The Slatest

Did Democrats Blow It by Not Calling Impeachment Witnesses?

Or do they actually need to focus on COVID relief? A debate.

 In this screenshot taken from a congress.gov webcast, President pro tempore of the United States Senate Patrick Leahy (D-VT) presides on the fifth day of former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial at the U.S. Capitol on February 13, 2021 in Washington, DC.
To call witnesses or not to call witnesses. Photo by congress.gov via Getty Images

Jeremy Stahl: Hi Jordan, how’s your morning going? Mine’s going great. (It is actually not great.) When I woke up on the West Coast to the news that House Manager Jamie Raskin was asking for witnesses in the trial of Donald J. Trump—specifically, Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who could testify that Trump rejected a request for help in the midst of the Capitol assault that he incited—and it looked like the Senate was going to grant that request, I was gleeful. Democrats were finally going to create a fuller record of Trump’s crime on Jan. 6. They were going to do it in a way that also strengthened the cause of prying the Republican Party out of Trump’s insurrectionary grip. As we learned that the two sides would instead cut a deal to reject witnesses and move quickly toward the inevitable acquittal without any further fact-finding, my mood turned glum. Democrats caved. They gave up an opportunity to learn more of the truth of what Trump was doing during the attack and they gave into Republican threats to hold up Senate business while the trial was ongoing. Trump was—as expected—ultimately acquitted 43-57 with seven Republicans joining all Democrats to convict and 43 Republicans voting to acquit. All for what, exactly, I’m not sure. This is my interpretation of the day’s events, but I take it you have a different perspective and I’m eager to hear it.

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Jordan Weissmann: I mean, my morning has been pretty good. I woke up. Cracked open Battle Cry of Freedom while having my coffee.* Then tried a new buttermilk biscuit recipe (they came out excellently), which I served with some cheesy scrambled eggs.

And of course, you know, I kept an eye on Twitter, where it seemed like half my feed went into a full meltdown over this witness issue, which I just cannot bring myself to get worked up about.

There are really two sets of reasons why it just doesn’t feel like that big a deal to me. The micro and the macro. Which do you want to argue about first?

Stahl: That does sound like a much better morning. Let’s start with the big picture and go from there.

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Weissmann: All right, we’ll begin at 10,000 feet and work our way down. I think that there’s this fundamental split, mostly among Democrats who spend a lot of time on Twitter, but also maybe among a few actual elected officials, about how to interpret the Trump era.

One side—which I think is still a little peeved at how Dems conducted the Ukraine-affair impeachment, and wishes the party had turned it into a more sweeping indictment of all Trump’s crimes—believes that if Dems had just made a bit more of a public spectacle over our ex-president’s corruption during the past four years, it would have moved the needle a little more on … something. What exactly, I’m not sure. But something.

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The other side believes that we spent day after day with saturation cable news coverage of all of Trump’s malfeasance, and in the end, the only thing a lot of swing voters seemed to care about was the economy. That group has more or less concluded that if you can give the voters full employment, they’ll let you get away with almost anything, other than botching a world-historic pandemic response. So they just want to get back to passing coronavirus relief.

I’d say I’m 85 to 90 percent with that second group. It’s not that impeachment is a waste of time. I think Democrats were obligated to try after Ukraine, simply as a matter of self-respect—I mean, you couldn’t just let the president get away with trying to solicit foreign election interference—and in order to test the GOP’s willingness to let Trump slide. Likewise, I thought impeachment in the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6 was necessary, because Trump appeared to pose a clear and present danger to the country’s stability; even after Mitch McConnell delayed the trial until after the inauguration, it was still incumbent on the Dems to see the process through, and test whether there were any circumstances under which Republicans were going to turn on Dear Leader.

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We’ve learned what we were going to; The GOP is completely incapable of holding its own leaders accountable for abuses of power. But do I really think this trial, or extending it by a week to wedge in some additional damning testimony, is going to really make a difference in anything other than the history books? Not really. Most voters are going to forget 99 percent of it.

And from there, you get into the micro stuff.

But I’m curious Jeremy, since we’re still at 10,000 feet here; What do you think spending more time on witnesses would have accomplished in the grand scheme of things?

Stahl: From a macro level: I think opinion polls show that corruption in general, and Donald Trump’s corruption in particular, is broadly unpopular. I think the same polls show that Trump’s incitement of the attack on the Capitol was and is broadly unpopular. As for Ukraine, I tend to agree with Jonathan Chait’s argument that that particular impeachment may have actually decided an incredibly close election—were it not for Democrats pressing that matter, maybe Rudy Guliani’s last-minute Hunter Biden smear job is not blocked by social media companies and ignored by mainstream outlets and probably that makes the difference in an election that was decided by 20,000-plus voters in three key states. As for the current question of the political calculus of calling witnesses (putting aside the moral necessity to learn the full truth of Jan. 6): It seems very clear that Republicans thought it was incredibly disadvantageous for witnesses to be called. CNN’s Jim Acosta reported that Trump was “pleased” there would be no witnesses and viewed it as a win. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Joni Ernst were so desperate to stop it that they started issuing wild threats. Multiple reporters have noted that Trump’s legal team was near “implosion” already and may not have survived another week of this trial. And Sen. Ron Johnson—who by the way is up for re-election in a swing state next year—was reportedly so livid about the potential for witnesses that he blew up at his fellow Republican Sen. Mitt Romney on the floor of the Senate. That doesn’t sound like a group of people who are confident that it would be politically advantageous to Trump and the Republican Party, and thus damaging to Democrats, to have witnesses testify that Donald Trump was kicking back and ordering popcorn while a mob he inflamed tried to murder his own vice president. The facts of political advantage or disadvantage aside, and I think this speaks to your broader point about the dueling perspectives of progressives in the age of Trump, there’s a question of whether this would-be dictator can be allowed back into our democratic political system to threaten its very foundation ever again. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski—and apparently Democratic Senate leadership—take the view that Trump has been so damaged by this trial that he can never come back. My view—given that Trump’s ability to come back from humiliation has become a running joke in our politics—is that you can basically never do enough to prove this person’s corruption in an effort to damage him and protect the system. What’s the harm, I guess is the question, in actually putting Donald Trump’s crimes on true trial for once? I’ll let you respond, but maybe let’s move on to the micro questions.

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Weissmann: You’re right that Republicans seemed really unhappy about the idea, which by the way, is absolutely a good reason to call some additional oversight hearings regarding what happened on Jan. 6 and get this testimony on the congressional record. (That would of course also be a great boon to the historical record.)

But that kind of gets us to the micro question of whether or not there’d be trade-offs right now between continuing this trial and focusing on COVID relief. A lot of people on the internet seem convinced Democrats moved on because they’re too cowardly or something, which doesn’t exactly track. (What are they supposed to be afraid of, exactly?) I think part of the confusion is that the Senate won’t be in session next week, so it looks like they’re just taking the time off. But I’ve been talking with a Senate Budget Committee aide, and it sounds like staffers are basically going to be using this time to do all the extremely boring but essential technical work involved in getting the new coronavirus relief bill that’s coming out of the House ready to pass via the reconciliation process, which is stupidly baroque and requires things like “curing” minute technical screwups and making their case to the parliamentarian on whether certain things can be included in the bill under reconciliation.

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Maybe that could have also gone on while depositions took place, but my understanding is that moving on from impeachment basically frees up everybody’s time and focus. Democrats want language on the relief bill done by Feb. 22, so they have ample time to pass it before unemployment benefits expire in mid-March. It sounds like we’re a long way away from there, but this process takes a lot of time and energy, and Democrats want a buffer just in case something weird happens.

So, to me, if moving on from the trial even makes it a little more likely this COVID bill gets wrapped up in time, that’s probably worth it. I just don’t place a super high value on keeping the impeachment spectacle going, given that I don’t think it’s likely to have a long-lasting impact, if it means slowing down the COVID bill at all now.

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Or, as someone else put it much, much more succinctly to me in a DM: “Chuck Schumer came here to piss off Twitter libs and give money to poor kids. And he’s out of Twitter libs to piss off.”

Stahl: I think your reporting there speaks to a point I was going to make about the micro question, though, Jordan, which is—what is stopping them from doing this while the House managers collect their depositions and evidence? They claim they can walk and chew gum at the same time. They had the 54 votes they needed to set whatever rules they wanted within the parameters of the previously agreed-upon impeachment resolution. Their staff was going to spend the next week, either way, working out whether the ordered points of budgetary Byrd Rule fliz-flaz was super cool or totally not, with or without these depositions. So, what precisely have they gained by this? It doesn’t sound like a very strong argument that this would slow things down at all, again given particularly that they are supposed to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time and can set their own rules. It might have certainly taken media attention away from the inner workings of the COVID relief bill, but the only people who follow that stuff anyway are supernerds. (Sorry, Jordan—I’m one, too.) There has been reporting that Ernst could have slowed down the rest of Joe Biden’s Cabinet appointments—particularly judge Merrick Garland’s attorney general appointment—but I have to wonder: What is going to stop them from doing that anyway on other key nominations? I guess: On the micro level, it’s still super unclear to me what they gain from this. That quote about the choice being between witnesses and an urgent and necessary COVID bill from the unnamed source is incredibly self-serving for the majority leader. As I tweeted at you during an earlier conversation (and I still haven’t seen a good answer to this): Why not both?

But anyway: Now this question has been resolved in favor of the position you are advocating for. And I can see the case for moving on (in despair) and not burning the house down because of what I view as a sad and craven tactical failure.

So, moving on: Do you think anything should happen next in terms of holding Trump to account? Some online are consoling themselves with the notion that the former president might still be prosecuted in Fulton County, Georgia, for his effort to intimidate state election officials there into illegally reversing the vote. I am more skeptical that this will actually happen given what we’ve seen today and for a while now about the stomach Democrats lack to forcefully confront Trump’s rampant corruption and likely criminality, but who knows.

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During this trial, Trump’s attorneys have repeatedly brought up that House managers failed to do actual fact-finding in this impeachment as an argument for his acquittal and pointed to a statement from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi calling for an independent, 9/11 Commission–style body to investigate the full facts and mechanics of how the Jan. 6 insurrection went down, who knew what when, and who was most culpable (cough, Trump, cough). Potential Republican witnesses that could have been subpoenaed in a trial and could still be subpoenaed by an independent commission started coming out of the woodwork on Friday evening, starting with Rep. Herrera Beutler, who practically begged other witnesses to come forward, pleading: “To the patriots who were standing next to the former president as these conversations were happening, or even to the former vice president: if you have something to add here, now would be the time.” Indeed, on Saturday morning CNN reported that former Pence national security adviser Keith Kellogg was a direct witness to Trump’s inaction during the attack, and there are surely many more. Leaving these few Republicans who actually have the courage to come forward to confront the president out to dry and to the whims of the Trump mob seems to me like it will only increase the cone of silence around the former president and strengthen him politically going forward. Which is why at the very least, it should be incumbent on them to enact Pelosi’s proposed commission, which you seemed to endorse earlier in this conversation. After the events of Saturday morning, though, I am skeptical that Senate Democrats will have the strength and will (or possibly, just the votes) to do what is necessary, and will once again fail to even seek to hold Trump accountable.

Weissmann: If you’re asking whether Democrats should treat Jan. 6 like it’s Benghazi, except a real scandal and tragedy instead of a made-up one—then yes, I agree!

Once they’ve got COVID relief squared away, it’s going to probably be a month before they’re ready for the next big reconciliation bill, and since they aren’t killing the filibuster—yet, anyway—that means Congress will need to occupy itself with something for a while. A big Jan. 6 commission that gets this stuff on the historical record and puts those responsible for it through the ringer seems completely appropriate on the merits, whether or not it actually moves any votes.

Stahl: At last, we agree.

Correction, Feb. 16, 2021: This article originally misidentified the book Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson as Battle Cry to Freedom.

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