Dems 'caved' on witnesses in Trump impeachment trial, drawing condemnation from left and right
University of Baltimore law professor Kimberly Wehle and former Deputy Independent Counsel Sol Wisenberg weigh in on 'America's News HQ'
Democrat impeachment managers on Saturday drew harsh criticism from both the left and the right after their stark reversal on whether to call witnesses in the Senate trial of former President Donald Trump.
Trump was found not guilty of inciting an insurrection in a 57-43 vote Saturday.
Critics said Democrats "caved" for having a press release from Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., read into the record after initially asking to depose her -- a move that could have potentially elongated the impeachment trial by weeks.
Beutler threw a wrench into the impeachment proceedings after a Friday night statement in which she said Trump seemingly sided with the rioters at the Capitol on Jan. 6 during a conversation with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
"When McCarthy finally reached the president on January 6 and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the president initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol. McCarthy refuted that and told the president that these were Trump supporters," she said. "That’s when, according to McCarthy, the president said: ‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.’"
Beutler added: "To the patriots who were standing next to the former president as these conversations were happening, or even to the former vice president: if you have something to add here, now would be the time."
The move to call Beutler followed suggestions from multiple Senate Democrats that it might be wise to call witnesses with knowledge of Trump's Jan. 6 actions.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said Friday night that "one way to clear" up the confusion over what Trump knew and when on Jan. 6 would be to "[s]uspend trial to depose McCarthy and Tuberville under oath and get facts. Ask Secret Service to produce for review comms back to White House re VP Pence safety during siege."
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., also said "The House Managers should ask for witnesses to be called, including anyone who communicated with Donald Trump or have direct knowledge of his actions and state of mind while he was in the White House after the Capitol was breached and while the attempted coup was ongoing."
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said that he would be open to the House managers bringing witnesses on MSNBC too.
All 50 Senate Democrats and five Republicans voted initially to allow witness depositions before the impeachment managers backed off hours later.
Subpoenaing witnesses could have extended the trial by weeks and potentially allow the Trump defense attorneys to call multiple witnesses of their own. The work on deposing witnesses would have taken place off stage, thus allowing Democrats to continue to work on President Biden's agenda in the meantime. But Politico reported that the House managers came under pressure from Senate Democrats to withdraw their plan to depose Beutler.
Raskin addressed the decision to step back from the call to depose Beutler when the Senate reconvened after his initial request.
After that masterful presentation, I am not about to second-guess House managers’ decisions on further witnesses or depositions. Their work yielded an overwhelming record supporting conviction— Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., after impeachment managers' decision not to call witnesses
"We tried this case as aggressively as we could on the law and on the facts... We got from the president's lawyers exactly what we wanted which was the entering into the evidentiary record of the statement by our colleague Congresswoman Beutler," he said. "And we got that I was able to read it before the entire country and it became part of the case. And it became an important part of our case."
He added: "We could have had 500 witnesses and it would have not have overcome the kinds of arguments being made by Mitch McConnell and other Republicans who were hanging their hats on the claim that it was somehow unconstitutional to try a former president."
The choice not to bring in any testimony for the Senate trial meant that there were no witnesses heard or testimony taken by either the House or the Senate during this impeachment process. The House managers based their case largely on press reports. This was in stark contrast to the first impeachment of Trump, in which the House conducted weeks of depositions and hearings with firsthand witnesses.
In this image from video, House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., speaks during the second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. (Senate Television via AP) ((Senate Television via AP))
Impeachment manager Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., said that even if the House managers had done that work, they would not have changed the outcome of the trial.
"Other individuals who may have been there with the president were not friendly witnesses to us were not friendly witnesses and would have required subpoenas and months of litigation," she said. "They are still litigating McGahn and impeachment one a year later."
But nevertheless the impeachment managers took criticism for their stark reversal from both the left and the right.
"This is so weak," Meena Harris, the niece of Vice President Harris, said. "Just do us the favor of not acting appalled when he runs again in 2024."
"Even if you’re convinced no testimony will change the minds of 40 Republicans — and I think that’s a fair assumption — leaving witnesses on the table is an incredible mistake," Huffington Post reporter Matt Fuller said. "After impeachment managers presented a fantastic case, the decision to fold is what will be remembered."
Addie Elie Mystal of The Nation: "Everybody who thinks no witnesses would have changed Republican minds needs to explain to me why Impeachment (which was never going to change Republican minds) was worth it in the 1st place. The people who think Impeachment was NOT worth it are at least INTELLECTUALLY CONSISTENT."
"This is retreat. White flag. Malpractice. Completely unstrategic. They just closed the door on others who may have stepped out, as @HerreraBeutler urged last night," Progressive Change Campaign Committee Co-founder Adam Green said. "Just when we thought Dems were being bold and strategic. This is grabbing lameness out of the jaws of boldness."
Whitehouse, one of the senators who expressed an openness to witnesses, defended the House managers Saturday in a statement to Fox News.
"After that masterful presentation, I am not about to second-guess House managers’ decisions on further witnesses or depositions. Their work yielded an overwhelming record supporting conviction," he said.
Representatives for Van Hollen, Markey and Beutler did not respond to requests for comment from Fox News on the House managers' reversal.
Republicans, meanwhile, basked in the perceived misstep from Democrats.
"This is a mess!" Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., said. "It was a last-minute Hail Mary by Democrats who have now caved and will not call witnesses after all. We should be governing, not playing games.
"Welp, it’s official: #DemsInDisarray," Doug Andres, the press secretary for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said.
"Well that was a waste of time," the official Senate Republicans Twitter account said. "Let’s get back to work."
A senior aide on the impeachment team defended the decision to back off any depositions and simply insert the Beutler statement into the record.
"Now that Trump’s Team has conceded to bringing this uncontradicted statement into the trial record, it can be considered by Senators along with the already overwhelming evidence about President Trump’s conduct on January 6, without the need for subpoena, deposition and other testimony," the aide said before the final vote to convict.
The aide added: "Over the past four days, the House Impeachment Managers have laid out overwhelming, irrefutable evidence of the President’s guilt for incitement of insurrection... The strongest evidence of Trump’s dereliction of duty during and after the attack has always been Trump’s own public statements on that day and his own deafening refusal to say ‘stop the attack.’"
Trump's second impeachment was spurred by the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Trump, after months of making false claims that he'd won the presidential election, called a rally in Washington, D.C., with his supporters for the same day Congress and then-Vice President Mike Pence were meeting in a joint session to certify the results of the election.
Trump, at the rally, repeated his false election claims and he and advisers used pitched rhetoric, riling up the large crowd. Trump at one point in the rally told his followers to "peacefully and patriotically" march to the Capitol, a comment his defenders point to as part of the reason why he does not bear responsibility for the ransacking of the Capitol.
But House impeachment managers argued that one comment did not cancel out the balance of Trump's other comments in that speech or in the proceeding months. They said he bore fundamental responsibility for the mob that breached the Capitol and forced hundreds of lawmakers and the former vice president into hiding while chanting "hang Mike Pence," among other things.
Fox News' Chad Pergram contributed to this report.