In Historic Impeachment Trial, Democrats May Have Talked Too Much

The House managers delivered a powerful case that Trump abused his office, but many Americans are tuning out—and almost no Republican votes have changed.

House impeachment managers
House impeachment managers, from left, Reps. Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler, Zoe Lofgren, and Hakeem Jeffries arrive for the Senate impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington on Jan. 25. Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

Don’t bore your audience. It is the injunction delivered to every TV and movie producer, and to every lawyer seeking to win over a jury. And if there is one thing that will be most remembered about the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history—along with Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff’s brilliant performance as the lead prosecutor of President Donald Trump—it will be that the Democrats botched their case less through a lack of evidence than an excess of verbiage.

As the president’s defense team began its counter-arguments Saturday morning, they made a point of saying they weren’t going to make the same mistake, putting on multiple videos over and over again. “We’re not going to play it seven times,” Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow said with a grin. The Trump lawyers promised their relieved audience a short day—they spoke for just two hours—and a swift move to judgement, a vote that is likely to happen in the coming week following two more days of Trump defense arguments beginning Monday. 

Schiff, the tall, unflappable Harvard Law graduate who wrote a new chapter in U.S. history this week, made the case against Trump almost single-handedly. Even some Republicans conceded he did an outstanding job of arguing that Trump abused the power of the presidency to a degree that demanded, if not his removal, then certainly a rebuke of some kind. Schiff also was praised for his eloquence in seeking to invoke a common American sensibility about fairness as he tried to persuade Republicans to agree to introduce witnesses and documents that until now have been withheld by the White House

“I ask you. I implore you: Give America a fair trial. Give America a fair trial. She’s worth it,” Schiff said in final remarks that concluded an exhausting three days of argument. Schiff argued that the heart of American democracy—the sanctity of the constitutional balance of powers—was at stake over the issue of whether Trump abused his powers and the public trust and unconstitutionally defied Congress. “It’s all about the Constitution and his conduct,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you like him. It doesn’t matter if you dislike him. It matters if he is a danger to the country and will do it again … because he is telling us, he will.”

But by most accounts, few Republican senators were moved to change their minds at all, even on the narrow question of allowing witnesses, and even several moderates were annoyed by Schiff’s suggestion toward the end that they were sticking with Trump out of fear, because “your head will be on a pike” otherwise. As Politico’s veteran Capitol Hill pulse-takers John Bresnahan and Burgess Everett wrote: “[I]t is very unlikely that more than one or two Republican senators are even considering a vote to convict Trump and remove him from office, far from the 20 needed to reach the 67-vote threshold required by the Constitution.”

The Trump defense team sought to ensure that conclusion as it began arguing on Saturday that not only was there no impeachable offense by Trump, “you will find that the president did nothing wrong,” as lead lawyer Patrick Cipollone said. 

The Trump lawyers said they planned to argue six “key facts” that will disprove Democratic charges that the president sought to extort the Ukrainians into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee. The Trump rebuttal points are that the partial White House transcript of the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the main piece of evidence tying Trump directly to the case, shows no link between Trump withholding security assistance to Ukraine and Trump demanding an investigation into Biden; that Zelensky himself had said there was no quid pro quo; that Zelensky didn’t even know Trump had ordered a pause in security assistance until more than a month after the phone call; that none of the Democratic witnesses could definitively say Trump linked assistance to any demand; that the assistance was restored on Sept. 11, 2019; and that Zelensky finally did get a meeting with Trump (on the sidelines of the United Nations) on Sept. 25 even though he never announced an investigation of the Democrats and Biden, as Trump suggested in the transcript. (The Democrats have argued that Trump released the aid only after his order to put it on hold was revealed publicly and Congress launched an investigation.)

Above all, the Trump defense team will argue that it is the Democrats, not Trump, who are interfering in U.S. elections by seeking to remove the president less than 10 months before the next election.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Democrats’ presentation was that Schiff’s performance took up only a few hours, and a slew of other Democratic House managers spent the rest of the time saying mostly the same things over and over. And thereby they lost a good part of the country. As Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace—who is generally considered more even-handed than his Fox colleagues—remarked after Schiff’s opening argument: “I thought he said it all. Then I realized we have [up to] 21 hours and 40 minutes left to go. You just wonder how many times you can keep making the same point.”

According to the Nielsen ratings agency, the U.S. television audience for the Democrats’ arguments dropped precipitously, by about 29 percent, by Thursday, the second day of arguments. 

So the outcome of the trial seems preordained at this point, and there may be one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on: If the case led by Schiff and his Democratic colleagues ultimately succeeds, it won’t be in this trial—it will come in the November election.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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