Whether it was two, four, or six hours into House impeachment managers’ opening presentation in Wednesday’s Senate trial, the reviews from most Senate Republicans were the same: House Democrats had nothing “new” to share. Their performance was trite and hackneyed, disappointingly formulaic. Two thumbs down.
“One of the realities that’s already setting in is, just a few hours into their opening arguments, they’re already repeating the same points they made for 13 hours yesterday,” a teed-up Ted Cruz told reporters during the trial’s dinner break. The “Democrats threw a fit yesterday” and “insisted they needed at least three full days to present the arguments,” but “I think we’re going to see an awful lot of repetition, making the same points over and over again,” he claimed. Senators like Mike Braun, Tim Scott, and John Barrasso lamented that they hadn’t “learned” anything from this “rehash” of the same old arguments.*
These weren’t senators caught in the hallway forced to cough up an impromptu reaction. (Those don’t really happen anymore, given the restrictions imposed on the press’s movements during the trial.) These were Republicans who actively made efforts to come to the microphones to address the press. They were transmitting official talking points.
And they weren’t entirely wrong.
Rep. Adam Schiff’s opening two-hour delivery of the case early Wednesday afternoon was an extended, comprehensive version of the same speech he has been making since November. Indeed, he had delivered chunks of that speech over the course of the 13 hours the Senate spent in trial on Tuesday. If newness were the only metric, the prosecution probably could have rested after that marathon session. It certainly could rest after its eight hours concluded on Wednesday, without having to use sessions on Thursday or Friday.
The suffering on the floor was evident by about 3 p.m., when Schiff, well into his presentation, said, after a lengthy pause, “Now let me turn to the second article of impeachment.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell turned his head slightly to the right, toward a staffer, in what passes for him as an expression of shock. A dozen senators, from both parties, made exoduses to their respective cloakrooms.
As the day wore on, the chamber began to resemble an airline cabin during a lengthy flight. Senators would stand up to loosen their legs and look around, as if to decide what to do next, some of them venturing on to stroll around the aisles to get their circulation going. They would go to the bathroom, just to have something to do.
The players began to look less like themselves than impressions of themselves. Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, in his upright posture, looked exactly like an 85-year-old senator whose staff had pleaded with him not to fall asleep. (Everyone understood he was atop the watchlist for Most Likely to Fall Asleep.) Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, slumping, looked exactly like a 78-year-old senator who knew he couldn’t fall asleep but was fighting exhaustion harder than he had even fought Hillary Clinton. He decamped to the cloakroom, where there was food and coffee and privacy, for 45 minutes. Maine Sen. Susan Collins has a reputation for studiously taking notes and she was studiously taking notes—or, at least, writing continuously as they spoke. Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, speaking to reporters after dinner with his perfectly coiffed black hair, two-tone dress shirt, and proud, sharp enunciation of “MY CLIENT,” was the person playing Jay Sekulow in the FX limited-run series about the Trump impeachment.
Boredom and delirium were understandable reactions for elected officials who have closely been paying attention to the case since September. But what do they think, then, of what they claimed to already know? The senators who were assessing the efficacy of Schiff’s presentation on the plane of “new” versus “not new” were doing so as an evasion of how they should be assessing it: as “good” or “bad” behavior on the president’s part.
The trial was structured to allow for that evasion. Republicans have successfully maneuvered around the evidence that already exists for removing Donald Trump from office. Their ability to do so probably wouldn’t change even if damning new information came out, but it’s nevertheless in their interest to keep anything new from coming out. That’s why 13 hours were spent on Tuesday rejecting Democratic amendments to subpoena new witnesses and documents at the outset of the trial. That kind of information that could have infused Schiff’s presentation with the fresh material it was lacking. The strategy was to block Democrats from obtaining new material, and then to mock their presentation for failing to present any new material. In judging it that way, they elide the crucial question: whether Donald Trump had admirably discharged his duties as president in the Ukraine affair.
“Unless the case is litigated different on [House managers’] part, [instead] of just more of it with visual aides, you’re not going to win the game by time of possession,” Sen. Mike Braun told me Tuesday afternoon.
Sure. But did he find what Schiff was documenting about the president’s actions troubling?
“Not any more troubling or less troubling than before,” he said.
Correction, Jan. 23, 2020: This piece originally misspelled John Barrasso’s last name.