Dem retreat on witnesses brings messy end to Trump trial

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FILE - In this June 4, 2020, file photo, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., speaks during a Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee hearing about the COVID-19 response on Capitol Hill in Washington. Herrera Beutler, who was one of 10 GOP House members who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump, is urging people with knowledge of conversations Trump had during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to come forward. (Al Drago/Pool via AP, File)

WASHINGTON – The Democrats who prosecuted Donald Trump's impeachment trial faced puzzlement and criticism from senators on Saturday as they surprised most everyone — Trump’s lawyers and Senate Democrats included — with an attempt to call witnesses, only to abandon it as lawmakers balked at the possibility of an extended trial.

The House impeachment managers opened the final day of the trial by announcing they would seek to depose Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who had shared her account of a call between Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy as rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The House Democrats charged that Trump incited the violent insurrection, which left five dead, and the former president appeared to side with the rioters on the call.

Senators in both parties reacted with shock and frustration to the gambit, with many arguing that witnesses wouldn't change any votes and could extend the trial for weeks. Still, 55 senators voted to allow the testimony, with Senate Democrats saying they would support whatever the impeachment managers thought would be best.

But Trump’s lawyers quickly threatened to seek votes on at least 100 witnesses on their own side, making clear the process would be both protracted and partisan. The standoff lasted more than two hours, with frustrated senators milling about on the Senate floor and questioning what they had even just voted to do.

After negotiations, Democrats agreed to read Herrera Beutler’s statement into the record and forego witnesses completely — moving the Senate to a final vote. A few hours later, the Senate voted to acquit Trump, 57-43, the majority falling short of the two-thirds needed for conviction.

The momentary chaos, and the House Democrats’ eventual retreat on witnesses, was emblematic of the prosecutors’ challenge throughout the trial. Most minds were made up before it even began, and the facts of the case were unlikely to sway Republicans who were defending Trump’s actions. Still, the Democrats faced pressure from within their own party to present the fullest case possible for “incitement of insurrection,” with at least one Senate Democrat tweeting on Friday night that they should call witnesses.

“What did Trump know, and when did he know it?” tweeted Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, encouraging Democrats to “suspend” the trial and seek answers to questions that had come up.

But once the managers did say they wanted to call testimony — and once the Senate endorsed the move — the realization set in among all parties that calling witnesses would prolong the trial for weeks, open up the Republican defense to try to call dozens of their own and put off lawmakers' work on COVID-19 relief and other legislation that is a priority for President Joe Biden. And, most importantly, Democrats were unlikely to win the two-thirds of the Senate they needed to convict under any scenario.