“Like a thief in the night.” “Under cover of darkness.” “Dark night of the soul.” There are reasons that warnings about what goes on in the dark are almost cliché.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who seems soulless, probably won’t have a dark night of the soul. McConnell is doing everything he can to protect Donald Trump from suffering consequences for trying to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, withholding congressionally approved military aid, in order to get dirt on political rival Joe Biden. But the GOP leader was forced to cave significantly on day one of the trial he is still trying to rig, when he was prevented from forcing Congress to conduct Trump’s impeachment trial literally under cover of darkness.
In fact, McConnell had to back away from two of his noxious proposed trial “rules”: One gave each side two 12-hour sessions, running from 1 pm to 1 am—meaning mostly at night, after many Americans had gone to bed—to present its case. The other, maybe as corrupt, blocked House impeachment evidence from being automatically entered into the record. That cave-in heralded the way the rest of day one went, with Democrats rolling over Trump’s cowardly GOP defenders, even if they didn’t have the votes to win on amendments.
McConnell released those toxic rules in the dead of night Monday, but on a cold, sunny Tuesday in Washington, DC, he had to back off. CNN reported that “about” 15 GOP senators ganged up on him at lunch, protesting the flagrantly unfair rules, and McConnell caved. (Republican senators apparently prefer rules that are unflagrantly unfair.) The majority leader then proposed three eight-hour days, still totaling 24 hours, for each side to make its case, and automatically entering House impeachment evidence into the trial record (unless someone can get 51 votes to exclude it).
It’s possible it was all a gambit to give moderates a win and to keep them together on later votes—as McConnell mostly succeeded in doing, Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning, on a series of 11 amendments to Senate trial rules presented by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. But the day made clear that McConnell, who’s been strutting like a bully since the House impeached Trump, had less-than-ironclad control over his caucus. Meanwhile, Schumer played McConnell and the Republicans with a strategy to use amendment after amendment to block the GOP leader’s attempted steamroller on rules. And he blocked it for quite a while.
Again, though, like a thief in the night, McConnell sought the cover of darkness, forcing Schumer to present all 11 amendments from Tuesday into early Wednesday, hoping no voters were still watching. “McConnell could have sent us home at a reasonable hour and reconvened Wednesday, but he’s happy to have as much of this trial happen in the dead of night as possible,” Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy tweeted just after 2 am. “Get ready for more of this.” Nevertheless, “I’m awake” trended on Twitter through the wee small hours of the morning.
Still, Schumer’s gambit paid off, for two key reasons. First, Democrats have now put the vulnerable 2020 GOP senators (Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Maine’s Susan Collins, Arizona’s Martha McSally, and others) on record as voting repeatedly to oppose witness testimony and documentary evidence, when a majority of Americans want both (if they change their votes later, as the embattled Collins has weakly hinted she might, kudos to them!). It also gave House impeachment managers an extra dozen or so hours to present their case, while giving Trump’s overmatched defense team—Jay Sekulow, Pat Cipollone, Patrick Philbin, Mike Purpura, and Pam Bondi—many extra hours to lie and be terrible.
Schumer and the House managers have clearly realized that their real audience is less the Senate GOP than the American people. Trump’s lawyers are only playing to an audience of one—Trump—and even did that badly.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff treated every one of Schumer’s 11 amendments as an opportunity to press the House case against Trump in different ways. Democrats moved to subpoena records from the White House, State Department, Budget Office, and Defense Department, as well as Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, former national security adviser John Bolton, and other OMB officials. There were also several procedural amendments, and Susan Collins even voted for one: to extend the amount of time House managers would have to reply to written motions during the trial, breaking the strict party-line monotony.
But if the predictable votes were monotonous, the Senate’s 13-hour day was not. For 13 hours, embarrassing videos, e-mails and memos played on screens around the Senate hearing room, presenting the greatest hits of Trump’s Ukraine corruption, as well as new evidence that has emerged since the articles of impeachment passed. One sign that Trump’s lawyers were overmatched: They brought no such audio-visual aids to enliven their arguments.
Schiff reminded us that Mulvaney, who’s ducking requests to testify, essentially confirmed that Trump held foreign aid over Zelensky’s head back in September: “I have news for everybody: Get over it,” Mulvaney blared from four Senate television screens. “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” (Fellow impeachment manager Hakeem Jeffries ran it again for the prime-time audience.) Representative Val Demings showed us clips of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow’s devastating interview with indicted Trump and Rudy Giuliani crony Lev Parnas.
Jeffries also played testimony by national security adviser Fiona Hill, who testified about learning that European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland, a million-dollar Trump contributor, was on a mere “domestic political errand” in Ukraine, seeking dirt on Biden. We repeatedly saw Hill, Sondland, and former Ukraine special envoy Bill Taylor testify to the House about their concerns over the military aid holdup. As Schiff had before, Jeffries shared video of Trump saying he’d love to have Mulvaney, former energy secretary Rick Perry, and others testify. First-term Representative Jason Crow, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran from Colorado, presented the case for the subpoena of Defense Department documents. He laid out a series of Pentagon and OMB e-mails featuring career civil servants increasingly alarmed by Trump’s corruption in withholding congressionally approved aid to punish a political opponent. (Hours after Crow’s eloquent presentation, more such damning e-mails were released.)
But Crow made Trump’s corruption personal.“I do know what it’s like not to have equipment that you need. That’s why the men and women of the Defense Department repeatedly made the case that military aid to Ukraine was important…. This, ladies and gentlemen, was a national disgrace.”
“They were very detailed and rich in the facts of the case,” CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin said of the impeachment managers Tuesday night. It’s also possible that at least a few of the GOP senators in the room—deprived of their electronic devices and forced to listen, or sleep—as well as Americans at home, had never seen or heard any of that impeachment testimony. It was smart strategy from Democrats who haven’t always, during the Trump nightmare, been smart and strategic. Some of the best presentations, like Jeffries’s, happened in prime time.
Meanwhile, the White House was severely out-lawyered. With neither slides nor video evidence to keep their Senate audience engaged, Trump’s attorneys lied compulsively about the methods and evidence wielded by House impeachment managers. It would seem there should be penalties for lying to the Senate and the chief justice of the Supreme Court, but apparently there aren’t. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone—who works for the government, but is representing the president in what is essentially a private matter—and Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow did most of the heavy lifting, spewing lies, half-truths and insults.
Maybe the worst was Cipollone’s claim that Schiff blocked Republicans from entering the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, where many documents and some witnesses were examined. More than 100 GOP House members, from the Intelligence, Judiciary, and Foreign Affairs committees got to enter, and ask questions. Everybody in that room knew the White House counsel was lying.
Cipollone also claimed that Schiff “manufactured a fraudulent version” of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky. In fact, Schiff made clear he was producing a stripped-down, almost satiric version of Trump’s side of the call that day, and has repeated that many times. There was never any confusion about what he was doing.
They repeatedly whined that the House took “33 days” to get the impeachment articles to the Senate, ignoring that the House and Senate took a holiday recess of three weeks. A pause of roughly 10 days, to choose impeachment managers and debate strategy, seems reasonable. They claimed Trump was “denied” access to the House process when in fact he declined every invitation to participate. After 9 pm, they sent in poor Mike Purpura to pinch-hit, and he insisted “security assistance was never mentioned” on the Trump-Zelensky call. Too bad the readout is online, in which Zelensky said: “I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense…. We are almost ready to buy Javelins from the U.S. for defense purposes.”
Then former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, who famously dropped a Trump University lawsuit after the proprietor donated $25,000 to her campaign, made a late-night cameo doing I’m not sure what. All the Trump legal clown car needed was Rudy Giuliani to head off to a promising circus gig.
Well after midnight, the battle continued, with House Judiciary Committee chair (and impeachment manager) Jerry Nadler admonishing GOP senators directly. “So far, I’m sad to say, I see a lot of senators voting for a cover-up. Voting to deny witnesses and obviously a treacherous vote,” Nadler said. “A vote against an honest consideration of the evidence against the president. A vote against an honest trial. A vote against the United States.” Cipollone said Nadler should be “embarrassed”—and finally John Roberts had enough. “I think it is appropriate for me to admonish both the House managers and the president’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body,” he harrumphed mildly. If only Roberts had admonished Trump’s lawyers for repeatedly lying to “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”
It was a long first day, and yes, ultimately the Democrats lost the amendment votes. But they blocked McConnell’s plans for a quick, straight- party-line vote on deeply rigged trial rules; now they’re slightly less rigged. I also wonder if there’s something so fundamentally corrupt and inept about the way Republicans are running the process that people will see through it—that GOP leaders are blocking a fair trial not because Trump is innocent but because he’s guilty. “The American people are not asleep at the wheel of this democracy,” Senator Dick Durbin said Tuesday. Let’s hope he’s right.