But on the third day, the length of the Democrats’ case is what senators are talking about as much as what they’re actually saying. So what did Democrats get out of all their time in a Senate trial?
Their aims are, first, to win over the four Republican senators they need to vote to keep the trial going by calling witnesses, so that House Democrats can subpoena and interview Trump’s top aides. Their second goal is much loftier — to convince 20 Republican senators to join all Democrats and vote to convict Trump and remove him from office. Let’s debate whether they’ve moved the needle.
By spending so much time on the evidence, Democrats are trying to demonstrate that their case against Trump is airtight. They have 24 hours worth of emails, WhatsApp messages, testimony from current and former White House officials, testimony from current and former national security officials, testimony from top diplomats, and much more to talk about. They’ve also combed through nearly every media interview that Trump personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has ever given about Ukraine to weave together a story of how Trump withheld an Oval Office meeting and military aid to force Ukraine to make his Democratic opponents look bad.
But Democrats are also in the difficult position of simultaneously arguing that they have nailed the case against Trump, but that we still need to hear from more people because they haven’t gotten to the bottom of it. That could be a needle they try to thread in their final day of opening arguments, talking about how Trump obstructed Congress’s investigation into Ukraine.
Senate Democrats spent more than 12 hours Tuesday forcing the Senate to vote on amendments to call up more witnesses and documents at the beginning of the trial. All those amendments were voted down.
Late into the night during that witness debate, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), lead impeachment manager, acknowledged how long things were going and tried to use that to his advantage: “We’re making it hard for you to say no,” he said of the decision to call witnesses at the outset. “We’re making it hard for you to deprive Americans of the right of a fair trial.”
So Democrats are going long to show how much they’ve gathered on Trump, but they’re also saying they haven’t heard enough.
Democrats are also trying to show how seriously they are taking what they’ve uncovered. Asking the Senate to throw out a sitting president, less than a year before an election where voters get to decide, is not an easy ask.
So they’re taking their time to show senators and Americans that they have built a strong case for why Trump should go now. House impeachment manager Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) spent nearly an hour Thursday explaining why Trump should be thrown out of office even if he didn’t commit a statutory crime. He was rebutting a common Trump argument as much as explaining Democrats’ decision to impeach to the American people, explaining why House Democrats took that step toward removing the president.
“He must not remain in power one moment longer,” Nadler concluded in those remarks.
But to argue why Trump deserves to go, Democrats risk playing right into his hands — that this impeachment is politically motivated. To prosecute the case against Trump and show how much heft it has, they need to attack the president relentlessly.
Democrats may be bolstered by recent polling. A majority of Americans think Trump should allow his top aides to testify, including 45 percent of Republicans, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. (But that’s lower than an earlier poll, which showed nearly 2 in 3 Republicans supporting Trump allowing his top aides to testify.)
Public opinion matters to some degree, but House impeachment managers need a majority of senators to get Trump’s top aides on the record. That means they need to convince four Senate Republicans to come to their side and vote to extend the trial by including witnesses.
The key phrase there is “extend the trial.” And this is where how much floor time Democrats have taken could really play against them.
At this point, all 100 senators will have been in their seats off and on for nine hours a day, six days a week for some two weeks. Even if some of these swing Senate Republicans think that Trump’s top aides should testify, since Trump blocked them from talking in the House, do they really want to keep this going for another few weeks? (For reference, the Bill Clinton impeachment trial lasted five weeks.)
Senators can’t have their phones while the trial is going on. They can’t talk. Even during the question-and-answer phase, Senate trial rules say they can only write their questions. They don’t have time to legislate or fundraise or do what they need to do to serve their constituents or get reelected.
It’s easy from there to see a majority of senators deciding that, no, they do not want to continue this trial. Especially after four long days dominated by Democrats.
“That’s a long time. How long can you sit and listen to even a subject matter you love?” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told my Washington Post colleagues on Wednesday.
“Old expression: Very few souls are saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon,” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said on Friday.
During a break about an hour ago, Mike Braun and Mitt Romney were talking on the Senate floor.— Mike Warren (@MichaelRWarren) January 24, 2020
Braun: “I think we’ve got another 6 hours.”
Romney: “Oh jeez. No one’s watching!”
Tim Scott later said something to Romney, to which Romney responded, “I’m dying, I’m dying!"
Even if Democrats’ ultimate goal, to get witnesses and then to convict Trump, fails, there could be fringe benefits to taking up 24 hours of the Senate’s time to prosecute Trump. They are drawing attention to their case against him. TV ratings aren’t bad so far. And they are forcing their opponents to sit there and listen, and maybe even make them look bad. Democrats have used tape of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, during the Bill Clinton impeachment to make a point. They named GOP Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Rob Portman (Ohio) as supportive of Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine when he was vice president. They called on the ghosts of Ronald Reagan and John McCain.
In the normal sphere of politics, Republicans could punch right back. But not in a Senate trial. For these three days, Democrats have the stage. And they’re taking it all.