Push to Call Witnesses Throws Impeachment Trial Into Doubt

WASHINGTON — The conclusion of the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump was thrown into doubt on Saturday after the Senate voted to allow witnesses to be called, amid a last-minute push by House prosecutors to subpoena testimony and documents to reveal what the former president was doing as the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol unfolded.

The surprise move to open the trial record came on a day when the Senate had been on track to hand Mr. Trump his second impeachment acquittal, and it threatened to prolong a proceeding that members of both parties have been eager to finish. It came just after the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, had privately told his colleagues he was ready to acquit Mr. Trump, confirming that a conviction was exceedingly unlikely.

Still, the Democratic managers, who had been prepared to forgo witnesses altogether and move to a verdict on Saturday, said they had a change of heart after reading a new account by Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump. In a statement late Friday night, Ms. Herrera Beutler said that Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, had told her that when he called Mr. Trump on Jan. 6 to beg him to call off the mob that had stormed the Capitol, Mr. Trump had sided with the rioters.

“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Mr. Trump is said to have told Mr. McCarthy, according to Ms. Herrera Beutler’s account.

Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland and the lead manager, said he and his team of prosecutors wanted a chance to subpoena Ms. Herrera Beutler, of Washington, for a brief deposition and a copy of contemporaneous notes memorializing the conversation.

“Needless to say, this is an additional critical piece of corroborating evidence, further confirming the charges before you, as well as the president’s willful dereliction of duty as commander in chief of the United States, his state of mind and his further incitement of the insurrection on Jan. 6,” Mr. Raskin said.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers angrily protested. In an attempt to sway senators from a potentially protracted and painful delay, Michael T. van der Veen said that if the managers were able to depose Ms. Herrera Beutler, he would need “at least over 100 depositions” including from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats to do “a thorough investigation that they did not do.”

“Now is the time to end this,” he pleaded. “Now is the time to hear closing arguments. Now is the time to vote your conscience.”

It was a rare moment of unpredictability in a trial that has otherwise appeared preordained. A resolution to the standoff was unclear late Saturday morning. The Senate had voted 55 to 45 to agree in general terms to consider witnesses, with five Republicans — Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska — joining Democrats. Senators would have to take additional votes to actually subpoena individual witnesses or items of evidence, and their leaders paused the trial to try to determine a path forward.

ImageOne of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Michael T. van der Veen, arriving for the fifth day of the trial on Saturday. He angrily protested a last-minute push by House prosecutors to subpoena testimony and documents.
Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Senators in both parties appeared caught between a desire to conclude the all-consuming trial as quickly as possible and a desire to ensure fairness should witnesses ultimately be called. Agreeing to depositions could delay a verdict by days or weeks at a time when both parties want to move on and doubt whether additional information — particularly a secondhand account like Ms. Herrera Beutler’s — would alter the former president’s likely acquittal.

Republican senators, in particular, had been prepared Saturday morning to rally around the former president and acquit him of the charge of “incitement of insurrection.” And even many Democrats began the day saying they had seen all they needed to reach a verdict, and would be comfortable forgoing witnesses.

The managers started the day prepared for the same, but decided at the last minute to pivot before the session convened at 10 a.m. after reading Ms. Herrera Beutler’s account.

A spokesman for Mr. McCarthy did not reply to requests for comment.

In her statement late Friday, Ms. Herrera Beutler pleaded with witnesses to step forward and share what they knew about Mr. Trump’s actions and statements as the attack was underway.

“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,” she said.

Mr. Raskin said the managers would be ready to interview, briefly and by Zoom, any other potential witnesses with information about Mr. Trump’s actions or state of mind on Jan. 6 if they came forward.

The debate came at what was believed to be the end of a lightening-fast trial, which featured chilling video recreating the rampage from inside the Capitol, where the pro-Trump mob brutalized police officers and hunted down Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers.

It would take 17 Republicans joining Democrats to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to find Mr. Trump “guilty,” and a majority to bar him from office. Though a handful of Republicans were open to conviction — potentially more than had have ever ruled against a president of their own party — the vast majority had repeatedly indicated they would vote to acquit for the second time in just over a year.

While party leaders appeared eager to repudiate Mr. Trump, and even some of the former president’s most loyal supporters refused to defend his actions, Republicans were still wary of openly crossing a man who holds unrivaled power with their own voters. They were expected to flock to technical arguments to justify letting him off.

The only other remaining question on Saturday was how many Republican senators would break with their party to support convicting the president. All eyes were fixed on the group of a half-dozen Republican senators contemplating conviction, including Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ms. Collins, Ms. Murkowski, Mr. Romney and Mr. Sasse.

Speculation also centered on a handful of other Republicans — including Senators Rob Portman of Ohio and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina — whose plans to retire meant they would not face the wrath of voters if they were to break with the party. But after Mr. McConnell, who has privately said Mr. Trump’s conduct was impeachable and publicly weighed convicting him, told colleagues Saturday morning he would vote to acquit, it was unlikely the numbers would climb much higher.

“While a close call, I am persuaded that impeachments are a tool primarily of removal and we therefore lack jurisdiction,” Mr. McConnell wrote in an email.

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Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

After Saturday, Democrats had intended to quickly turn Washington’s focus to the new president’s ambitious legislative agenda and the coronavirus pandemic passing grim milestones each day. Whenever it comes, the outcome promised to leave President Biden, who took office pledging to “end this uncivil war,” with the monumental task of moving the nation past one of its most turbulent chapters since the Civil War.

Up to this point, the proceeding could scarcely have been more different than Mr. Trump’s first trial a year ago. Then, the House tried to make its case around an esoteric plot to pressure Ukraine to smear Mr. Biden, and it failed largely on party lines. But over five days this week, the nine House managers put forward a harrowing retelling of a horror that had played out in plain sight.

Using graphic video and sophisticated visual aids, they made clearer than ever before how close the armed mob had come to a dangerous confrontation with Mr. Pence and the members of the House and the Senate. They showed the violent assault on the police, and counted the cost both in lives and to American democracy.

All of it, the prosecutors argued, was the doing of Mr. Trump, who spread lies that the election had been “stolen” from him, cultivated outrage among his followers, encouraged violence, tried to pressure state election officials to overturn democratically decided results and finally assembled and unleashed a mob of his supporters — who openly planned a bloody last stand — to “fight like hell” to “stop the steal.” With no signs of his remorse, they warned he could ignite a repeat if allowed to seek office again.

“Donald Trump summoned the mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame,” Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas told senators on Thursday. “Everything that followed was because of his doing. Though he could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence, he never did.”

After stumbling out of the gate this week with meandering presentations, Mr. Trump’s legal team delivered the president a highly combative and exceedingly brief defense on Friday. Calling the House’s charge a “preposterous and monstrous lie,” they insisted over just three hours that the former president was a “law and order”-loving leader who never meant for his followers to take the words “fight like hell” literally, and could not have foreseen the violence that followed.

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Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

“Like every other politically motivated witch hunt the left has engaged in over the past four years, this impeachment is completely divorced from the facts, the evidence and the interests of the American people,” Mr. van der Veen said. “The Senate should promptly and decisively vote to reject it.”

The presentation had a distinctly Trumpian flair, as Mr. van der Veen and his partners accused Democrats of acting solely out of “hatred” and repeatedly played a loop of videos, set to ominous music as if in a political campaign advertisement, of Democratic politicians using combative language they equated to Mr. Trump’s. The montage appeared intended to summon Republicans who might be weighing a conviction to their partisan corners and back to the former president’s side.

They also offered more technical arguments aimed at giving Republicans refuge for acquittal, arguing that it was not constitutional for the Senate to try a former president and that Mr. Trump’s election lies and bellicose words to his supporters could not be deemed incitement because the First Amendment protected his right to speak freely.

The Senate formally ruled that it had jurisdiction to hear the case on Tuesday, but many Republicans indicated they still disagreed with the outcome and saw it as reason enough to let Mr. Trump off without punishment.

“The trial has really been over since we had the vote on constitutionality, and now it’s just sort of going through the ropes of finishing things up,” said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. “The decision was made a long time ago that this is a partisan impeachment overseen by a partisan Democrat.”

“Needless to say, this is an additional critical piece of corroborating evidence, further confirming the charges before you, as well as the president’s willful dereliction of duty as commander in chief of the United States, his state of mind and his further incitement of the insurrection on Jan. 6,” Mr. Raskin said.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers angrily protested. In an attempt to sway senators from a potentially protracted and painful delay, Michael T. van der Veen said that if the managers were able to depose Ms. Herrera Beutler, he would need “at least over 100 depositions” including from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats to do “a thorough investigation that they did not do.”

“Now is the time to end this,” he pleaded. “Now is the time to hear closing arguments. Now is the time to vote your conscience.”

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