The US Senate began hearing final arguments on Saturday after reaching a deal not to call witnesses to testify in the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump.
The Senate agreed instead to admit a statement by Republican lawmaker Jaime Herrera Beutler into evidence in the trial.
The last-minute fight over witnesses followed Friday night revelations from Beutler about a heated phone call on the day of the riot between Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that Democrats say establishes Trump’s indifference to the violence.
At issue was whether to subpoena Beutler, one of 10 Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment in the House last month. She said in a statement late Friday that Trump rebuffed a plea from McCarthy to call off the rioters. Democrats consider it key corroborating evidence that confirms the president's “willful dereliction of duty and desertion of duty as commander in chief”.
The Senate impeachment trial was thrown into confusion earlier on Saturday as lawmakers voted to consider hearing witnesses, a step that could have extended the proceedings and delayed a vote on whether the former president incited the deadly Capitol insurrection. The proceedings came to abrupt halt Saturday morning, with even senators seemingly confused about next steps.
Impeachment trials are rare, especially for a president, and the rules are negotiated for each one at the outset. For Trump’s trial, the agreement said if senators agreed to hear witnesses, votes to hear additional testimony would be allowed.
Meanwhile, Republican leader Mitch McConnell made clear that he will vote to acquit Trump, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Closely watched, the GOP leader’s view could influence others in his party.
While most Democrats are expected to convict the former president, acquittal already appeared likely in the chamber, which is split 50-50 with Republicans. A two-thirds majority is required for conviction, requiring 17 Republicans to vote with the Democrats for a conviction.
Lead House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin said Saturday that witnesses were necessary to determine Trump's role in inciting the riot. There were 55 senators who voted to debate his motion to consider witnesses, including Republican Lindsey Graham, who changed his vote in the middle of the count.
Trump lawyers opposed calling witnesses, with attorney Michael van der Veen saying it would open the door to him calling as many as 100. “If you vote for witnesses,” van der Veen said, crossing his arms and then raising them in the air for emphasis, “do not handcuff me by limiting the number of witnesses that I can have.”
'Inciter in chief'
The outcome of the proceedings is expected to influence not only Trump’s political future but that of the senators sworn to deliver impartial justice as jurors.
“What’s important about this trial is that it’s really aimed to some extent at Donald Trump, but it’s more aimed at some president we don’t even know 20 years from now,” said Sen. Angus King, the independent from Maine.
House prosecutors have argued that Trump's rallying cry to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell” for his presidency just as Congress was convening January 6 to certify Joe Biden’s election victory was part of an orchestrated pattern of violent rhetoric and false claims that unleashed the mob. Five people died, including a rioter who was shot and a police officer.
Democrats say that Trump was the “inciter in chief” whose months-long campaign against the election results was rooted in a “big lie” that laid the groundwork for the riot, a violent domestic attack on the Capitol unparalleled in US history.
Trump's lawyers countered in a short three hours Friday that Trump's words were not intended to incite the violence and that impeachment is nothing but a “witch hunt” designed to prevent him from serving in office again.
The lawyers accused Democrats of waging a campaign of “hatred” against the former president as they wrapped up their defense.
They vigorously denied that Trump had incited the riot and they played out-of-context video clips showing Democrats, some of them senators now serving as jurors, also telling supporters to “fight", aiming to establish a parallel with Trump's overheated rhetoric.
“This is ordinarily political rhetoric,” said van der Veen. “Countless politicians have spoken of fighting for our principles.”
Some Republicans maintain the proceedings are unconstitutional, even though the Senate voted at the outset of the trial on this issue and confirmed it has jurisdiction.
Many Republicans representing states where the former president remains popular question whether Trump was fully responsible or if impeachment is the appropriate response. Democrats appear all but united toward conviction.
Trump is the only president to be twice impeached and the first to face trial charges after leaving office.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and Reuters)