'Shelby says he’s seen three of these [impeachments] and this is the craziest'
Donald Trump’s impeachment trial took an unexpected turn on Saturday when the US Senate voted narrowly in favour of calling witnesses to testify about the former president’s role in inciting the deadly attack on the Capitol, extending the proceedings.
The development came after news that Trump told a top congressional Republican during the assault by his supporters last month that the mob was “more upset” about his election defeat than the lawmakers who were forced to flee for safety.
The 55-45 vote in favour of allowing witnesses means a decision in the trial is unlikely to come on Saturday. Prior to the vote, closing arguments from the House lawmakers serving as prosecutors and Trump’s defence attorneys had been expected after a week-long trial.
Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, who earlier this week was one of just six in his party to vote that the trial should continue, threw up his hands when asked if he had expected Saturday’s vote on witnesses.
“Shelby says he’s seen three of these and this is the craziest,” he said, referencing Senator Richard Shelby whose 34-year tenure included the 1998 impeachment of former Democratic President Bill Clinton and Trump’s first impeachment trial.
The move spurred further conflict in the narrowly divided Senate and could stymie efforts by Democratic President Joe Biden to confirm cabinet members and move past the controversies surrounding his predecessor by pushing forward with his own legislative agenda on Covid-19 relief and economic revival.
The Senate floor appeared chaotic during and after the vote. Senators clustered together in apparent confusion and Senators Ron Johnson and Mitt Romney engaged in a heated conversation.
“This is more than unfortunate,” Johnson said later. “It’s just going to inflame the situation.”
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, asked whether an agreement on witnesses might be worked out promptly, said: “It doesn’t look that way.”
What Trump knew and when
Much of the trial focused on how much Trump knew about the rioters’ actions as they rampaged through Congress on Jan. 6 seeking to prevent lawmakers from certifying Biden’s victory in the November presidential election.
Herrera Beutler, one of 10 in her party who voted last month in the House of Representatives to impeach Trump, recounted in a statement late Friday the details of a call between Trump and the top House Republican, Kevin McCarthy.
“‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,’” Beutler quoted Trump as saying. She said Trump initially denied his supporters were involved in the attack, claiming the mob were members of the loosely organized left-wing Antifa movement, a false claim that McCarthy rejected.
Trump, who left office on January 20, is the first US president to be impeached twice and the first to face trial after leaving office. If convicted, the Senate could then vote to bar him from running for office again.
Conviction is seen as unlikely, however, as at least 17 Republicans in the 100-seat chamber would have to join all 50 Democrats to find the former president guilty. Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell will vote to acquit Trump, a source familiar with the situation said on Saturday.
The trial has highlighted the extraordinary danger lawmakers faced on January 6, when Trump urged his followers to march on the Capitol and “get wild” in an effort to overturn his election loss. Then-Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers had to be rushed into hiding for safety. Five people died in the chaos.
Trump’s words that day followed months in which he repeated false claims that Biden’s victory was the result of widespread fraud.
When the impeachment article reached the Senate, only six Republicans voted with Democrats to move forward with the trial, rejecting an argument made by other Republican senators that the Constitution does not allow Congress to impeach a president who has already left office.
Security-camera footage shown at the trial showed rioters came perilously close to lawmakers and Pence as they were evacuated from the Senate and House chambers.