As the final sliver of daylight faded over the Capitol dome last night, it was clear that Democrats’ long, frustrated quest to compel a deus from the machina of impeachment would end in disappointment. Instead, there was only Representative Adam Schiff, the party’s tireless point man in the impeachment trial, who stood in the well of the Senate making an 11th-hour argument that Trump’s political-dirt-for-military-aid squeeze on Ukraine was too egregious to ignore.
“If you accept the argument that the president of the United States can tell you to pound sand when you try to investigate his wrongdoing, there will be no force behind any Senate subpoena in the future,” Schiff warned the senators. It was his response to a long written statement cum question from his fellow Californian Kamala Harris, who had asked how Trump’s acquittal would “undermine the U.S. system of justice.”
Since Election Night 2016, Democrats have been searching for a savior, no matter the party or rank of the individual.
First there was James Comey, the self-righteous former FBI director impervious to Trump’s attempts to co-opt his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Then there was Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to take over the Russia inquiry after Trump’s abrupt dismissal of Comey produced a furor, but whose final report was an inconclusive punt. Next came House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, who said last summer that Trump deserved to be impeached because he’d “violated the law six ways from Sunday.”
There was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose reluctant conversion to the impeachment cause put Trump in the dock in December. There was Chief Justice John Roberts, whose stated reverence for institutions and the rule of law raised hope that he might conduct the Senate trial with a firmer hand than what he has thus far shown. There was the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, whose demand for additional witnesses and documents sparked a fleeting hope of persuading four moderate Republicans to join in seeking more evidence of Trump’s misdeeds.
Now, with the defendant’s foregone acquittal in sight as soon as tomorrow, it’s all come down to Schiff, the terminally earnest chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff’s powers, while formidable, have proved just as un-super as everyone else’s in the near-lockstep partisan loyalty that fear of Trump has produced.
In the House managers’ presentation of their case last week, Schiff spoke some 60,000 words over three days, nearly three times the amount uttered by his next-loquacious colleague, according to an analysis by National Journal Daily. Yesterday, he answered five of the first 13 questions directed to Democrats, usually with only the barest reference to prepared notes, almost always taking the full five-minute limit the chief justice has allotted—a pace he kept up as the evening dragged on.
One of the president’s lawyers, the former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, insisted, “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected—in the public interest—that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” Schumer immediately asked Schiff to respond to the claim. “All quid pro quos are not the same,” he said. “Some are legitimate and some are corrupt, and you don’t need to be a mind reader to figure out which is which.” By 6:30 p.m. ET, when he asked the senators if they really wanted a president “who can abuse his office” and “do so sacrificing national security and undermining integrity of elections and there’s nothing Congress can do about it,” Schiff had grown hoarse.
The trial’s question-and-answer phase, which continues today, has injected some new energy—or at least some new motion—into the proceedings. Young pages in blue suits ferry each small buff-colored card of written questions to the chief justice in the presiding chair by marching solemnly down the chamber’s center aisle. Roberts then reads the questions aloud.
But the trial’s semifinal stage has produced not a shred more bipartisan agreement on the gravity of the president’s conduct, as both Republicans and Democrats asked questions mostly of their own side in an effort to bolster arguments already endlessly rehearsed.
The format nevertheless has played to Schiff’s strengths as a former prosecutor. While his fellow managers read scripted answers from prepared three-ring binders, in response to mostly friendly questions from Democrats that feel well prepared if not outright planted, Schiff has handled even the occasional hostile query from Republicans with extemporaneous aplomb.
When Senators Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz submitted a somewhat tortured hypothetical query about whether it would have been acceptable for President Barack Obama to urge the Russian government to conduct an investigation into Mitt Romney’s son if he knew the younger Romney were being paid $1 million a year by a corrupt Russian company—a not-so-veiled reference to Hunter Biden’s service on the board of Ukrainian energy company—Schiff’s bottom line was simple: Presidents asking foreign governments “to target their political opponent is wrong and corrupt, period.”
Trump’s acquittal has been a foregone conclusion since long before the trial began, and the chance that Democrats might garner the 51 votes required to call more witnesses had all but evaporated by yesterday afternoon, despite former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s reported corroboration that Trump told him he was withholding security assistance to Ukraine until it agreed to investigations into the president’s Democratic rival.
“Probably no” was Schumer’s own assessment of the likelihood of witnesses after one potential GOP target after another either opposed the idea or signaled they might. That reality, and the political calculation behind it, was summed up neatly by Josh Holmes, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who tweeted: “More witnesses = Hindenburg. None of it changes ultimate acquittal.”
So as the hours ticked past, and senators on both sides of the aisle stood and stretched, Schiff appeared to be speaking not only to them but to posterity, as he argued that new information about Trump’s actions on Ukraine was continuing to surface almost daily, and would keep coming in the months and years ahead. “Don’t wait for the book!” he said, referring to Bolton’s memoir.
Responding to a question from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island about whether senators should consider the White House’s refusal to produce witnesses an “adverse inference” against the president’s innocence, under long-standing judicial practice, Schiff was emphatic. “Should you draw an adverse inference? You’re darn right you should!” But he added, “There is no need for inference here. There is just a need for a subpoena.”
But throughout the Capitol all day yesterday, it grew ever clearer that embattled Republican senators such as Cory Gardner of Colorado would rather face the wrath of swing voters who think this truncated trial is unfair than risk prolonging it for even a week or two by calling witnesses and courting the president’s wrath.
“I think we can all see what’s going on here,” Schiff said shortly after 8. “And that’s, If you want to hear from a single witness ... we are going to make this endless; we, the president’s lawyers, are going to make this endless. We promise you, we’re going to want Adam Schiff to testify, we want Joe Biden to testify, Hunter Biden … We will make you pay for it with endless delay.” But Schiff insisted, “We’re not here to indulge in fantasy or distraction. We’re here to talk about people with pertinent and probative evidence … So don’t be thrown off by this claim … You can’t have a fair trial without witnesses.”
Indeed, the House managers have spent more than a week noting that no Senate impeachment trial has ever concluded without calling some witnesses. But in this, as in so many other matters involving the political ascendancy and presidency of Donald John Trump, Schiff and his colleagues, in invoking the power of history’s example, seem poised instead to suffer one more painful lesson in its limits.