WASHINGTON — The Senate on Saturday began hearing closing arguments in former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial after reaching a bipartisan deal to skip hearing witness testimony.
Both sides have been eager to wrap up the trial, with Democrats needing Senate floor time to advance a Covid-19 relief package and Republicans wanting to put behind them the Jan. 6 Capitol riot Trump is accused of inciting.
But shortly after the Senate reconvened Saturday, House impeachment managers made a surprise decision to request testimony from a Republican member of Congress who said Trump rejected a plea for help during the violence.
The Senate voted mostly along party lines, 55 to 45, to begin the process of allowing witnesses to be considered. Five Republicans — Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — sided with Democratic senators on the motion.
Trump's defense team fumed at the call for witnesses and vowed to demand "at least over 100 depositions" if Democrats brought any forward. After a couple hours delay, both sides agreed to a deal to enter a statement by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., into the record as evidence.
The agreement to drop witnesses came after Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., warned that playing out the motions could push the trial “well into March” and prohibit the Senate from conducting floor business.
He said witnesses would be a waste of time."Everybody knows it's not going to make a difference anyway," he told reporters.
After a break, lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., returned to read Herrera Beutler's statement aloud before the Democratic managers proceeded with their closing arguments.
Herrera Beutler, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, put out a statement late Friday night detailing what she said House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told her of a phone call he had with Trump during the Capitol attack. According to Herrera Beutler, Trump dismissed McCarthy's request for help and sided with rioters.
“When McCarthy finally reached the president on January 6 and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the president initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol," Herrera Beutler said McCarthy told her.
According to Herrera Beutler: "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.'"
Raskin initially said he wanted to subpoena Herrera Beutler to testify via teleconference and to subpoena any notes she took on the call, while leaving the door open to other subpoenas as well.
"Needless to say, this is an additional critical piece of corroborating evidence, further confirming the charges before you as well as the president's willful dereliction of duty and desertion of duty as commander in chief of the United States, his state of mind, and his further incitement of the insurrection," Raskin told senators.
Trump's actions and intent during the riot remain largely a mystery to the public and a key question for many senators.
Several Republicans seen as swing voters in the trial asked Trump's lawyers Friday about what the then-president did to stop the tumult, but the defense largely refused to answer, saying they didn't know because Democrats had moved too quickly to impeach Trump before an investigation could be completed.
Seventeen Republicans would need to join all the Democrats in order for the Senate to convict Trump on a single article of impeachment accusing him of inciting the Jan. 6 riot, and many doubted that any new information from witnesses would swing that many GOP senators.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told colleagues Saturday prior to the vote over witnesses that he plans to vote to acquit Trump.
In his closing remarks, Raskin summarized the evidence the prosecution presented and praised Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as a hero for "standing up for the truth" even as the third-highest-ranking House Republican faces ongoing backlash from her party.
Parts of Cheney's Jan. 12 statement backing Trump's impeachment have served as a constant refrain for House managers throughout the trial: "The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the president."
Raskin also warned that acquitting Trump now would license further incitement of violence in the future.
"We've offered you overwhelming and irrefutable and certainly unrefuted evidence that former President Trump incited this insurrection against us," Raskin said. “President Trump must be convicted for the safety and security of our democracy and our people.”
In his own closing remarks, Trump attorney Michael van der Veen kept up the belligerent tone that defined the defense over the course of the trial, accusing the prosecution of "desperate" and "brazenly dishonest" arguments.
He blamed last year's Black Lives Matter protests for creating a culture that, he claimed without evidence, led the Trump supporters who ransacked the Capitol into believing they would get away with it.
"Let me be clear, there can be no excuse for the depraved actions of the rioters here at the Capitol," Van der Veen said. "As a nation we must ask ourselves: How did we arrive at this place where rioting and pillaging would become commonplace?"
And van der Veen said convicting Trump would create a slippery slope towards constant impeachments.
"If the Senate endorses the House Democrats' absurd new theory, you will set a new precedent that will trouble leaders from both parties literally for centuries to come," Van der Veen said. "You do not have to indulge this impeachment lust."