Well, that was a hell of a ride. House impeachment managers wrapped up their opening arguments against former President Donald Trump on Thursday. Trump’s defense lawyers take the floor Friday to counter the overwhelming evidence the managers laid out — but apparently it won’t take them long.
Trump’s lawyers reportedly don’t believe they’ll need the full two days available to them to make their — shoddy, legally questionable — argument to acquit their client, which has some senators thinking that the trial might wrap up as soon as Saturday. That’s assuming, though, that the Senate doesn’t vote to allow witnesses to be called.
Neither Democratic nor Republican senators seemed particularly enthusiastic about the idea of witnesses. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., indicated Thursday that the managers haven’t decided whether they want to call people to the stand yet, saying, “They will make that decision after the opening arguments of both sides.”
Now, you may think this case is a slam dunk for the managers. You may think that there’s zero chance that enough Republicans will vote to convict the former president and that we might as well end this sooner rather than later. But if Democrats choose not to call witnesses, they’ll be leaving a huge opportunity on the table.
As solid as the managers’ case is, it will likely still need the extra emphasis of witnesses testifying under oath before the senators vote on the article of impeachment. And the level of incompetence that we’ve seen so far from Trump’s attorneys, Bruce Castor and David Schoen, makes me think that any of their attempts at cross-examination would do little to bolster their case.
With that in mind, I’ve come up with a short list of witnesses the managers should call. These witnesses are chosen not just for their ability to confirm the case that’s been made, but also for their proximity to Washington, which would allow them to appear on the Senate floor on short notice. And, as I noted before, the Senate has full authority to issue subpoenas to compel them to appear.
Of all the Trump officials who resigned in the aftermath of the riot, it would be wisest to call former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao
Trump himself has declined to appear, but former Vice President Mike Pence should be the top choice to testify. It’s Pence whom the impeachment managers zeroed in on as one of the rioters’ main targets. And it is Pence who angered Trump on Jan. 6 ahead of the rally by saying he wouldn’t overturn the election results. We should hear from him in his own words about what happened that morning and whether he believed Trump’s lies about the election results.
Then, of all the Trump officials who resigned in the aftermath of the riot, it would be wisest to call former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Chao wrote in her resignation note to her staff, which Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., cited Thursday, that “our country experienced a traumatic and entirely avoidable event as supporters of the president stormed the Capitol building following a rally he addressed.” She added that it “troubled” her “in a way that I simply cannot set aside.”
It seems reasonable to invite Chao to sit for an explanation of just what she meant and what role she believed the former president played in the attack on the Capitol. (It doesn’t hurt that Chao is married to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., which could keep the defense from going after her too hard.)
Several senators could be brought to the stand, but freshman Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., jumped to the top of the list Wednesday. Tuberville confirmed on the record that on the day of the attack he received a call from Trump but had to hang up on him abruptly. “I said, ‘Mr. President, they just took the vice president out, I’ve got to go,'” Tuberville said. As several people have noted, that call happened before Trump’s tweet threatening Pence further as the mob was already inside the building. Tuberville should recount that phone call under threat of perjury.
Democrats should absolutely call in FBI Director Christopher Wray to bolster their statements about how foreseeable the violence Trump incited actually was.
While the impeachment managers have already artfully detailed the dangers and injuries that Capitol Police officers faced during the insurrection, it would be worth bringing one of them in to speak directly about events. My preference would be to hear from Officer Michael Fanone, who suffered a mild heart attack from the multiple Taser hits the mob administered.
Speaking of law enforcement, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., recently threatened that if Democrats call witnesses, then Republicans will “want the FBI to come in and tell us about how people preplanned this attack and what happened with the security footprint of the Capitol.” To which I say … sure — of course, Democrats should absolutely call in FBI Director Christopher Wray to bolster their statements about how foreseeable the violence Trump incited actually was. He could also speak to the indictments filed so far in which rioters have said they looked to Trump for guidance.
And finally, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows should absolutely be compelled to give his version of events. That’s one of the biggest black holes right now in the official record, despite the news reports of Trump’s apparent delight. Meadows was reportedly with Trump all day, and he would be able to speak to his mood and actions in a way that would solidify the charge that for hours, the former president did nothing to stop the mob he incited.
Alternatives to those six speakers could include either former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who was also with Trump on Jan. 6 and could speak to the many attempts to subvert the election after Nov. 3, and former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who could answer questions about the delay in deploying the National Guard.
While the rules of interviewing witnesses have yet to be agreed upon, the process doesn’t have to drag out the proceedings. Each side could take one day total, eight hours each, to question these witnesses and any others. While a witness an hour or so is a pretty fast clip, it would also preclude any weird tangents or nongermane questioning. And, well, on a personal level I just really want to see what would happen if Schoen or Castor tried to trip up Wray or Fanone on the stand, not to mention having Pence and Tuberville unable to lie or dodge questions.
The managers have done an admirable job planting the events of Jan. 6 firmly in the historical record. Now they need to go one step further. In historians’ parlance, they need to incorporate true primary source material from witnesses on hand into the catalogue of abuses that they’ve already compiled against the former president. They may not guarantee a conviction. But we, the American people, deserve to have their voices included.