Senate Dems blindsided by House Dem push for witnesses

When Senate Democrats stepped onto the floor on Saturday morning, they had no idea the House impeachment managers were about to drop a political grenade in their laps.

While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his members had prepared for the possibility of voting on witnesses, they got no warning that the lead House prosecutor of former President Donald Trump was about to force a vote that sent the trial spiraling into chaos. The impeachment managers spent Friday night and Saturday morning wrestling with the question themselves, according to Democratic sources.

Then Senate Democrats held a 9 a.m. Saturday conference call where members still indicated they were in the dark about House Democratic managers’ plans. The managers didn’t make the final call to force a Senate vote until minutes before the Senate gaveled in at 10 a.m., Democrats said.

“We don’t coordinate with the managers,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), adding that Democratic senators "have social conversations" with their House counterparts but "don’t talk strategy. So we did not know that they were going to request witnesses or not. And that’s how it should have been.”


Summing up the position Democratic senators decided on, Cardin said: “If the managers believe it would help their presentation, we should let them have witnesses.”

Schumer had long deferred to the managers: If they wanted to call witnesses, he said Democrats would support it. But he too was personally surprised when the Senate quickly moved to a bipartisan 55-45 vote to consider possible witnesses, Democrats said.

Some Democratic senators had indicated after their morning call that they didn’t believe witnesses would be called. For a week or more, most in the party have suggested that senators’ experience as witnesses of the Jan. 6 insurrection could be enough to convict Trump of inciting it.

And not every Democratic senator was happy to leap into the unknown by casting a vote that would prolong the trial.

“I have to say I’m concerned. In my mind we have two goals: to maximize the number of Republican votes and to maximize the understanding of the American public" of Trump’s role in the riot, said one Senate Democrat who was torn on the move. “I’m concerned this will not change Republican votes and only make it more confusing.”

The organizing resolution that set parameters for the trial did not rule out witnesses, because Schumer and other Democrats did not want to preclude the House managers from making their own strategic decisions during the trial.

And several developments this week piqued managers’ interest in witnesses. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) confirmed that he had told Trump that Vice President Mike Pence was being evacuated around the same time Trump tweeted an attack on Pence. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) also reiterated her month-old account of a call between the former president and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy on Jan. 6 that Democrats now want to hear more about.

McConnell’s Saturday morning email to GOP colleagues announcing his intention to acquit Trump also complicated what appeared to be the Senate’s glide path toward a Saturday vote — and the acquittal itself.

But now the push for witnesses threatens some Democrats’ call for a quick impeachment trial. While they’ve said Trump should be held accountable, Senate Democrats are also eager to move forward on other priorities including coronavirus relief that are pivotal to President Joe Biden’s early agenda.

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