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Senate votes to allow witnesses in Trump’s trial

POLITICO logo POLITICO 2/13/2021 By Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio

The Senate voted unexpectedly on Saturday to permit the lawyers in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial to call witnesses, following a surprise request by the Democrats prosecuting the case to seek the testimony of a key House Republican who has publicly described evidence that the former president refused to pull back the violent mob on Jan. 6.

The 55-45 vote came after the House prosecutors said they would seek the testimony of Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) about her knowledge of a call between the former president and House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy as violence escalated at the Capitol. Herrera Beutler, who voted to impeach Trump in the House, has indicated that McCarthy related to her the details of the phone call in which Trump denied McCarthy’s pleas to forcefully call off the rioters.

Saturday’s decision prolongs the Senate’s impeachment trial of Trump for inciting the insurrection that day. Senators were expecting to conclude the trial later Saturday, and they were surprised that the House managers asked for witness testimony. Five Republicans joined all Democrats in the vote to proceed with motions to call witnesses.

As the trial appeared to be entering its final stages, there was a renewed focus on Trump’s actions and statements as the Capitol was being breached. Democrats and a handful of Republicans said they wanted more information about what Trump knew about the violence, when he knew it, and what actions he took in response.

The House's leading impeachment manager, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), called for the testimony of Herrera Beutler Saturday morning, just as the trial appeared headed to a rapid close. Herrera Beutler on Friday night pleaded with former vice president Mike Pence and other Republicans with knowledge to come forward with their evidence about Trump's conduct during the riots.

In response, Trump’s lawyers said they were ready to call “lots” of witnesses in order to conduct what they described as an inquiry that the House refused to undertake. The Senate will take individual votes on specific witnesses requested by the managers and the defense.

“Do not handcuff me by limiting the number of witnesses that I can have,” Trump lawyer Michael van der Veen told senators.

Senators said they expected Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to negotiate an agreement that would set up specific votes on witnesses.

“If that happens, we would break for probably like two weeks and come back and listen to the videos, then have closing arguments, and conclude the case then,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said.

Though many Senate Democrats had indicated they didn’t believe witnesses are necessary to prove that Trump incited the deadly riots, they quickly embraced the House managers' request. The reversal came as new developments have hinted at startling details that could be unearthed if the Senate trial pauses and House impeachment managers are permitted to depose witnesses.

A handful of Senate Republicans weighing Trump’s conviction have indicated that these details could be decisive.

In particular, those senators want to know what Trump did while the violence overtook the Capitol. Trump’s defense team has argued that he was immediately “horrified” by what unfolded and took swift action to send aid to Congress. But that account conflicts with those of Trump’s closest allies and news reports citing his top aides.

Then, on Wednesday night, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) revealed to POLITICO that he had informed Trump a little after 2 p.m. on Jan. 6 that insurrectionists had forced the evacuation of Vice President Mike Pence from the Capitol. It was the first indication of precisely when Trump was told about the danger facing Pence — and it came just minutes before Trump, who had yet to issue any public comment on the widely televised violence, tweeted an attack on Pence for his refusal to unilaterally try to overturn the 2020 election results.

Pence has not spoken publicly about that day since the incident.

Herrera Beutler said that in McCarthy’s telling, he pleaded with Trump to call off his supporters. Trump initially responded by denying they were his backers and attributing the breach to left-wing extremists. McCarthy, per Herrera Beutler, rejected Trump’s claim, to which Trump purportedly responded “I guess these people are just more angry about the election and upset than you are.”

Although Herrera Beutler has been willing to reveal her account secondhand, it's unclear if she'll acquiesce to testifying without a subpoena or other legal compulsion. Senior GOP aides thought it would be more logical for the House to seek McCarthy's testimony about the call with Trump. But some Democrats have raised concerns about McCarthy's reliability as a witness, particularly after he rallied to Trump's defense during the House impeachment process and has since met with him in Florida.

As the witness question loomed, McConnell signaled to colleagues that he would be voting to acquit Trump, dashing Democrats’ long-shot hopes for a big surprise from the longtime Trump ally.

On Saturday morning, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) described Trump’s Tuberville call as the “most shocking revelation from trial thus far.” Rather than confront the ensuing violence, Kaine said, Trump “asks Tuberville for help to delay—or stop—calling the election.”

Republicans like Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) pressed Trump’s trial team about the Tuberville episode during a question-and-answer session on Friday, but they walked away unsatisfied with the response.

"A lot of us are curious about the situation with the vice president," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Saturday morning.

During the Bill Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, the Senate recessed for a week while impeachment managers and attorneys deposed three witnesses. When the trial resumed, the parties had a single day to present new evidence before the trial moved to closing arguments.

As many as eight Senate Republicans have signaled openness to conviction with others remaining silent.

Melanie Zanona and Burgess Everett contributed reporting to this story.

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