The Senate Must Call Witnesses in the Trial of Donald Trump

House managers want the quick and narrow path. Here’s why that would be a mistake.

Until this evening, the Democratic strategy in impeaching Donald Trump was clear: make the damning case against the former president, but get it over with quickly. The theory behind that approach was also simple: Republicans would never vote to convict, and the Biden administration wants to get down to the business of governing. This approach was not without its critics. As Greg Sargent noted, making the case narrowly about Trump lets the entire Republican Party off the hook for its radicalization and complicity in Trump’s crimes. Moreover, failing to call witnesses would leave crucial facts in doubt about the nature and the timeline of Trump’s actions on the day of the January 6th insurrection. Still, House impeachment managers chose the quick and narrow path, using almost entirely publicly available information to make their case.

But explosive evidence over the last few hours has made it imperative that this strategy be reconsidered. The Senate cannot responsibly vote on Donald Trump’s guilt without hearing the full facts of the case from witnesses under oath.

First, a brand new story this evening, sourced from multiple Republican legislators, alleges that even as Trump’s own insurrectionist mob was ransacking the Capitol and marking both Vice-President Pence and members of Congress for death, Trump mocked GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for not caring as much about helping him overturn democracy as the insurrectionists did.

In an expletive-laced phone call with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy while the Capitol was under attack, then-President Donald Trump said the rioters cared more about the election results than McCarthy did.

“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump said, according to lawmakers who were briefed on the call afterward by McCarthy.

McCarthy insisted that the rioters were Trump’s supporters and begged Trump to call them off.

Trump’s comment set off what Republican lawmakers familiar with the call described as a shouting match between the two men. A furious McCarthy told the then-President the rioters were breaking into his office through the windows, and asked Trump, “Who the f–k do you think you are talking to?” according to a Republican lawmaker familiar with the call.

We already know that Trump and/or his immediate appointees delayed for hours before sending assistance to the Capitol. If Trump was indeed more supportive of the marauders and would-be assassins in the Capitol than of his own duly elected allies in Congress, it would speak to his state of mind and his motivations. As Ohio Republican Anthony Gonzalez said:

“He was not sorry to see his unyieldingly loyal vice president or the Congress under attack by the mob he inspired. In fact, it seems he was happy about it or at the least enjoyed the scenes that were horrifying to most Americans across the country.”

Minority Leader McCarthy and other Republicans who were a party to the call, or who may also have been in communication with the president and his team, should be asked to testify under oath about their conversations with the former president on that day. Even though the case against Trump is already damning enough, the Senate cannot reasonably make a fully informed decision without this new information.

The second and perhaps even more explosive story involves the timing of a conversation between Trump and Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Tommy Tuberville (R-AL). Trump appears to have been fully aware of the danger to former Vice President Mike Pence’s life before sending another tweet attacking him for lacking the “courage to do what should have been done.”

At 2:13 p.m., security agents removed Pence from the Senate floor. As a matter of protocol, the White House security team was frequently informed of any movement or incident involving the vice president that was not routine. A senior administration official said he finds it inconceivable that Trump and his senior team would not have been alerted that Pence was being evacuated from the Senate.

At 2:24 p.m., Trump sent out a tweet attacking his No. 2. “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution,” he wrote.

Trump never called Pence to check on his well-being after the attack began.

The President would have been routinely informed of the Vice President’s movements and whereabouts. But regardless, Senator Tuberville confirmed this evening that he did in fact inform the president that Mike Pence’s life was in danger. Trump’s attorneys knew how devastating this would be for their case and dismissed it as “hearsay.” Senator Lee claims the call occurred minutes after Trump’s tweet (the call allegedly came to Lee’s phone which was then handed to Tuberville), but Lee’s statements cannot be trusted without verification.

The implications are so important that Senators Tuberville and Lee should be subpoenaed to testify under oath, and the Secret Service should verify the time records of the call.

Indeed, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) already suggested just hours ago that the trial be suspended to allow McCarthy and Tuberville to testify. Senator Van Hollen (D-MD) agrees that new witness testimony would be welcome.

But there is no reason to stop at Tuberville and McCarthy. There is a vacuum of information outside of anonymously sourced reports about Trump’s actions and state of mind both during the sacking of the Capitol and in the days preceding it. What did Trump know and when did he know it? Steven Bannon knew what was coming well in advance. It seems unlikely that Trump himself had no inkling not only of what might happen, but what would happen.

The Pentagon appointees who refused to allow more assistance to the Capitol police in advance should be brought in to answer questions under oath. Those who were immediately close to the former President as the insurrection developed should be forced to testify about his words, actions and state of mind over those crucial hours, including but not limited to Mark Meadows.

Last but not least, many of the insurrectionists themselves should be asked testify under oath about about their own actions, and why they committed the crimes they did. Many allegedly feel so betrayed by Trump that they might do so eagerly and voluntarily. The heart of Trump’s defense is that Trump encouraged them to be peaceful, and the riots were either spontaneous of their own accord or planned in advance by others. Further, conspiracy theories are abounding in conservative circles that the insurrectionists were either random crackpots or leftist agitators. If the rioters themselves confirm that they acted because they genuinely believed it was what Trump asked them to do, it would do much puncture these conspiracy theories and devastate Trump’s already shaky defense.

Nor is it persuasive that the trial must end soon so that legislative work can begin. The Senate is not scheduled to be in session next week. If Senate leaders wanted to, they could easily schedule floor votes and committee work for the morning, then schedule impeachment trial testimony for a few hours in the afternoon. That could last for weeks if necessary. Finally, the stakes for democracy are so high that it’s worth getting this right–even if the end result only serves to underscore the breathtaking cowardice and moral degeneracy of the Senators who vote to acquit.

It would be a terrible and embarrassing outcome if a rush to finish the trial were followed by damning new revelations after the occasion for accountability has already passed–and Democrats would have only themselves to blame for it.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist, and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly’s “Political Animal” and president of the Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.