Democrats had a bombshell witness against former President Trump. And they had the votes to bring her before the country in sizzling impeachment testimony.
So, naturally, they whiffed.
Democrats executed a stunning self-own in the midst of Trump’s historic second impeachment trial on Saturday, by first winning a surprise bipartisan majority vote in favor of calling witnesses and then abandoning their own incendiary idea.
Instead, they struck a deal with Trump’s attorneys to put some written testimony into the record and then carry on toward the trial’s seemingly unavoidable conclusion, expected within a matter of hours: Trump’s acquittal.
Trump’s critics and Democrats exploded with rage and disappointment on social media over what looked like clutching defeat from the jaws of victory, at just the moment when Democrats appeared to be on the verge of publicly holding Trump accountable for role in the January 6 riot at the Capitol Building, which resulted in five deaths. While few think Trump had a chance of being convicted, regardless of whether witnesses appear, the prospect held out the possibility of forcing Trump’s defenders to reckon with damning testimony on live national television.
“A travesty,” tweeted Trump’s niece Mary Trump, who’s emerged as one of her uncle’s most prominent critics since writing a tell-all book about his neuroses and family drama. “Tired of feeling like nobody is fighting for us.”
“Huge huge fuckup,” tweeted Josh Marshall, the journalist founder of Talking Points Memo and frequent Trump-basher.
“I’m struggling to understand the strategy behind calling and winning a vote for witness and then immediately deciding not to call witnesses,” tweeted Ken White, a lawyer who runs the blog Popehat and the podcast about Trump’s legal problems called All the President’s Lawyers.
“What an embarrassment,” tweeted Sarah Longwell, a Republican political strategist who founded Republican Voters Against Trump. “You have a REPUBLICAN CONGRESSWOMAN willing to testify that the President refused to call off the mob when asked by the Republican minority leader. You have Republican Senate votes for witnesses. And you’re just gonna pass?”
“Unbelievable,” responded Olivia Troye, who worked for former Vice President Mike Pence before leaving and publicly criticizing the Trump administration.
The unexpected back-and-forth on the Senate floor played out after news broke of an explosive phone call between Trump and House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy during the Jan. 6 riot on which Trump allegedly derided calls for him to intervene as the mob ransacked the Capitol Building.
“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump supposedly responded after McCarthy urged him to call off the rioters.
Democrats knew exactly who they wanted to ask about this: Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who released a statement on Friday confirming McCarthy told her about it.
In a procedural vote, Democrats won a 55-45 vote to proceed with witnesses, prompting the sudden and unexpected prospect that the impeachment trial might drag on for several days longer.
But then Democrats blinked.
Calling witnesses, of course, risked undermining President Joe Biden’s agenda. A lengthy trial extension could have blocked Biden from confirming his Cabinet and from pushing through his anti-pandemic agenda to save the economy from collapse—with little chance of changing the outcome.
Republicans seem eager to exploit that danger. Trump’s team responded to the prospect of witnesses by threatening to try to call a never-ending clown car full of miscellaneous Democratic officials, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, if Democrats opened “Pandora’s box.”
Yet the logic behind Democrats’ decision remained somewhat opaque, in part because Trump’s supporters would have needed a Senate majority vote for each witness they wanted to call, according to experts on Senate proceedings.
And while GOP moderates like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine joined Democrats to vote in favor of hearing witnesses in general, they gave no signs of wanting to haul random Democrats to testify under oath as a punishment measure.
And if Democrats had only wanted to introduce the testimony to the record, they didn’t need to rile up their own supporters before disappointing them within a space of about an hour on Saturday.