Democrats speak to history with exhaustive impeachment case
WASHINGTON, D.C. – At times it seemed like few senators in the chamber were really listening. But the House Democrats presenting the impeachment case against President Donald Trump weren't about to stop.
By the time they finished their three days of opening arguments late Friday, House managers had used most of the 24 hours they were given in the Senate impeachment trial. One speech Wednesday by the lead prosecutor, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., ran around two hours.
Overall, it was a performance that defied today's short attention spans as Democrats made an exhaustive — and some said exhausting — case for Trump's removal from office.
Few minds appeared to be changed, and many senators all but lashed to their seats for the trial described it as tedium. But the seven Democratic prosecutors were speaking not only to the senators — effectively Trump's jurors — but also to history, which will judge his conduct long after his expected acquittal.
"This is not just for the senators now, or the American people, but forever,” said Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
Gerhardt said historians would dissect video and transcripts of Democrats' presentation and the case that a team of lawyers representing the White House will make beginning Saturday. The length and detail of the Democratic speeches would be a bonanza, he said.
“History is kind of ruthless. It's not partisan, Democratic versus Republican. It doesn't care about people's feelings,” said Gerhardt, who's written books on the impeachment process. “It cares about what's in the record.”
Even so, while a presidential impeachment trial is heavily political with a healthy dollop of law, lengthy arguments are a risky way to appeal to people deciding a case, said David Spratt, professor of legal rhetoric at American University's Washington College of Law.
“If you drone on over and over, you can lose credibility with your audience. They stop listening to what's being said," Spratt said.
To lawmakers and anyone observing the proceedings, there was no question who was dominating them: Schiff, the lead investigator into the Ukraine affair and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Democrats laid out evidence that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden, a presidential contender and former vice president, by blocking military aid and a White House meeting the country's new leader coveted as it battles Russia-backed separatists in a grinding war.
According to a breakdown provided by C-SPAN, the public affairs TV network that was broadcasting complete coverage of the trial, Schiff spoke for over eight of the roughly 22 hours that Democrats consumed Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Next closest was Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., whose remarks totaled three hours.
Democrats praised Schiff for a smooth, smart delivery and said his team presented a meticulous, methodical explanation of why Trump should be forced from the White House. Republicans criticized the presentation as a long-winded, repetitive waste of time.
“I've tried a lot of cases," said Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, a former prosecutor. "That method of presentation, if you're trying to persuade a jury, is totally ineffective. People can't stay focused for that long on the same thing over and over again.”
“No,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who might face a competitive reelection in November, said when asked if the lengthy Democratic arguments were effective. "They would have to change my mind and if they continue in about a two-hour loop, presenting the same information and asking for more evidence, then they should rethink whether or not they've got more homework to do.”
Tillis is among a handful of GOP senators who could face challenging reelection races this fall, many from closely divided states. For Democrats, the impeachment trial was a chance to build a case that would force those Republicans to choose between protecting Trump and angering moderate voters or voting to remove him, infuriating conservatives.
“Hopefully we'll have a little bit of magic, and it will weigh heavily on the shoulders of some of the Republicans,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who's tried pressing vulnerable Republicans to back Democratic calls for fresh witnesses and documents. “And they will go to Mitch, and they will say at least we need a fair trial, at least we need documents and witnesses.”
Rules that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, pushed through the Senate over Democratic opposition give House prosecutors and a team of White House lawyers 24 hours each to present their cases. The White House side planned to begin its presentation with a short session on Saturday.
Senators were supposed to remain in their seats during arguments, and not speak or look at their cell phones, a constraint they don't normally face. Pained facial expressions and the growing numbers of senators stretching their legs against the rear wall signaled the strain the long days were exacting.
"That's their problem. The country needs to hear this," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Also clear was that Democrats were targeting voters, many of whom are unfamiliar with the details of their evidence against Trump. Though no one expected most people to sit glued to their televisions for endless hours, the lengthy speeches gave Democrats an opportunity to make their points repeatedly and for highlights to make their way onto social media.
“A lot of people don't know doodly about this," said Frank Bowman, professor at the University of Missouri School of Law who's written about impeachment. “They've essentially got a lease on 24 hours of the American public's time. If I'm them, I'm going to take it."
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