Specifically, the incident that distracted from the Democrats’ case against Trump began when Democrat impeachment manager Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) recalled public reporting that then-President Trump allegedly called Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) by accident when he supposedly meant to call Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) while senators were in a temporary holding room after being evacuated from the Senate floor during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.
Cicilline said from the well of the Senate as he made his case to senators to convict Trump on the House-adopted impeachment article:
Shortly after 2 p.m., as the siege was fully underway, then-President Trump made a call. This is the first call we are aware he made to anyone inside the Capitol during the attack. He didn’t call the Vice President to ask how he could help defend the Capitol. He didn’t call the next two in line of succession to the presidency to check on their safety or well-being. Instead, he attempted to call Sen. Tuberville. He dialed Sen. Lee by accident. As Sen. Lee describes it, he had just ended a prayer with his colleagues here in the Senate chamber. The phone rang. It was Donald Trump. How Sen. Lee explains it the phone call goes something like this: ‘Hey Tommy,’ Trump asks. Sen. Lee says, ‘this isn’t Tommy’ and he hands the phone to Sen. Tuberville. Sen. Lee then confirmed he stood by as Sen. Tuberville and President Trump spoke on the phone. On that call, Donald Trump reportedly asked Sen. Tuberville to make additional objections to the certification process. That’s why he called.
Lee was clearly of the belief that that characterization of events and of comments-as attributed to him in particular-was inaccurate. As the Senate moved to wrap up business on the impeachment trial for the day, Lee sought to have those Cicilline comments stricken from the record:
This led to a remarkable moment where Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT), the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate who is also presiding over the impeachment trial of Trump since Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts declined to preside, given that Trump is no longer in office, made an unclear ruling apparently rejecting Lee’s motion. Lee then appealed his ruling and sought a vote in the Senate to override Leahy, and after several confusing moments the Senate began voting on Lee’s objection to Leahy’s unclear ruling. After a couple senators’ names were called when the clerk began calling the roll of Senators to vote on Lee’s objection, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke up and intervened to stop the vote. Schumer used a tactic called noting the absence of a quorum-essentially pausing the Senate’s formal business as televised for the nation while senators and staff handle a dispute or negotiation off camera-to “work this out.”
Moments later, they came back into action and Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD)-the House Democrats’ lead impeachment manager-admitted that Cicilline’s characterization of Lee as it related to the Trump-Tuberville phone call, while based on news reports, was inaccurate, and then he withdrew the matter from the record himself without a Senate vote.
“The impeachment manager Mr. Cicilline correctly and accurately quoted a newspaper account which the distinguished senator has taken objection to, so we’re happy to withdraw it,” Raskin said.
“It’s not true,” Lee shouted, speaking over Raskin.
Raskin continued explaining why the House impeachment managers were willing to withdraw the comments attributed to Lee. a withdrawal he said was “on the grounds it is not true.”
“We’re going to withdraw it this evening without any prejudice about the ability to resubmit it if possible and then we can debate it if needed,” Raskin continued, adding as Lee shouted over him: “This is much ado about nothing because it is not in any way critical to our case.”
As Raskin walked away from the podium, Lee shouted back at him: “Well, you’re not being cited as a witness, sir!”
Schumer then came back out to recess the Senate impeachment trial until Thursday, saying that each side of the dispute has put this matter aside for now and may debate it later if needed.
These fireworks on the Senate floor closed out the first full day of opening arguments in the impeachment trial of Trump in the Senate, the second such trial Trump has faced. He was acquitted last year in his first impeachment trial. While this mistake by House impeachment managers is unlikely to change any votes in either direction-it is pretty widely known Trump seems headed for another acquittal-this drew the attention away from the core facts of the case being offered by the managers and onto personal drama in the U.S. Senate, a clear boon to Trump’s legal case.
It draws attention to the fact that Leahy, not Roberts, is presiding over the trial while also serving as a juror-and a witness, since he is a senator and was there on Jan. 6-meaning that a Democrat senator and political opponent of the accused, Trump, is serving as judge, jury, and witness in a trial. That’s a point Trump’s lawyers attempted to drive home earlier on Tuesday when the constitutionality of whether there even should be a trial was debated in the impeachment court before a vote took place that allowed the trial to proceed. Six Republican senators joined all Democrats for a 56-44 vote to rule that it is constitutional to hold an impeachment trial of a former president, a positive sign for Trump given that that 56 votes is nearly a dozen less than the 67 votes needed to convict Trump in the trial. Also, just because a senator voted to proceed with the trial does not mean they will vote to convict Trump in the end, and it is increasingly unlikely Democrats will flip 17 GOP senators to back conviction.
Nonetheless, House Democrat impeachment managers and Senate Democrat leadership proceeded with the trial-despite its near-certain outcome-with opening arguments from the House Democrats beginning on Wednesday. They will continue their opening arguments on Thursday, and perhaps into Friday. After that, Trump’s lawyers will respond with their opening arguments.
It remains unclear if the Senate will hear from witnesses or have other trial parts beyond the opening statements. During Trump’s first impeachment trial, he was acquitted fairly quickly. This trial could proceed just as quickly, but it might take longer depending on what Democrats decide to do. Every day Democrats are spending on this they are wasting time that could be used on the floor of the U.S. Senate to pass legislation addressing the various crises the nation is facing like the coronavirus pandemic or confirming President Joe Biden’s appointees.
During their opening arguments on Wednesday, the House Democrat managers laid out their case against Trump by presenting tweets, news reports, videos, and photos that Delegate Stacey Plaskett from the U.S. Virgin Islands said proved he “fanned the flame of violence, and it worked.”
She and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) provided a timeline of the Capitol attack, showing models of the insurrectionists’ progress through the building alongside security, as well as cellphone and media footage of the scene.
In one previously unreleased security video, then-Vice President Mike Pence and his family can be seen being whisked away from an area near the Senate chamber by Secret Service officers as rioters entered the hallways nearby.
Plaskett’s presentation also showed a fresh angle of the scene as Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman led a group of rioters away from the Senate chambers and toward a group of officers.