'Our future is not assured': Schiff issues stark warning at impeachment trial

Congressman describes moment of historic national crisis as Republicans – who rejected fresh witnesses – claim they heard nothing new

Striving to make himself heard across partisan lines, the lead impeachment prosecutor filled his opening argument against Donald Trump on the Senate floor on Wednesday with invitations, warnings and appeals designed to win Republican backing for a substantial trial.

Using flowing evocations of constitutional history, the global promise of US democracy, and the stakes should it all be allowed to slip, Democrat Adam Schiff framed his story of Trump’s wrongdoing as a national crisis demanding a non-partisan remedy.

“I don’t think the impeachment power is a relic. If it is a relic, I wonder how much longer our republic can succeed,” said Schiff. “If we don’t stand up to this peril today, we will write the history of our decline with our own hand.”

But ahead of the trial’s second full day, Republicans signaled no newfound curiosity about the case against Trump, who was impeached last month for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in connection with an alleged scheme to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations of his political rival Joe Biden.

Republicans complained on Wednesday that the trial had not revealed any new evidence against the president. Less than 24 hours earlier, those same senators had voted four consecutive times against hearing from new witnesses.

“I didn’t hear anything new today,” said Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

“I haven’t heard any evidence in there that the president’s done anything wrong,” said Josh Hawley of Missouri.

With the parties so firmly ensconced in unique echo chambers, four months into the impeachment process, the likelihood that one argument – or one piece of evidence, or snippet of testimony – would find a way through the partisan barrier seemed small.

Schiff and his fellow impeachment managers would need to persuade about 20 Republican senators to achieve their stated goal of removing Trump from office. But a much more modest number – three or four Republicans – would be enough for Democrats to call witnesses to the floor who might change the course of the proceedings.

“You are left with no choice but to demand to hear from each witness with firsthand knowledge” of Trump’s pressure campaign, Schiff said. “A fair trial requires nothing less.”

The historic weight attending the trial, only the third of its kind in US history, was visible with the presence in the room of John Roberts, the chief justice of the US supreme court, and two tables of legal teams cramming the Senate well.

The formality of the tableau was broken just once before a dinner break when a protester raised an incoherent cry in the balcony about abortion and Jesus Christ, to be quickly ushered out. “The Senate will be in order,” Roberts said, banging his gavel. “The sergeant-at-arms will restore order in the gallery.”

Just after 1pm, Schiff stepped to a lectern between the tables to narrate the story of Trump’s wrongdoing. The managers would lay out their case in stages, he said, describing the details of “Trump’s corrupt scheme” in narrative form, with a factual chronology and video of past witness testimony, to move thereafter to a description of the constitutional framework for impeachment.

Chuck Schumer walks outside the Senate chamber during break in the trial.
Chuck Schumer walks outside the Senate chamber during break in the trial. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/Reuters

At a break in the trial, the minority leader, Chuck Schumer, called Schiff’s performance “a tour de force”.

“I think a good number of my Republican colleagues for the first time heard the argument against the president – powerfully, succinctly and completely– and I hope that can begin to change minds,” Schumer said.

Polling released on Wednesday by the Pew Research Center indicated public backing for the Democratic call for witnesses and found that 70% of respondents said Trump “definitely or probably acted unethically” while 51% said Trump “should be removed from office”.

“We’re trying this case over two juries,” Schiff said. “The Senate and the American people.”

But with the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, having succeeded the night before in winning approval for a speedy trial, the prosecutors have limited time in which to plant seeds of doubt in Republican minds about the conduct of the president.

And the managers’ audience, visibly frustrated at the long hours of the trial, appeared at times to be on the verge of mild mutiny, openly flouting rules requiring them to remain at their desks and instead circulating in a cloakroom off the Senate floor. They drew no rebuke from Roberts.

In a recurring rhetorical trope, Schiff highlighted the evidence missing from the case owing to Trump’s decision to defy subpoenas and block testimony, which prompted the obstruction of Congress charge.

Describing a memo the US diplomat Bill Taylor wrote to the state department after military aid to Ukraine was suspended, Schiff said: “Would you like me to read that to you right now? I would like to read that to you. But I don’t have it.”

On records of concerns filed by national security officials with in-house lawyers, Schiff said: “Would you like me to read you that record? I would like to read you that record. It’s there for the asking.

“If you keep getting told to go talk to the lawyers,” Schiff quipped, “there’s a problem.”

The seven House managers selected to present the articles of impeachment have about 16 remaining hours spread over two days to present their case to convict and remove Trump from office. Then the president’s team has its opportunity to rebut the charges. Trump is not expected to appear at his own trial and the Republican-controlled Senate is forecast to acquit the president.

Mitch McConnell speaks during the trial.
Mitch McConnell addresses the Senate. Photograph: AP

Some moderate Republican senators have expressed discomfort with rushing the proceedings, but none voted with Democrats on several motions on Tuesday that would have cleared the way for new witnesses and testimony.

Ahead of the opening arguments, the White House yielded an opportunity to force a vote in the chamber on dismissing the charges against the president. Republican senators said there was not enough support among their caucus to bypass a trial.

McConnell was forced to make last-minute changes after moderate Republicans expressed dissatisfaction.

On Wednesday, Schiff warned that democracy was on the line. “Our future is not assured,” he said.

“A fair trial, with impartial consideration of all of the evidence against the president, is how we keep our republic.”


Lauren Gambino in Washington and Tom McCarthy in New York

The GuardianTramp

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