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Democrats back down from calling witnesses at Trump’s impeachment trial

In a late twist, the House impeachment managers requested to subpoena at least one witness. Then they backed down.

House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) speaks during Trump’s second Senate trial on February 10, 2021.
Senate Television/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

In a surprising turn of events, the Senate briefly considered calling witnesses at the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

But then they decided not to.

On Saturday morning, the House impeachment managers requested seeking the testimony of Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) as part of their case that the former president incited an insurrection. The Senate subsequently voted to debate calling witnesses, and briefly, it appeared the trial could stretch on a good deal longer.

But within hours, a deal was struck behind the scenes to avert that outcome. Trump’s team agreed that Herrera Beutler’s testimony would match her public statements, and Democrats agreed to drop their demand for witnesses, paving the way for the trial to conclude later Saturday.

The outcome of the trial wasn’t in serious question, since Democrats never got anywhere near the 17 Republican Senate votes they’d need to convict Trump. (For instance, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he would vote to acquit Trump Saturday morning, ending rumors to the contrary.)

This means the witness question would mainly be about attempting to further unearth facts about what happened, or aimed at hurting Trump’s political support (rather than having a real chance of convicting him). But in the end, political leaders in both parties preferred the trial to end now, rather than dragging it out. Democrats hope to return to a focus on President Biden’s agenda, and Republicans want the focus off Trump’s ugly actions.

Herrera Beutler’s revelations, and Kevin McCarthy’s phone call to Trump, briefly explained

Herrera Beutler became the sudden focus of attention Friday night, after she released a statement recounting what House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told her about a call he had with Trump while the Capitol insurrection was taking place on January 6.

According to Herrera Beutler, McCarthy told her that he asked Trump to forcefully call off the riot, and Trump responded, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” This account indicates that even as the riot unfolded, Trump remained sympathetic to the rioters and reluctant to rein them in.

There had been previous reports that McCarthy had spoken to Trump the day a group of the then-president’s supporters stormed the US Capitol. But CNN reported new details on the matter Friday night, and the report spurred Herrera Beutler — one of just 10 House Republicans to vote in favor of Trump’s second impeachment — to release a statement confirming the account, and calling on other “patriots” with relevant knowledge to come forward.

For weeks, the widespread expectation in Washington was that the House impeachment managers would not request witnesses, acquiescing to a bipartisan desire among party leaders to get the trial over this Saturday.

But the House impeachment managers, led by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), seized on this late revelation and, on Saturday morning, revealed that they would request at least one witness — Rep. Herrera Beutler. Raskin said he wanted to subpoena Herrera Beutler and any contemporaneous notes she had, and to get her testimony by Zoom for an hour or less as soon as she was available.

And Raskin said he might not stop there. He said that if other “patriots” did indeed come forward, as Herrera Beutler requested, he reserved the right to request testimony from them as well.

Trump’s team was furious. “We should close this case out today!” his attorney Michael van der Veen said. He suggested that if the House asked for one witness, he’d want “over 100 witnesses” (though the Senate would have to approve those witness requests).

But though the Senate initially appeared sympathetic to Raskin’s demand — with all Democrats and five Republicans voting to consider witness testimony — behind the scenes, they were far less keen on the idea.

Party leaders on both sides preferred to end the trial quickly, and after a few hours of negotiation, Raskin agreed to back down, so long as Herrera Beutler’s statement was entered into the record and Trump’s team stipulated her testimony would match that statement. And so the trial is headed to its conclusion.