Dems weigh witness question as new details about Trump’s conduct revealedFebruary 13, 2021
The House Democrats prosecuting Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection are on the cusp of a major decision: whether to call witnesses to bolster their case.
Though many Senate Democrats have indicated they don’t believe witnesses are necessary to prove that Trump incited the deadly riots that overran the Capitol, new developments have hinted at startling details that could be unearthed if the Senate trial pauses and House impeachment managers are allowed to depose several witnesses.
And a handful of Senate Republicans weighing Trump’s conviction have indicated that these details could be decisive.
In particular, the group of Senate Republicans considering conviction want to know what Trump did while the violence overtook the Capitol. Trump’s defense team has argued that he was immediately “horrified” by what unfolded and took swift action to send aid to Congress. But that account conflicts with those of Trump’s closest allies and news reports citing his top aides. And the House prosecutors have underscored that Trump did virtually nothing to quell the riots as the violence mounted.
Then, on Wednesday night, Sen. Tommy Tuberville revealed to POLITICO that he had informed Trump a little after 2 p.m. on Jan. 6 that insurrectionists had forced the evacuation of Vice President Mike Pence from the Capitol. It was the first indication of precisely when Trump was told about the danger facing Pence — and it came just minutes before Trump, who had yet to issue any public comment on the widely televised violence, tweeted an attack on Pence for his refusal to unilaterally try to overturn the 2020 election results.
Pence has not spoken publicly about that day since the incident.
As the witness question loomed, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell signaled to colleagues that he would be voting to acquit Trump, dashing longshot Democratic hopes for a big surprise from the longtime Trump ally.
Late Friday, a previously revealed anecdote took on new life when Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) pleaded with Pence and others close to Trump to reveal what they know. Herrera Beutler, one of 10 House Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment, reiterated an account of a conversation that Trump had with House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy while rioters ransacked the Capitol.
Herrera Beutler said that in McCarthy’s telling, he pleaded with Trump to call off his supporters. Trump initially responded by denying they were his backers and attributing the breach to left-wing extremists. McCarthy, per Herrera Beutler, rejected Trump’s claim, to which Trump purportedly responded “I guess these people are just more angry about the election and upset than you are.”
Both Tuberville and Herrera Beutler’s anecdotes have revived the witness debate, prompting one Senate Democrat — who just hours earlier on Friday said calling witnesses would be unnecessary — to suggest pausing the trial to depose McCarthy ad Tuberville.
“One way to clear it up? Suspend trial to depose McCarthy and Tuberville under oath and get facts,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “Ask Secret Service to produce for review comms back to White House re VP Pence safety during siege. What did Trump know, and when did he know it?”
On Saturday morning, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) endorsed Whitehouse’s call, saying his colleague “nailed it” in making the case for a trial pause.
While a handful of Democrats still indicated they felt witnesses were unnecessary and might prolong the inevitable, others continued to suggest Saturday morning that they’d like to hear from McCarthy, Tuberville or others. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) lent his name to the effort and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said he specifically wanted to hear from McCarthy.
On Saturday morning, Sen .Tim Kaine (D-Va.) described Trump’s Tuberville call as the “most shocking revelation from trial thus far.” Rather than confront the ensuing violence, Trump “asks Tuberville for help to delay—or stop—calling the election.”
Responding to these developments, a source close to the Trump legal team suggested that if Democrats pursued these witnesses, the trial would get “real ugly, real fast.”
“The first two witnesses that we would call would be Nancy Pelosi and Muriel Bowser. And they can explain why they rejected additional security and national guard help,” said the Trump team source.
The source added that even with this witness testimony, it would have no bearing on whether the Senate should convict Trump since the article of impeachment was about Trump’s incitement of the broader insurrection — not his actions after it began. “The call for witnesses has absolutely nothing to do with the actual article of impeachment that has been filed. The article of impeachment is very specific to incitement,” the source said, echoing an argument lodged by Trump attorney Mark van der Veen Friday.
Importantly, it takes a majority vote of the Senate to call witnesses, and the senators have the power to decide any limits on who should testify and what documents to request.
Republicans like Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) pressed Trump’s trial team about the Tuberville episode during a question-and-answer session on Friday, but they walked away unsatisfied with the response.
“A lot of us are curious about the situation with the vice president,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Saturday morning.
During the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, the Senate recessed for a week while impeachment managers and attorneys deposed three witnesses. When the trial resumed, the parties had a single day to present new evidence before the trial moved to closing arguments.
If Democrats and Trump’s team opt against calling witnesses on Saturday, the trial will move immediately to closing arguments, expected to lat no more than four hours. That would set up a vote on the charge against Trump in the early afternoon.
Trump’s acquittal is the likeliest outcome, with the bulk of Senate Republicans rejecting the trial as an unconstitutional effort to punish a former president. But as many as eight Senate Republicans have signaled openness to conviction with others remaining silent.