Impeachment trial starts on emotional note as Trump legal team flails

Odds are still stacked against House impeachment managers

Rep. Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, prepares for the start of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Capitol on Feb. 9, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager, prepares for the start of the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Capitol on Feb. 9, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 9, 2021 at 7:21pm

The sound of a fatal gunshot pealed through the Senate chamber during a constitutional debate on Tuesday, as did the profanity-laced chants of a Donald Trump-inspired mob as it attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, part of a video montage House managers played in their direct plea to senators who lived through that day.

Senators from both sides of the aisle had overwhelming stillness and near-uniform focus as it played for 13 minutes. Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz had no reaction as the video showed insurrectionists rifling through his desk on the Senate floor. Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren took off her glasses and leaned forward to watch the screen.

When it concluded, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the lead impeachment manager, told the senators how dangerous it would be if they voted that they do not have the power to hold an impeachment trial for a president who commits misconduct in the final weeks before he leaves office.

“We just saw it in the most astonishing way — we lived through it,” Raskin said.

The Senate voted mostly along party lines, 56-44, that it had jurisdiction to conduct the trial, despite bipartisan agreement that the argument from Trump’s defense team was a mess, but it showed how House managers have a tough task to convince enough Republican senators to convict Trump on a charge of inciting that insurrection.

A week earlier, the Senate had voted almost exactly the same way on a procedural motion about its jurisdiction. The same five Republicans who joined Democrats then also voted to continue the trial this week, as did Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy.

“President Trump’s team was disorganized. They did everything they could but to talk about the question at hand. And when they talked about it, they kind of glided over it, almost as if they were embarrassed of their arguments,” Cassidy said after the vote.

“Now if I’m an impartial juror, and one side is doing a great job and the other side is doing a terrible job on the issue at hand, as an impartial juror, I’m going to vote for the side that did the good job,” Cassidy said.

But South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said something like that wasn’t going to change his mind, and neither would video of the scenes of the mob violence in and around the Capitol. He voted against continuing the trial.

“I mean, it took a long time to get wrapped into the meat of the question. And I thought that the House managers tried to make jurisdiction an impassioned decision. So that didn’t ring my bell,” Graham said. “I’m not going to grant jurisdiction because something bad happened.”

And Indiana Republican Sen. Mike Braun said Tuesday’s vote “pretty well calcifies what the feeling would be on our side.”

Trump attorney Bruce Castor spent about 45 minutes in a rambling statement that addressed some senators directly, suggested to members what they might be thinking, and essentially admitted that Trump lost the election — something the former president has insisted did not happen.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she was stunned and “couldn’t figure out where he was going.” Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said she was “perplexed.” Cruz said Trump’s lawyers “didn’t do the most effective job.”

Eventually, a second Trump attorney, David Schoen, addressed the question directly, telling the senators that impeachment is for a sitting president, not for a private citizen who used to be the president. Going forward with the Trump impeachment trial “literally puts the institution of the presidency directly at risk, nothing less,” he said.

“Every civil officer who has served is at risk of impeachment if any given group, elected to the House, decides that what was thought to be important service to the country when they served now deserves to be canceled,” Schoen said.

Raskin, alongside House managers Joe Neguse of Colorado and David Cicilline of Rhode Island, argued that the real danger was giving future presidents a “January exception” from impeachment just because they are about to leave office on Jan. 20.

“In fact, that’s precisely when we need them the most, because that’s when elections get attacked,” Raskin said. Trump “wants you to decide that the Senate is powerless at that point. That can’t be right.”

‘This cannot be our future’

Raskin, at the end of the presentation, pointed out that the trial is personal for every member of Congress and all the support staff and people who work in the building. People died that day, Raskin said. Officers ended up with head damage, brain damage, gouged eyes, a heart attack, three lost fingers and more. Two officers took their own lives.

“Senators, this cannot be our future. This cannot be the future of America,” Raskin said. “We cannot have presidents inciting and mobilizing mob violence against our government and our institutions because they refuse to accept the will of the people under the Constitution of the United States.”

The House managers begin their presentation Wednesday on the charge that Trump incited the insurrection, one that will include video and focus on telling a story that continues, as newly erected security fencing still surrounds the Capitol building.

The videos and other descriptions of the attack could loom large in the minds of senators who fled for their lives during the attack on their workplace and now decide in that same chamber whether Trump should be held responsible.

Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt said Tuesday’s video showed a tragic day.

“That may be the longest time I’ve sat down and just watched some straight footage of what was truly a horrendous day for the country and around the world,” Blunt said.

Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, when asked how she felt watching the video, said, “It was uncomfortable.”

Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow said the video montage of the day “was more impactful than I thought it was going to be.”

“I found myself at points nervously looking up in the gallery, and there were a couple of times where there were noises of something in the back, somebody dropping something, and I noticed colleagues turning around,” Stabenow said. “A little bit on edge, watching all of that again.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.