Democrats scrapped plans to call witnesses in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on Saturday, setting the stage for a swift vote on whether to convict the former president of inciting an insurrection.
After a brief interlude on Saturday morning when both the prosecution and Trump’s legal team weighed subpoenaing witnesses and other evidence — which could have delayed the trial for several weeks — the two sides reached an agreement to admit a statement from Republican congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler to the record before moving ahead with closing arguments.
A vote on Trump’s guilt or innocence was expected by the end of the day.
The back and forth, which left many lawmakers scratching their heads, came after fresh questions were raised about the former president’s actions surrounding the January 6 siege of the US Capitol.
Jamie Raskin, the Democratic congressman from Maryland who is acting as de facto chief prosecutor, said on Saturday morning that he wanted to subpoena Herrera Beutler after she confirmed news reports that Trump rejected calls for him to intervene in the deadly riot that left five people dead, including a Capitol police officer.
That teed up a vote on whether to call witnesses and subpoena information in the trial, with 55 senators voting in favour of the motion. Five Republicans — Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham — joined all of the Democrats in backing the call for witnesses.
Lawmakers then huddled on the Senate floor as legal teams for both sides mulled over what to do next, as a deal previously agreed on the structure of the trial did not include a plan for how to call witnesses.
Bill Cassidy, the Republican senator from Louisiana, summed up the mood when he told reporters: “[Richard] Shelby says he’s seen three of these and this is the craziest.”
Shelby is the veteran senator from Alabama. The proceedings are Trump’s second impeachment trial — he was acquitted last year of charges relating to his efforts to get the Ukrainian president to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his family — and the third presidential impeachment trial in modern history. Bill Clinton was tried and acquitted of lying under oath and obstructing justice in 1999.
US media reported earlier on Saturday that Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said in an email to colleagues that he would vote to acquit Trump. McConnell had previously been open to convicting the former president, and his position could influence other wavering Republicans.
McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Support for calling witnesses came late on Friday after a CNN report alleged Trump refused to intervene to stop the riot in a heated exchange with Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, as rioters stormed the Capitol.
“Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump told McCarthy, according to the report.
McCarthy allegedly replied: “Who the fuck do you think you are talking to?”
Herrera Beutler issued a statement late Friday confirming the report, saying McCarthy had told her details of the call.
Trump was impeached last month by the House of Representatives in a bipartisan vote. Herrera Beutler was one of 10 House Republicans who joined Democrats in that vote.
Raskin said: “Needless to say, this is an additional critical piece of corroborating evidence, further confirming the charges before you, as well as the president’s wilful dereliction of duty, and desertion of duty as the commander-in-chief of the United States, his state of mind and his further incitement of the insurrection on January 6.”
Graham, a loyal Trump ally, surprised many in Washington when he voted in favour of calling witnesses. He said on Twitter after the vote that he was “going to insist we have multiple witnesses”, including Democratic speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The impeachment managers asked Trump to testify before the trial kicked off in earnest — a request the president’s legal team swiftly rejected.
Trump, who has stayed out of the public eye since snubbing Joe Biden’s inauguration last month, is widely seen as unlikely to be convicted or barred from holding future office.
Under the constitution, two-thirds of the US Senate would need to find Trump guilty in order for him to be convicted — something that would require the support of 17 Republican lawmakers, given the upper chamber of Congress is split, 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats. Trump could then be banned from holding future office with a simple majority vote.