The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate to emerge from impeachment trial guilty of extreme partisanship

President Trump's lawyers concluded their defense, and after 16 hours of questioning, the Senate voted against calling witnesses like John Bolton to testify. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The Senate is poised to end its impeachment trial of President Trump far deeper in the partisan trenches than when it started.

That’s a remarkable feat given how deep the Senate has already descended the past decade, but conversations with several of the more widely respected senators revealed a troubling state of affairs that looks nothing like the last time the supposedly august chamber came out of a presidential impeachment trial.

“I’ve got to figure out where we go from here, because right now, my view, this is the saddest day that I’ve seen in the Senate,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Friday. “I’m really disgusted with everybody, just really — the House, the Senate, the Republicans, the Democrats. It’s just a sad day.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), known for an easygoing Western demeanor, expressed just as much rage.

“This was run hyperpartisan, and I think everybody is very angry and so that’s where we are, and I think it will take a while for people to settle down,” Udall said Friday night as he left the Capitol for a weekend break from the trial.

And Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, posted a picture of the Capitol dome at sunrise Saturday with a diatribe about today’s Senate.

“I try not to make these posts overtly political, but yesterday was the most disappointing and dispiriting day since I started this job 7 years ago. For the first time in American history, we are about to complete an impeachment trial without the Senate calling a single witness,” King wrote on Instagram.

President Trump criticized Democrats over impeachment efforts during a Des Moines rally on Jan. 30. (Video: The Washington Post)

So much for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s prediction on Jan. 15, when the House articles of impeachment first arrived, that the Senate would rise above “factional fervor” and bring the nation together.

Instead, when the verdict is rendered with a public roll call Wednesday, the trial will serve as a three-week microcosm of the modern Senate. It has become a completely top-down institution in which the rank-and-file senators feel marginalized, if not completely ignored, and the days of ad hoc bipartisan groups helping cool political passions have vanished.

If the Senate itself were on trial, “guilty” would win the vote in a landslide.

Trump’s legal team has multiple arguments against impeachment. Letting the voters decide is the latest rationale.

Part of the problem is the senators themselves and their unwillingness to actually do anything about their anger.

Murkowski issued a statement Friday morning, before the vote on having more witnesses, declaring “Congress has failed.” She said the Senate was incapable of holding a “fair trial” but did not spell out the causes, other than taking a thinly veiled shot at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for her question Thursday about the “legitimacy” of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. overseeing a trial with no witnesses.

Had Murkowski voted to call more witnesses, the tally would have been 50-50 and, as he later said, Roberts had no intention of weighing in with a tiebreaker vote. She seemed to indicate that one reason for voting against witnesses was to spare Roberts from a decision that could open him to attacks.

Yet later, in an interview, she declined to say what Republicans had done that so angered her. “That will be a conversation for a later time,” she said, drawing a long breath, “when I’ve just kind of taken a deep breath.”

For all their griping about the firm grip McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) have on their caucuses, none of the rank-and-file senators made a single real effort to negotiate their own compromise on witnesses.

“Nope. I’ve made phone calls, I’ve sent emails,” Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said Friday. “And the returns have been polite but brief.”

Just 16 months ago, Coons and then-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) angered both leaders when they forced an extra week of consideration of the nomination of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, allowing for a bit more work by the FBI on an allegation of sexual assault he was accused of committing when he was a teenager. He denied the charge.

This time, senators spoke so little to one another that some Democrats believed Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) might lead a GOP rebellion to call witnesses — when in fact Alexander never viewed the case as anywhere near his threshold for removing a president.

McConnell claimed he would model this trial on the 1999 impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, with a format that would allow the House managers to present their case, have the president’s legal team rebut it and then go into a two-day question-and-answer session.

That much resembled the Clinton trial over the past two weeks, but little else did.

Back then the Senate called three witnesses and held private, videotaped depositions. Democrats are furious that Republicans fell in line behind McConnell and Trump’s legal team in blocking witnesses.

But there’s a more glaring difference, something that speaks volumes about today’s Senate. When the presentations ended in 1999, the Senate closed its doors and held off-the-record deliberations that spanned more than 22 hours over three days.

Some decried the private sessions as a blow against transparency, but the senators of that era have long recalled those jury deliberations as one of their most meaningful experiences — they talked to one another; they didn’t preen for the cameras.

Instead of such an experience this time, McConnell and Schumer negotiated a deal to adjourn the chamber for the weekend, hold closing arguments Monday and then allow senators to give public speeches explaining their votes until the scheduled 4 p.m. Wednesday vote.

Even Alexander said he doesn’t see the point of private deliberations.

“I don’t really see the need — the question is, did he do it? We had nine days of presentation, of arguments, and 11-hour days, we had nearly 200 witnesses’ video clips shown to us,” Alexander said in an interview Friday.

Least deliberative Senate faces weighty task of holding Trump’s impeachment trial

He believes Trump did everything he is accused of but that the crime does not rise to the level of removing him from office. “I don’t see what there is to deliberate about,” Alexander said.

Udall thinks this is a big mistake. In 2010 he served on a special committee to run an impeachment trial of a federal judge, which led to a period of closed-door deliberations. “Everybody dropped their pretensions, they were asking us questions, they were agonizing with themselves,” he said.

In the coming days, with speeches for the cameras, Udall expects more heated partisan warfare. Retiring at the end of the year, he wanted his final year in office to be focused on his policy issues rather than raising $15 million for a reelection campaign.

Does he feel liberated from fundraising?

“Not after this. No, no, no,” Udall said. “This is a pretty sour experience.”

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