Senate votes to hear witnesses at Trump’s impeachment trial

Senators Hold Press Availability After First Policy Luncheon Of The New Year
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 07: Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) (C) talks to reporters following the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol January 07, 2020 in Washington, DC. In an interview on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he is prepared to move forward with the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

(CNN) — The Senate voted 55-45 to call witnesses at former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, with five Republicans joining with Democrats to hear from witnesses and extend the proceedings.

GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska voted in favor of witnesses. Before the vote was finalized, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he was changing his vote to yes — presumably to support Trump’s lawyers also calling witnesses in addition to the House impeachment managers’ request.

The Senate was poised to vote Saturday on whether to convict Trump for inciting the insurrection at the US Capitol last month, but the Democrats’ desire for witnesses means the trial is likely to extend beyond Saturday, though senators must vote to approve any witnesses or subpoenas.

In response, Trump’s lawyer Michael van der Veen responded that if Democrats were going to ask for witnesses, Trump’s team was going to need 100 depositions.

“If you vote for witnesses, do not handcuff me.” van der Veen said.

Democrats have been debating whether to call witnesses in light of new details that have emerged with the trial underway this week, according to multiple sources, including new descriptions about Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s call with Trump as the riot unfolded and new details about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s call with the former President.

Multiple aides said the debate is that witnesses could clarify the timeline of what Trump knew and when in a compelling way, but it’s not clear that the witnesses would change minds of senators already dug in about the verdict. Witnesses would also extend the trial considerably with Senate Democrats eager to move on to President Joe Biden’s agenda.

Democratic senators said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer signaled to them on a call Saturday morning he doesn’t know if House Democrats will ask for witnesses.

“We were told just a few minutes ago we don’t know,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland told CNN.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, tweeted Friday evening that the managers should depose McCarthy and Tuberville. Asked about it Saturday, Whitehouse told reporters, “Well it’s actually not my call, so we’ll see what team Raskin decides to do,” a reference to lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland.

A person familiar with Trump legal team strategy said that if Democrats do seek witnesses, Trump’s legal team will try to call House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser. Of course they would need 51 votes to subpoena witnesses, so that would not happen.

The managers have repeatedly declined to say whether they will seek witnesses, though most senators don’t expect them to do so. “No comment. No comment,” Raskin said as he left the Capitol Friday evening.

If there are no witnesses, the impeachment managers and Trump’s lawyers will make closing arguments of up to two hours each before the Senate will move to a final vote, which could be held at 3 p.m. ET, though that’s not finalized. It’s still not clear whether senators will seek to make speeches to explain their votes once the legal teams conclude.

The outcome of the final vote was already telegraphed earlier in the week, when the Senate voted 56-44 that the impeachment trial was constitutional. The GOP senators who voted the trial of a former president was unconstitutional said that was what would determine their final vote, leaving the Senate well short of the two-thirds — or 17 GOP senators who would have to join all 50 Democrats — needed for conviction.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told his colleagues Saturday morning he would vote to acquit Trump, according to a source familiar with the conversations. McConnell plans to explain his decision after the final vote.

The six Republicans who voted the trial was constitutional are the GOP senators who have left open the possibility they could vote that the former President is guilty, after 10 House Republicans joined Democrats to impeach Trump in the House last month. Several of those Republican senators — Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana — pressed Trump’s lawyers during the Senate’s question-and-answer session Friday over the actions Trump took when he learned about the riots unfolding and tweeted that then-Vice President Mike Pence was lacking courage while he was being evacuated from the Senate.

The House managers have argued throughout the trial that Trump should be convicted and barred from holding future office because he was responsible for the rioters who attacked the US Capitol on January 6 and endangered the lives of lawmakers and Pence. They’ve made the case that Trump incited the rioters through months of false claims that the election was being stolen from him, then failed to take any action to stop the violence or condemn the rioters afterward.

The defense team offered its rebuttal on Friday in a brief presentation, in which they sought to equate Trump’s rhetoric with that of Democrats, arguing that political rhetoric is protected by the First Amendment and Trump’s language did not incite a riot that was pre-planned.