The first full day of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors felt more like Groundhog Day than The West Wing.
On Tuesday, the Senate spent the day and much of the night debating rules drawn up by Republican leader Mitch McConnell that would limit any effort to call witnesses or subpoena documents until long into the trial, and potentially prevent it from happening at all. Democrats resisted, and their efforts failed along party lines. It happened again and again and again. The same members took the same votes, often even saying yay or nay in the same cadence, with the same shadows cast upon them in a Senate chamber without any windows or outside light.
The Democratic impeachment managers, led by Representative Adam Schiff, made a lengthy legal case about why they believed the rules were inadequate. They laid out their rationale for why Trump merits conviction and offered a constitutional argument based on precedent about why documents and witnesses were required. Trump’s lawyers made a series of loud noises more appropriate for a primetime segment on Fox News than a legal proceeding. At one point, a closing argument from Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney, provoked an audible guffaw from Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
The difference between the two sides could be seen on their desks, which were set up between the seats of the senators and the dais. Trump’s lawyers had clean desks with black binders and sat comparatively quietly. In contrast, the impeachment managers were engaged in a flurry of activity. Both the managers and the lawyers on their team were taking furious notes, passing some between them on pieces of legal paper. With the exception of what appeared to be a package of cough drops, almost every inch of the desk seemed to be occupied by sheets of legal paper.
The partisan stalemate began when, after two initial hours of argument, Democrats first offered a motion to amend the rules to subpoena documents from the White House. Senators then voted along party lines to reject the argument offered by impeachment managers, with 53 Republicans voting for and 47 Democrats voting against. It then began all over again. They offered a motion to subpoena documents from the State Department. It failed 53-47. They then brought up the need to subpoena documents from the Office of Management and Budget. It was 53-47 again. And so on.
The pattern proceeded through the night, with motions to subpoena acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, among other witnesses.
The proceedings felt mechanical. The utter lack of drama was reinforced in the late afternoon, when Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who is considered one of the swing Republicans, said that she would not vote to support any of the Democratic motions at this time, though it’s likely she would back a motion to subpoena witnesses later in the trial.
The statement was not a big surprise. Collins has played Hamlet more often than Laurence Olivier, agonizing about which way she’ll vote before invariably taking the GOP line. But it served to underline the relative futility of the Democratic arguments. At several moments, Schiff referenced the television viewing audience, in the hope that an appeal to them might have some impact.
On the floor, the formal decorum of Senate rules — which require members to sit quietly at their desks without electronic devices or food or beverages apart from water or milk — progressively broke down over the course of the long day. As the hours passed, a number of senators were chewing gum in an apparent effort to avoid the fate of Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho, who appeared to nod off at one point. Joe Manchin of West Virginia furtively munched on what appeared to be Goldfish on the Senate floor while conversations spread throughout the chamber. In particular, Republicans Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Tim Scott of South Carolina appeared to have a number of animated exchanges in their adjacent back-row seats.
Without electronics, a number of senators were taking notes on legal pads. Most of their desks were covered with binders and booklets and got messier as the day went on. Only one of the 100 senators kept a completely clean desk for most of the day: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had not a single paper in front of him as he sat with his hands clasped. His face almost never changed expression save when Schiff implicitly compared him to a judge who claimed on the bench that he had reached a deal with the defense counsel to prohibit witnesses and evidence. Schiff argued that such a judge would be led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. McConnell’s face then displayed a slight smirk. It didn’t last long. McConnell then returned to his normal impassive expression. After all, he didn’t need to say or do anything. He had the votes.