The Senate Impeachment Trial Returns to Its Foregone Conclusion

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flashes President Trump’s favorite hand signal while leaving the chamber on Friday night. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The final vote on the impeachment and conviction of Donald Trump has not been cast and the Senate is already returning to normal.

The suspense had almost entirely drained out of Capitol Hill late Thursday night when Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander announced that he would not support new witnesses in the trial. The Senate, however, still needed to officially reject any witness testimony and documentary evidence in the trial. That near party-line vote of 51-49 didn’t happen until late Friday, with only Mitt Romney and Susan Collins breaking partisan ranks.

Even after the vote, which made Trump’s acquittal all but inevitable, Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer needed a final round of extended negotiations about “how to land the plane,” as a number of Republican senators described the process. In doing so, the world’s greatest deliberative body returned to its traditional duties: haggling over how much time senators could speak on C-SPAN and when they would be able to catch weekend flights out of the capital.

This gave Democrats four more opportunities to force votes on witnesses than they had originally been allowed on Friday. All would be pro forma show votes. Further, the trial was stretched past Tuesday’s State of the Union with the final vote lined up for Wednesday afternoon. This means Trump will join Bill Clinton as the second chief executive to address a joint session of Congress during an impeachment trial. In the meantime, the senators would get the weekend off — to rest, watch the Super Bowl, or campaign for the White House in Iowa — and when they returned, they could still spend Tuesday and Wednesday orating about impeachment to their heart’s content.

The additional votes on witnesses happened in quick succession. There were no speeches and no drama. The Senate voted in a routine rat-a-tat-tat roll call. Two of the votes were on strict party lines to allow Democrats all the witnesses they desired and to allow Chief Justice John Roberts to make the ultimate determination. Two of the votes were simply on subpoenaing John Bolton to testify. Romney and Collins voted with Democrats again on those.

Afterward, Republicans were relaxed about the final process. Lindsey Graham told reporters, “I was hoping it would be over but the Senate’s the Senate. It works its will.”

Democrats felt disheartened. “It’s really a low point in my memory,” Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen told Intelligencer, “for the U.S. Senate becoming a Senate that, for the first time in American history, doesn’t hear from a single witness or get a single document as part of a trial.”

“That really is a disgraceful new precedent to set.”

Patrick Leahy, the most senior member of the chamber, flashed a hardcover copy of Profiles in Courage to reporters after leaving on Friday night. The book, by John F. Kennedy, describes moments in American history when senators acted with great political courage. Most famously, Kennedy writes about Edmund Ross, who broke with his party to cast the decisive vote against Andrew Johnson’s conviction in 1868 and lost his seat as a result. When asked by Intelligencer if he thought any of his Republican colleagues might qualify for a sequel, Leahy firmly and simply replied, “No.”

Then again, there is rarely any courage worth profiling on a normal day in the Senate. Instead, there are mechanical party-line votes that lead to predetermined outcomes just in time for senators to make it through the PreCheck line at DCA. And, despite all the trappings of an impeachment trial, Friday was ultimately just another normal day.

The Senate Impeachment Trial Nears Its Foregone Conclusion