All through Tuesday afternoon, and evening, and night, and the early hours of Wednesday, the Democratic team of House managers fought the good fight, seeking subpoenas of documents and witnesses as well as procedural changes that would close loopholes intentionally built into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s design for the Senate impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump. And they lost every time. In fact, except for a single early morning vote from faux moderate Susan Collins, Republicans voted exactly as expected, giving Trump and McConnell a 53-47 party line victory on nine straight proposed amendments.
But if that made it seem that the day was a waste … it wasn’t. Yes, Republicans batted down attempts to get documents, call witnesses, and prevent the White House from flooding the zone with cherry-picked documents. However, with every amendment, House managers got the chance to lay out their case. They introduced the facets of Trump’s malfeasance step by step, pillar by pillar, with each member of the team stepping up to carry the load on a specific area. Meanwhile, Trump’s legal team was left sputtering and looping back over not just talking points, but also obvious lies. It might have been a losing effort—but it was still magnificent.
At first, it wasn’t clear exactly what was happening. After an introductory speech from both sides—during which Trump attorneys Pat Cipollone and Jay Sekulow burned up every talking point they had—Schumer introduced a proposal to seek documents from the White House. This provided for an hour on each side to debate the merits of the amendment. Except the Democratic team used that time for a detailed review of those documents that were being withheld by the White House and how key they were to the case ahead. Trump’s attorneys responded by repeating their talking points and throwing on more personal insults for the case managers.
This pattern then repeated for an incredible nine more amendments. After the second, it became clear just what was happening: Chuck Schumer structured the amendments not as simple requests, but as detailed explanations that mentioned specific exchanges, particular conversations, critical meetings, and other events that were known to have happened, but were missing from the evidence available to the House team. During the debate period for each amendment, different members of that House team rose to give an even more detailed defense of the need for those documents, with Zoe Lofgren, Val Demings, Hakeem Jeffries, and Jason Crow all doing spectacular jobs in dealing with requests from the White House, State Department, Office of Management and Budget, and Department of Defense.
After the OMB request, Schumer mixed things up a bit by requesting a personal subpoena of Mick Mulvaney. Again, this wasn’t just a “Give us Mulvaney” request, but a detailed summons that included a recitation of Mulvaney’s interactions with Trump, his role in blocking military assistance to Ukraine, and—wonderfully—his press conference confession, complete with the “Get over it” moment. The individual subpoenas continued, allowing Sylvia Garcia and Jerry Nadler to join in the fray. Those subpoenas bracketed additional requests for changes to the structure of the proceedings to eliminate wording that made it excessively easy for the White House to pretend to respond to a request by producing only documents that are favorable to Trump, and another section that gave Republicans multiple chances to kill future requests for witnesses.
By the sixth proposed amendment—at around 9:30 p.m.—a clearly dragging Mitch McConnell begged for mercy. He called for a quorum vote to force a delay, trying to negotiate Schumer into making all his remaining requests in a lump so Republicans could give them a single down vote and go home.
But Schumer had no inclination to make such a deal for a very, very good reason. Over the course of 10 amendments, the team of Democratic House managers introduced the case against Trump in loving detail. Without touching a minute of the 24 hours that the proposal allots to each team, the House managers made a 10-hour introduction to the case, spelling out the players and the crimes.
Through it all, both McConnell and the Trump team seemed utterly unprepared, while the Democrats had clearly practiced this maneuver for weeks. Despite McConnell’s vaunted reputation as a master of Senate secrets, he seemed utterly unable to deal with Schumer’s moves as the Democratic team slowly, methodically, and systematically bulldozed the Republican team.
There were some highlights for Trump’s attorneys, but not in a good sense. While Deputy White House Counsel Patrick Philbin stepped in to occasionally spell Sekulow and Cipollone, it was after 11 p.m. before Trump lawyer Pam Bondi was allowed to make a five-minute appearance in which she not only failed to even mention the topic at hand, but also sat down without even noting that her moment in the spotlight was done. The other top-notch moment came when Jay Sekulow apparently misheard Val Demings talking about “FOIA lawsuits” and spent his entire time period making an incoherent rant about “lawyer lawsuits,” and “how dare” Demings talk about “lawyer lawsuits”?
The Bolton subpoena was near the end of the proceedings, and when a still-wound-up-at-midnight Nadler rose to support that amendment, he jumped in with both feet, taking a much more aggressive tone than previous House managers. The usually much more pedantic House Judiciary Committee chair called Republican votes to suppress subpoenas “treacherous” and accused Republicans in the Senate of being part of the cover-up as they voted to shut out witnesses. Nadler’s sharply worded performance seemed to wake up Trump’s tired team, and both Cipollone and Sekulow jumped in to flat-out scream at Nadler in response—following which Chief Justice John Roberts saw fit to waggle a finger at both sides, cautioning them about the Senate’s rules against personal insults. Notably, Roberts had not been stirred to make such a comment despite hundreds of insults and lies from the Republican team earlier in the night.
In the end, the Republicans got everything they wanted. On paper. But the Democratic team didn’t put on a pointless show. It showed that it’s come loaded for a serious fight, and that neither McConnell nor Trump’s legal team is prepared. It’s almost as if the House managers spent that time that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave them planning strategy and tactics and practicing their approach to the material. Which suggests that, like Tuesday night, the rest of the week might not go quite as well for Team Trump as they’ve been expecting.
Schumer and the House team may not have won the votes, but they absolutely won the evening. By miles. And everyone on the other side of the aisle should be sweating.