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9 highlights from the impeachment trial this week

House Democrats spent more than 20 hours making their case.

House impeachment managers Reps. Adam Schiff (left) and Jerrold Nadler are seen in the Capitol before the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Trump on January 23, 2020.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

This week, House Democrats, across three days and more than 20 hours, presented their opening arguments for the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Last year, the House charged Trump with two articles of impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Exhaustive, direct, and at times emotional, Democrats’ case established the timeline for Trump’s actions when it came to conditioning military aid for Ukraine on political favors the president demanded. Over and over they emphasized: The president put his own interests above the country’s, and it’s entirely possible he’ll do it again.

“You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump. He’ll do it now. He’s done it before,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, said when making the explicit case for Trump’s removal. “He’ll do it for the next several months. He’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to.”

Democrats also devoted significant time to preempting potential arguments from Trump’s defense, including debunking claims about former Vice President Joe Biden and Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company whose board Biden’s son Hunter sat on. “Vice President Biden’s conduct was uniformly validated by the witnesses in the House investigation who confirmed his conduct was consistent with US policy,” impeachment manager Rep. Sylvia Garcia said.

The days, which began at 1 pm Eastern, as dictated by long-standing Senate rules, were long. And senators were put in a unique position: While serving as jurors inside the chamber, they were barred from talking, using cellphones, or drinking anything besides milk or water.

The trial has forced the upper chamber out of its standard routine and into a new one, introducing some Republican senators to facts about the impeachment inquiry for the first time.

Democrats aimed to connect with these lawmakers by making a two-part plea: Using more than 50 video clips, text screengrabs, and documents, they systematically laid out the evidence in the case. At the same time, they also made an emotional appeal to Republicans’ moral responsibility.

“If you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed,” Schiff said. “Because right matters and the truth matters.” In the near term, Democrats are hoping to sway at least four Senate Republicans to vote in favor of more witnesses and evidence next week. Longer term, they’re trying to shape public opinion, with an election looming later this year.

Here are the nine most important moments that capture this week’s historic, and often surreal, events. Next up, we’ll hear from Trump’s defense team.

Democrats staged a marathon vote on amendments until 2 am Wednesday

Tuesday went much later than most Senate sessions, blowing past both Chuck Grassley’s 9 pm bedtime and that of pretty much everyone else present.

Much of the day was spent in a fiery debate over the rules of the trial. To kick things off, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled a resolution outlining the rules on Monday — and the proposal was met with strong opposition from Democrats, because it postponed a vote on witnesses and additional evidence until later in the trial.

“The McConnell rules seem to be designed by President Trump, for President Trump,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said at the time.

Senate Democrats, led by Schumer, sought to change the measure, and introduced 11 amendments to do so. These covered a range of subjects and forced the Senate to vote on subpoenaing documents from government agencies and subpoenaing witnesses including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

All 11 amendments were shot down by Republicans, who remained almost completely united throughout these votes. As a result, the Senate will again debate the question of whether more testimony and documents will be considered as part of the trial, next week.

By forcing vote after vote, however, Democrats were able to make their point: that they see this trial as skewed in favor of Trump.

Chief Justice John Roberts admonishes Democrats and Republicans

As Vox’s Sean Collins reported, one of the tensest moments during the trial took place in the early hours of Wednesday morning, when Rep. Jerry Nadler accused Senate Republicans of being complicit in a “cover-up” of Trump’s actions.

“Will you choose to be complicit in the president’s cover-up?” Nadler asked. “So far, I’m sad to say I see a lot of senators voting for a cover-up, voting to deny witnesses — an absolutely indefensible vote, obviously a treacherous vote.”

White House counsel Pat Cipollone shot back in a dramatic fashion, arguing that Nadler needed to apologize to the president for his comments. “You don’t deserve, and we don’t deserve, what just happened,” Cipollone told senators, slamming the House case as “false.”

Following this back-and-forth, Chief Justice John Roberts, in one of his most notable moments in the trial thus far, wound up admonishing both of them, cautioning them to remember that they were speaking to the world’s “greatest deliberative body.”

“Those addressing the Senate should remember where they are,” Roberts said.

Later in the week, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told Politico that she had passed Roberts a note expressing her discomfort with Nadler’s rhetoric, shortly before the justice made his remarks.

The Senate has had a longstanding fixation on decorum, and lawmakers including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have previously been disciplined for allegedly “impugning” another senator.

Democrats provided a detailed timeline for Trump’s actions

The first day of House Democrats’ opening arguments were heavily focused on laying out the exact timeline of the charges that Trump faced.

The impeachment managers provided a month-by-month chronology of all the meetings, calls, and emails that led to a hold on military aid to Ukraine, and the recurring demands for political investigations into Joe Biden and alleged 2016 election interference.

Because of the linear and comprehensive presentation, Democrats drew an incredibly effective and easy-to-follow through line with the evidence they have.

“If we don’t stand up to this peril today, we will write the history of our decline with our own hand,” Schiff said.

Democrats also repeatedly called out the ways that additional evidence and witnesses could further bolster the case. Mulvaney was central to inquiries about putting a hold on the military aid to Ukraine, for example, and his testimony would likely shed more light on them.

Schiff asked Republicans to risk their careers

Schiff, in a pointed moment on Wednesday night, called out the political realities that surround this trial.

For Republicans, a vote against Trump either on procedure or on the final conviction could mean they lose support from the GOP base in elections down the line, given how much Republican voters still back Trump. According to a Gallup poll, 88 percent of Republicans approve of the job he’s doing as president. And while roughly a third of Republicans think it’s likely he may have done something illegal, a Pew poll finds that 86 percent do not want to see him removed.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, a vulnerable Republican who initially broke with Trump in his support of the national emergency to fund the border wall, is among the lawmakers to experience the backlash of bucking the president firsthand. While Tillis ultimately reversed his position, he dealt with the threat of a potential primary challenger in his opposition.

Schiff confronted this dynamic head-on this week, calling for Republicans to have the “courage” to make the decision that they think is right, even if it endangers their seat.

“They risked everything, their careers,” Schiff said, when describing the testimony of officials like former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. “And yes, I know what you’re asked to decide may risk yours too. If they can show the courage, so can we.”

In a later statement on Friday, Schiff more explicitly spelled out the pressure senators could be facing from Trump himself, citing a CBS News report, which featured a source noting that lawmakers had been warned they’d find their “head ... on a pike” if they defied the president.

Multiple Republicans rejected this claim and were riled up by this framing as the Democrats’ arguments wrapped. It’s evident, though, that Trump has a strong hold on the GOP — and has been known to threaten those who go against him in the past.

Jerry Nadler dismantled a central plank of Trump’s defense — using Trump defenders Lindsey Graham’s and Alan Dershowitz’s own words

House Democrats spent much of their second day preemptively combating anticipated arguments from Trump’s defense, including the claim that the articles of impeachment don’t meet the threshold that’s needed to remove him from office.

So far, Trump’s counsel has argued that his actions do not constitute a crime or a violation of the law, and as such are not an impeachable offense. This reasoning is flawed for a variety of reasons, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser has explained, and it appears both Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Trump counsel Alan Dershowitz once agreed.

In fact, impeachment manager Rep. Jerry Nadler cited both when he argued that abuse of power is an impeachable offense, a position that many constitutional scholars have reaffirmed.

Graham said much the same when he was an impeachment manager during President Bill Clinton’s trial in 1999: “It doesn’t even 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.”

Sylvia Garcia debunked the Joe Biden and Burisma conspiracy theory

Because Republicans haven’t been able to engage in the substance of the charges that have been brought against Trump, they’ve repeatedly aimed to redirect the focus to former Vice President Joe Biden, who pressed for the firing of Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin when he was in office.

A debunked Republican conspiracy theory has suggested that part of the reason Biden did this was to protect his son Hunter Biden, who was sitting on the board of a natural gas company called Burisma, from further scrutiny.

There is no evidence to suggest this is the case, a point that House impeachment manager Rep. Sylvia Garcia emphasized. “Every witness with knowledge of this issue testified that Vice President Biden was carrying out official US policy,” she said.

Some Republicans argued that Democrats’ focus on Biden was a mistake, because it opened the door to criticism of the candidate. Democrats, meanwhile, likely took this tack because Republicans were going to go after him anyway.

Adam Schiff answered the big question: Why Trump should be removed

One of the key moments of the trial took place on Thursday evening, when Schiff confronted the central question of these proceedings: Should Trump be removed from office?

His arguments were directly aimed at Republicans, who will need to weigh whether they think the president should not only be convicted of the actions he’s charged with, but removed from his post as a result.

Schiff plainly laid out the biggest reason for convicting Trump: to ensure that he doesn’t do all of this again.

“No one is really making the argument, ‘Donald Trump would never do such a thing,’ because of course we know that he would, and of course we know that he did,” Schiff said. “We all know what we’re dealing here with this president.”

He emphasized that Trump could continue to do a lot of damage by prioritizing his personal interests over those of the country, even in the limited time between now and the November election.

“He’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to,” Schiff said. “This is why if you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed.”

Democrats emphasized the importance of acknowledging obstruction of Congress

Friday’s arguments were dedicated heavily to breaking down the case of the second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress.

House Democrats emphasized that the president’s decisions to defy subpoenas for documents, and direct other administration officials to do the same in response to subpoenas for witness testimony, demonstrated Trump’s fixation on simply doing whatever he wants, with little sense of accountability.

By setting a precedent for this type of behavior, Trump was establishing a much more expansive sense of what the president is capable of doing, the managers argue, depriving Congress of its ability to check the executive.

“Only his will goes,” Nadler said. “He is a dictator. This must not stand and that is another reason he must be removed from office.”

As Schiff noted, if a president was fully empowered to obstruct Congress, an impeachment inquiry couldn’t even really take place. “If there is no article two there, let me tell you something, there will be no article one,” he said.

Schiff fact-checked Republicans before they even began arguments

Because of the timing of the impeachment trial, Trump’s defense counsel will now have three days to offer their arguments for the case, and the prosecution will not have the ability to directly respond.

In anticipation of this arrangement, Schiff predicted arguments Republicans were likely to make about what they’ve described as a rigged process, and rebutted them point by point.

  • If they say the process was unfair, because of “secret” depositions in the basement of the Senate that didn’t allow Republicans to participate: “Every Democrat, every Republican on three committees could participate. ... You know how we did it in those super secret depositions, you can look this up yourself because we released the transcripts. We got an hour, they got an hour. We got 45 minutes, they got 45 minutes.”
  • If they attack the impeachment managers: “You can expect attacks on all kinds of members of the House that have nothing to do with the issues before you. And when you hear those attacks, you should ask yourself, ‘Away from what do they want to distract my attention?’ Because nine times out of 10 it will be the president’s misconduct.”
  • If they say calling witnesses will make the trial too long: “Is it too much fatigue to call witnesses and have a fair trial? Are the blessings of freedom so meager that we will not endure the fatigue of a fair trial?”

Schiff said that the Republican arguments serve as a diversion: “When they say the process was unfair, what they really mean is don’t look at what the president did. For God’s sake, don’t look at what the president did.”

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