It will take four Republican senators to break with their party and unite with Democrats to empower Schiff and his team of prosecutors to call witnesses in the case. It will be an uphill climb; all 53 Senate Republicans opposed initial attempts by Democrats to subpoena crucial witnesses on Tuesday night, with only a handful saying they would revisit the issue after both sides present their arguments.
Schiff repeatedly emphasized aspects of the case that would be enhanced with testimony from key witnesses, like acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton.
“The complete story is within your power to request,” Schiff said as the Senate looked on.
But he also insisted that the House’s case was already “overwhelming” and in many ways uncontested.
Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, and six other House impeachment managers already laid out large swaths of their argument on Tuesday during a protracted Senate floor fight over the rules of the proceedings. Democrats treated the all-day affair as the ostensible beginning of their case to remove Trump from office on charges of abusing his power and obstructing a congressional investigation.
Even during the procedural fights — which lasted until nearly 2:00 a.m. while Senate Democrats forced votes on subpoenas for witnesses and documents — tensions between the House managers and the president’s lawyers escalated as the night wore on. At one point, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who presides over the trial, admonished both sides for the heated and increasingly personal rhetoric.
Schiff acknowledged the challenge facing Roberts at the outset of his arguments on Wednesday, thanking him for patience and noting that the House impeachment managers benefited from “adrenaline.”
The House impeached Trump last month for allegedly pressuring Ukraine to investigate his Democratic rivals, a scheme they said was aided by an illegal decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine in order to drive up pressure on the country’s fledgling president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Democrats have argued that Trump released the $391 million in critical military aid only after the House began investigating the matter, and that Trump immediately moved to stonewall the probe, including by denying key witnesses from testifying and ordering a blanket rejection of all requests and subpoenas for documents.
Trump’s legal team — which includes White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and the president’s lead personal attorney Jay Sekulow — repeatedly argued on Tuesday that Trump did nothing wrong, but they did not push back on the claims at the heart of Democrats’ impeachment case. Rather, they delivered a series of broadsides against the House’s procedures, calling the articles of impeachment defective and invalid because they failed to meet the constitutional standards for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
But Schiff pressed the case that Trump endangered national security — jeopardizing the U.S. relationship with Ukraine, which is in an active war against a Russian invasion — to boost his political prospects.
Trump, in a July 25 call with Zelensky, urged the newly elected leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, an ask that came weeks after Trump ordered the hold on military aid and had repeatedly staved off a White House visit that Zelensky had been seeking to showcase a united front with the West. Schiff also noted that Trump, in the same July 25 phone call, raised a “kooky conspiracy theory” that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered with the 2016 election by hacking a Democratic Party server.
Schiff also knitted together the Ukraine scandal with another scandal that has dogged Trump since the start of his presidency: allegations that his campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election. Special counsel Robert Mueller concluded that he lacked evidence to charge any American in the scheme but indicated that Trump welcomed and exploited Russia’s involvement in the election.
In fact, Schiff emphasized that the day Mueller testified to Congress, July 24 — widely seen as the coda of the investigation — fell just one day before Trump spoke to Zelensky to ask for the probes of his adversaries. The day after his call with Zelensky, Trump spoke to an associate and asked about the status of the investigations.
Schiff said much of the House’s case comes down to those “three days in July.”
“In many ways, those three days in July tell so much of the story,” Schiff said. This course of conduct alone should astound all of us who value the sanctity of our elections and who understand that the vast powers of the presidency are reserved only for actions which benefit the country as a whole rather than the political fortunes of any one individual.”
Democrats also argued that Trump enlisted his allies, including personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, to advance the effort, in part by orchestrating a smear campaign against the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, whom they saw as an obstacle to the alleged scheme. Yovanovitch was one of 17 witnesses who testified during the House’s impeachment inquiry, and one of a dozen who told their stories publicly.
So far, the moderate Republicans that the House managers are targeting have kept a low profile, insisting they’re still open-minded about witnesses while Trump’s allies say the Democrats aren’t making a dent.
“When it comes to replacing [Trump] nine months-plus from the election, you got an uphill battle with me,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Though Democrats contend that the evidence they gathered is “overwhelming” and unchallenged, they are urging the Senate to add to their record by calling central witnesses that Trump blocked from their own proceedings.