It’s hard to extract much dramatic conflict from an event where one side is refusing to engage with the other. In Tuesday’s marathon opening to the Senate impeachment trial, the preordained series of 53–47 party-line votes (and one 52–48 vote) in favor of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s preferred trial rules had not been in serious doubt since he announced last week that he had the votes he needed to push through his plan to protect President Donald Trump. That mostly just left, for spectacle, House managers’ desperate efforts to move the brute force of McConnell’s vote machine with “reason” and “facts.”
But toward the end of those crushing series of votes—against evidence production, witness subpoenas, and anything that resembles the standard definition of a trial—Rep. Jerry Nadler, House manager and chair of the Judiciary Committee, appeared to momentarily lose his cool.
“I’m sad to say I see a lot of senators voting for a cover-up, voting to deny witnesses, an absolutely indefensible vote,” said Nadler, seeming to stumble for a moment through improvised remarks. “Obviously, a treacherous vote,” Nadler added, in describing McConnell’s open whitewash tactics and the actions of any senator who supported them. “A vote against an honest trial, a vote against the United States.”
The moment the words “treacherous” and “vote against the United States” came out of Nadler’s mouth, the Republicans decided to stop ignoring the impeachment managers’ remarks. There weren’t enough fainting couches in the nation’s capital to catch Trump’s protectors, as every friendly arm of government swooned in outrage.
First, it was the executive branch’s turn, with Trump impeachment attorney and White House counsel Pat Cipollone intoning with all solemnity: “We’ve been respectful of the Senate, we’ve made our arguments to you, and you don’t deserve and we don’t deserve what just happened. Mr. Nadler came up here and made false allegations against our team. He made false allegations against all of you. He accused you of a cover-up.”
Next on the couch came the George W. Bush–appointed chief justice and the trial’s presiding officer, John Roberts, to admonish Nadler and unclear individuals on the other side.
“I think it appropriate at this point 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,” Roberts said. “One reason it has earned that title is that its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse.”
Roberts even had an anecdote handy for just such an opportunity to restore honor and dignity to a sham trial to acquit a president who has attempted to use the powers of his office to steal the next election and then attempted to cover that cheating up. “In the 1905 Swain trial, a senator objected when one of the managers used the word ‘pettifogging’ and the presiding officer said the word ought not to have been used,” Roberts said. “I don’t think we need to aspire to that high a standard, but I do think those addressing the Senate should remember where they are.”
By around the start of Wednesday’s proceedings, the pettifogging over Nadler’s use of “language that is not conducive to civil discourse” had extended from Republicans in the executive to the judiciary to the legislative.
According to Bloomberg News, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri counted his Republican colleagues as alienated by Nadler’s remarks. “If the goal was to persuade, they took a huge step backward last night,” he said.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who would be considered a swing vote if the issue of witnesses or documents or a fair trial were ever to have a legitimate chance at consideration, was similarly undone by Nadler’s incivility. “As one who is listening intently and working hard to get to a fair process, I was offended,” she said.
A litany of other Senate Republicans professed similar offense, the Washington Post reported, and even some on the Democratic side seemed to rebuke Nadler. “I’m sorry it was necessary, but I think it was appropriate to remind us that we have to maintain decorum and respect for one another throughout this process,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois of the chief justice’s admonishment. “Emotions were running high on both sides.”
Nadler’s allegation—that senators are engaging in a cover-up for Trump—is one Democrats have been pledging to make since shortly before last month’s House impeachment vote, when McConnell promised he would “take my cues from the president’s lawyers” and that there would “be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this.”
By the time Nadler spoke, McConnell’s promise to work hand in glove with Trump’s defense counsel had effectively been endorsed by every Republican senator. Nadler was merely describing the reality that a vote to block evidence and witnesses is a vote to hide the facts of Trump’s abuses of power. Some might call that “treacherous” and a “vote against the United States,” but it probably was unwise to say it to a jury that had still not definitively and finally decided the question.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead House manager and Intelligence Committee chairman, spent Wednesday morning doing cleanup for Nadler. First, he stepped in to protect Nadler from questions about the incident and initially avoided the question himself. Then he seemed to excuse Nadler, offering that when “you require litigants who are going at it for the entire day to go into the wee hours, you’re going to have tempers flare.” Finally, at the start of his Wednesday presentation, Schiff seemed to go out of his way to be extra solicitous to both the chief justice and the Senate. “I want to begin by thanking you, Chief Justice, for a very long day, for the way you have presided over these proceedings,” Schiff said. “And I want to thank the senators also. We went well in the morning as you know, I believe until 2 in the morning.”
“It was an exhausting day for us, certainly,” he added.
When it came Nadler’s turn to present on Wednesday, he seemed thoroughly chastened. “Before I begin, I would like to thank the chief justice and the senators for your temperate listening and your patience last night as we went into the long hours,” he said. “Truly, thank you.”
“Treachery” had been replaced by “temperateness.”
Nadler’s hangdog expression and Schiff’s genteel comments may have cooled the controversy over Nadler’s poor Senate manners momentarily, but the clear upshot of Tuesday’s proceedings was that the Senate Republican caucus is absolutely united in supporting McConnell’s approach to “taking cues” from Trump’s defense team. As Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky told reporters, “I think as they come over to the Senate side, and they call us liars and cheats and say we’re doing a coverup, and the Senate is on trial … all it does is serve to unify [Republicans].”
Indeed, McConnell’s communications director was bragging about “seizing” on Nadler’s remark. What will follow is going to be the playbook that we have already seen run throughout the impeachment. Whether it was Schiff making a sardonic paraphrase of Trump’s extortion attempt on Ukraine rather than quoting the text of his phone call directly, or an expert witness mentioning, in a clunky throwaway line, that the president’s youngest son is named Barron, the president and his defenders have taken every opportunity to air their grievances at how the Democrats are allegedly mistreating them. When the time comes to vote again on whether to seek the evidence and testimony that the Trump administration has blockaded Congress from getting, McConnell’s side will declare itself so offended by the partisan accusation of doing a cover-up that they will refuse to uncover anything new. It’s easier than defending the president for things he’s more or less openly admitted doing.