impeachment managers had played dozens of such clips since opening their arguments in the trial on Wednesday. But when Schiff tried to show a segment of White House aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony, it didn’t work.
Sensing technical difficulties, Schiff offered a joke. “We’ve heard enough of Col. Vindman,” he quipped, before pressing on. For some of the Republicans sitting in the chamber, however, the joke couldn’t have been truer: Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa nodded at Schiff’s crack, glancing conspiratorially at her neighbor, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
The moment underscored the sheer amount of evidence Schiff and his fellow managers have thrown at the 100 jurors deciding the fate of Trump’s presidency over the course of nearly 12 hours of argument.
But if the Democratic impeachment managers’ presentations on Wednesday were meant to appeal to the Senate’s sense of constitutional responsibility, Thursday’s were designed as an evidence-packed pre-rebuttal to what senators may hear from the White House when Trump’s defense team outlines their case in the coming days.
Central to that case was a detailed outline of Trump’s willingness to divert from long-standing U.S. policy, based on Russian disinformation and plotting Ukrainian former officials, to pressure Kyiv on investigations that benefited him politically.
Beginning this effort was Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) who walked through a lengthy discussion of the conspiracy theory that former Vice President Joe Biden’s involvement in Ukraine during the Obama administration had something to do with Hunter Biden’s appointment to board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma in 2014.
“As the theory goes, Vice President Biden tried to remove Ukraine's prosecutor all to make sure the prosecutor wouldn't investigate that specific company Burisma because, again, his son was on the board,” Garcia said. “Then senators, if that doesn’t sound far-fetched and complicated to you, it should.”
Biden, along with the support of the Obama White House, Congress, and a coalition of international organizations and allied countries, called for the firing of then-Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin in 2016 as a result of Shokin’s failure to address corruption in Ukraine. That failure also included allowing an investigation into Burisma to go dormant.
Democrats labored to dispel the idea the president was led astray by his personal lawyer Rudy Giuiliani, who along with associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman schemed with embattled Ukrainian officials to get rid of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
Or that Trump was unaware of the effort by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and others to get Ukraine to agree to investigate the Bidens in exchange for a meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the release of congressionally approved aid to Ukraine.
The impeachment managers also sought to make clear that Trump and his pursuit of a political edge was behind it all. Indeed, the meat of their presentation on Thursday was a 10-point list of reasons why Trump was acting in his personal interest on Ukraine, not the national interest.
As Garcia spoke, senators, including Republicans, appeared glued to their reading materials and to the videos displayed on the screen—including a clip from Dr. Fiona Hill, former top Russia adviser to Trump, in which she lays out how Russia spread the conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
Schiff specifically pointed to the fact that Trump chose to use Guiliani to work on the Ukraine investigations pressure campaign and that Trump’s advisers on Ukraine were deliberately left out of the loop on what would be discussed on the president’s July 25 call with Zelensky.
Garcia focused on that call, too, pointing to how Trump mentioned the 2016 election, the DNC server, and Crowdstrike, and pushed the Ukrainians to investigate. (The idea that Crowdstrike is or was somehow holding that server or participated in the interference in the 2016 election is a well-known conspiracy theory that former and current U.S. officials have outlined as one propagated by Russia.) According to a previous report in The Daily Beast, Ukrainian officials listening on the July 25 call did not know what Crowdstrike was and were caught off guard by Trump urging Zelensky to look into it.
The topic’s re-emergence made for some awkward moments.
Several Republican senators who have insisted the president had every reason to investigate the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine also meddled in the 2016 election sat silently as Garcia played a clip of FBI Director Christopher Wray dismissing the theory out of hand.
Asked about the presentation, Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) said he would wait for the White House’s presentation before passing judgment on whether Ukraine meddled in the election.
“I don’t think we know that until we get to Saturday,” he said. “So I’ve heard that that will be woven into what we hear on the defense and maybe we’ll learn more there. I just don’t think you can do it all in a vacuum, you know, to where you’re not getting both sides of the story. And remember that hasn’t occurred yet.”
Another Republican, Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, said he was “anxious to hear” how the president’s defense team was going to respond to the Russian disinformation evidence. Braun said he’d reserve judgment until then because Democrats’ statements rested on “friendly witnesses and people that, you know, are there to build their case.”
The White House is expected to begin laying out that case during a rare Saturday session of the Senate on Jan. 25. On Thursday night, White House counsel Jay Sekulow teased that Democrats’ Biden pre-rebuttal amounted to a free pass for them to dive into the topic.
“It’s been a lot about Joe Biden and Burisma,” Sekulow told reporters. “It kind of opened the door for that response, so we'll determine as a defense team the appropriate way to do it”
But speaking to reporters during a break Thursday, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, argued that the defense had been dealt a devastating blow before even laying out its case, calling the managers’ presentation a “knife in the heart” to the “false arguments” Team Trump would make.
Intent on packing as much evidence as possible into the 24 hours of floor time, spread over three days, that they have been allotted to make their case, Democrats leveraged their video privileges for a novel purpose: turning senators’ own words from the last impeachment against them.
The instigator was none other than House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), who followed his acerbic debut as an impeachment manager on Tuesday with another move that instantly caused a stir on the staid Senate floor.
After playing a series of video clips of constitutional scholars from his committee, he chose to call out Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for comments he made during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1999. Graham was a GOP impeachment manager in Clinton’s trial, and his task was to convince senators and the public that the president’s conduct met the lofty bar of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In order to do so, he offered a simple but expansive definition.
“What’s a high crime?” a long-haired, younger Graham asked. “How about if an important person hurts somebody of low means? It’s not very scholarly, but I think it’s the truth. I think that’s what they meant by high crimes. Doesn’t have to be a crime. It’s just when you start using your office and you’re acting in a way that hurts people, you’ve committed a high crime.”
Although Graham had left the chamber just before Nadler played the clip, his colleagues on both sides of the aisle exchanged surprised looks with their neighbors. Sen. Brain Schatz (D-HI) shook his head, while Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), Graham’s seatmate, patted his empty chair—because the South Carolina senator had left the chamber.
During a break afterward, however, GOP senators mostly shrugged at the import of what Graham had said 20 years ago.
“That’s the irony of being here for a long time,” said Braun.