House prosecutors Wednesday accused President Donald Trump of abusing his power to try and cheat in the 2020 presidential election, offering a stark portrait of misconduct on the first day of oral arguments in the Senate impeachment trial.
During the House managers’ first day for oral arguments, the White House legal team had to sit and listen without offering a rebuttal. Trump’s defenders cannot present their case in the Senate until House Democrats finish their oral arguments at the end of the week.
Until then, Democrats have the floor, and an opportunity to shape the early narrative in a fast-moving trial that could be over as soon as next week.
Democrats press a familiar case
The Democrats’ opening arguments were familiar to those who followed the impeachment hearings in the House. According to House Intelligence Chairman and lead House impeachment manager Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and the other House prosecutors, there is ample evidence that Trump abused his office by asking a foreign power to hurt a domestic political rival in the 2020 election.
Trump “put his own interest above the national interest,” Schiff argued, by withholding military aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine in an effort to pressure the country to investigate former vice president and 2020 presidential contender Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. The president’s actions represented an attempt to “cheat in an election,” Schiff said.
The charges weren’t new. Democrats did not present new information during their first day of oral arguments, though they say they have been barred from doing so by Senate Republicans who refuse to hear testimony from key witnesses, or view documents being withheld by the White House.
The issue of witnesses has been tabled for now. Democrats cannot try to force a vote on calling new witnesses until both sides finish presenting their arguments. For now, Democrats will have to rely on the evidence they gathered during the House impeachment inquiry.
‘The same points over and over’
The House prosecution’s oral arguments could go for another two days, under the trial rules adopted late Tuesday night. Democrats have signaled they plan to use most, if not all, of the 24 hours they have to make their case. Schiff told reporters the prosecution was assuming some of the senators did not watch all of the House impeachment hearings, and may be receiving some of the information for the first time.
The approach carries some risks, however. Republicans have been grumbling for days that they understand the prosecution’s case, and do not want to hear it repeated. “We’re going to see an awful lot of repetition, [with Democrats] making the same points over and over again,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
As the trial continues, the House prosecutors cannot afford to alienate moderate Republican senators. Democrats will need support from four Republicans to approve a measure calling new witnesses and to obtain documents. Making an exhaustive — and repetitive — case may have the opposite effect. Instead of winning over skeptical senators, Democrats may end up pushing them further away.
No cellphones, no distractions
The Senate sergeant-at-arms starts each day of the Senate trial with an unusual warning that seems out of place in the modern era: “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye! All persons are commanded to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment.”
The language dates back to the first U.S. presidential impeachment trial, in 1868. Much has changed in the century-and-a-half since then. But the scene inside the chamber this week has been remarkably low-tech, preserving the Senate’s reputation as an old-fashioned legislative body that clings tightly to tradition.
Senators are not allowed to speak while the House managers and White House counsel present their case. The lawmakers cannot bring their cellphones or other electronic equipment — such as laptops or smart watches — into the chamber. The rules are being enforced; at least one senator who forgot to leave their phone outside the chamber was seen being asked by a Senate page to put the phone in their desk, though there are some reports of senators sporting Apple watches in the chamber..
As a result, the senators have had no choice but to pay attention. There have been some notable exceptions. Several senators appeared to fall asleep at various points Tuesday night, as the rules debate stretched into the early morning hours. Others, looking bored or tired (or both), got up and walked around to stay alert.
By Wednesday, the senators were wide awake. Most appeared to be following the first day of opening arguments closely. There was plenty of note taking and fewer side conversations. It was a rare moment of relatively undivided focus for lawmakers who typically juggle numerous issues at once. But the presence of several Democratic senators running for president served as a constant reminder that political pressures are lurking outside the chamber.
History, with few disruptions (for now)
The historic setting laid bare the seriousness of the moment, and the political stakes involved for Trump and the senators who must cast a final vote at the end of the trial. It appears there is nothing Democrats can say at this point to change the outcome; the president’s acquittal is a foregone conclusion.
But for viewers tuning into the trial for the first time, the backdrop was dramatic nonetheless: the silent U.S. Senate chamber, where all 100 senators and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts sat listening to allegations that the president committed misdeeds worthy of his removal from office.
On Tuesday, Roberts surprised many by issuing a stern admonishment to both sides to maintain decorum and avoid personal attacks. The chief justice stayed out of the spotlight Wednesday, choosing not to insert himself into the proceedings during the prosecution’s opening arguments. The lone disruption came from a protestor who momentarily brought the trial to a halt when he began screaming in a public gallery inside the chamber. The protester was quickly removed by security and arrested in a hallway outside.
The incident may foreshadow a more chaotic environment in Washington as the trial proceeds. Trump announced Wednesday that he would attend the March for Life rally on the National Mall on Friday. Trump will be the first president to attend the annual gathering of abortion opponents. The rally will take place in view of the Capitol, allowing Trump to criticize the impeachment trial in a speech to supporters at the same time as the Senate weighs the fate of his presidency.