House Democrats opened their case to remove President Trump from office by imploring the same Senate Republicans who have stood in lockstep with the White House that they're the only ones who can save American democracy.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the House intelligence committee chairman turned lead impeachment manager, began his side’s arguments with an appeal to history. He bookended his recitation of Trump’s pressure campaign to suborn Ukraine into aiding his reelection with references to Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin and name checked any other member of the Founding Generation—his colleague Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) later added James Madison—who could help contextualize the constitutional obligation Schiff said senators have when faced with “a man who would be a king.”
It’s likely the only play Schiff, Jeffries and their fellow Democratic impeachment managers have. The unyielding political reality they confront is that only with the assent of 20 Republican senators, more than a third of the entire GOP Senate conference, will Trump be removed from office. Even convincing enough of those Republican senators to vote for hearing new evidence in the trial—just four are needed—is viewed as a tall order for Democrats.
Standing on the Senate floor before the body of 100 jurors for more than two and a half hours, Schiff rarely raised his voice, laying the groundwork for a day meant to methodically recap the effort from Trumpworld to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into probing his political rivals while withholding U.S. security aid to Ukraine as leverage.
A lawyer and prosecutor before he was a congressman, Schiff’s remarks reflected his understanding that his partisan opponents are also his jury. Instead of accusing Senate Republicans of a “cover-up,” as Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) did during a late-night rules debate on Tuesday, he opted to treat them as accountable to history.
“If we don’t stand up to this peril today,” Schiff intoned, “we will write the history of our decline with our own hand.”
Democrats recounted the most dramatic testimony from their November public impeachment hearings while framing it as a matter of life or death for the Republic. Showing a video of acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s now-infamous “get over it” remarks in October admitting that Trump conditioned $400 million in military aid on Ukranian election interference, Schiff challenged his jury: “Should the Congress just get over it?” He portrayed impeachment not only as a test for American democracy, but for resistance to the democratic retrenchment underway from autocratic nationalist forces worldwide. Doing so relied on something Schiff and other Democrats consider self-evident.
“There is no serious dispute about the facts,” Schiff said.
But the challenge impeachment has always faced is that the Senate Republicans who will determine Trump’s fate don’t concede that. Right before the hearings began, Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, was asked if he believed it was OK to compel a foreign power to help in an election, including by withholding aid to that end.
"I'm not saying it's OK. I’m not saying it's appropriate,” Braun said. “I'm saying it didn't happen."
Still, over seven hours on Wednesday, Schiff and the impeachment managers methodically placed the facts they consider as plain as daylight into the Senate’s trial record—their first day, out of three total, reserved for them to use up to 24 hours on the Senate floor to make their case.
One by one, the Democratic impeachment managers broke down the case. Nadler detailed the efforts of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer and Ukraine right-hand, to push out Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador in Kyiv. Reps. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) and Val Demings (D-FL) went through Giuliani’s long-standing interest and central role in the Ukraine scheme. Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), an Army Ranger and veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, explored the hold-up in U.S. military aid to Ukraine at stake, and Jeffries dove into why it mattered.
Few in the room had not heard the facts outlined Wednesday, but that wasn’t really the point. Democrats availed themselves of something new—an extended, virtually uninterrupted block of time with wall-to-wall media coverage—to argue that Trump is guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, the two charges outlined in the articles of impeachment passed by the House.
If the Democrats’ appeals to the public, and the jury, were clear, the actual jurors’ reactions were not. The members of the Senate largely sat—stone-faced or restless, scribbling the occasional note or staring off into space—as they heard Democrats’ arguments.
Many of them were visibly exhausted, having already sat through 12 hours of debating and voting that kept them in the chamber until two o’clock on Wednesday morning.
At times they nodded off, only to moments later let their feelings show—particularly when the impeachment managers ran video clips to support their case. When Schiff played Trump’s infamous “Russia, if you’re listening” comments encouraging Russia to hack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) let out a disbelieving chuckle and shook his head, exchanging a brief glance with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) in the row ahead.
While Democrats played another video clip showing a blustery Trump, several GOP senators smirked and chuckled. Another moment underscored the unusual situation of one Republican juror who is also something of a witness: when Garcia referenced impeachment witness testimony that called the U.S. delegation to Zelensky’s inaugural “less senior,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), with a laugh, turned in his seat toward a senator who was part of that delegation: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI).
The scene revealed a bit of the bind Schiff and the other Democrats are in—almost certainly a terminal one for impeachment. Appeals to history will be less compelling to legislators than their immediate political interests. And for three years, the interests of Republican legislators include not angering a president who is regularly more popular with their constituents than they are.
At a press conference moments before Schiff spoke, Graham—one of Trump’s staunchest defenders—reprised his fury at Democrats from the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. “If I were the president, I wouldn't cooperate with these guys at all,” Graham fumed. “You can say what you want about me. But I’m covering up nothing. I’m exposing your hatred of this president to the point that you would destroy the institution.”
The bitter debate over cover-ups, and who is responsible for them, is set to intensify as senators draw closer to a vote on whether or not to subpoena additional witnesses and evidence for the trial. The rules for the trial, passed early Wednesday, provide for that vote after each side makes their case, and many senators who could offer a decisive vote for new evidence are staying quiet on the subject until arguments conclude.
On Wednesday, top Democrats threw cold water on chatter that they might agree with Republicans on the idea of a witness swap—allowing former National Security Adviser John Bolton to testify, for example, in exchange for former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, a figure Trump’s defenders proclaim as justification for Trump’s insistence that Zelensky investigate “corruption.”
“I think that’s off the table,” said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “That trade is not on the table.”
For now, most senators seemed to settle into a wait-and-see posture as arguments began. Republicans seemed eager to move past the three days of Democratic arguments and hear from a group that has been far less visible during the months-long impeachment process: Trump’s defense team.
“I think this whole thing pivots on the defense, what President Trump’s team is going to do,” Braun told reporters. “I think that’s all in a void really until you hear what we haven’t heard in general through the whole process… the defense.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic impeachment managers and aides settled into the crucial three days that will define their case. Spread out over their table set up on the floor of the Senate were binders and notepads, Kleenex and water, a tin of Altoids and a plastic bag filled with Ricola throat lozenges.
As a long and fateful day unfolded, in which Democrats hoped that contextualizing Trump’s offenses within constitutional history and geopolitics will be enough to move 20 Republicans, they would need the strongest voices they could summon.