Adam Schiff eloquently made the House’s case that the republic is in danger from Donald Trump but Republicans’ reaction was heavy-lidded
David Smith in Washington – The Guardian
The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, arrives at the US Capitol ahead of the second day of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA
He fought. Oh, how he fought. But Mitch McConnell’s battle with drowsy eyelids was a lost cause. The 77-year-old senator’s head bobbed and drooped. An alarmed aide sat at his side, powerless, as McConnell surrendered to the arms of Morpheus.
It was 1.40pm on Wednesday and the House impeachment manager Adam Schiff was in full flow, prosecuting the case against Donald Trump. Over nearly two and a half hours, McConnell would not be the only Republican senator to nod off, yawn, rub their eyes or bolt the chamber.
According to Schiff, the house was on fire, the republic was in jeopardy and democracy itself was threatened by “a president who would be king”. Yet the response on one side of the aisle was insouciance and somnolence. Was it mere fatigue, after Tuesday’s marathon that had run until nearly 2am? Or was it sheer boredom on the part of jurors who have already cleared the accused in their minds and are now just going through the motions?
The session had begun with pointed comments by the Senate chaplain, Barry Black, in a prayer for the senators. “Help them remember that patriots reside on both sides of the aisle, that words have consequences and that how something is said can be as important as what is said,” said Black, sporting a bow tie. “Give them a civility built upon integrity that brings consistency in their beliefs and actions.”
Then Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives’ intelligence committee, stepped up to the podium to lead opening arguments. Reading from typed A4 sheets in a ring binder, he delivered a tour de force that was both epic and intimate, historically sweeping yet highly specific, offering a view from both 30,000 feet and the microscope.
Schiff began by quoting from the founding father Alexander Hamilton in a 1792 letter to George Washington that refers to “a man unprincipled in private life” and “bold in his temper” who is “known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty” and is “seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity” with an intention to “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind”.
History rhymes. The California congressman acknowledged the founders’ flaws but also their genius and prescience, though as the years passed, he noted, it became harder to imagine them as human beings. “This is no less true of Alexander Hamilton, notwithstanding his own return to celebrity.”
It was a nod to Hamilton, the unlikely Broadway musical hit about the former treasury secretary. (The world now awaits Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sequel, a rap musical about Rudy Giuliani’s adventures in Ukraine.)
Schiff set out a case painfully familiar to those who have been following the matter (which is by no means everyone). Trump pressured the president of Ukraine to publicly announce investigations into two discredited allegations that would benefit Trump’s 2020 presidential election campaign, he said.
“When the Ukrainian president did not immediately agree, Trump withheld two official acts to induce the Ukrainian leader to comply – a head of state meeting and hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to a strategic partner at war with Russia. It was a corrupt scheme to secure foreign help with his re-election – in other words, to cheat.”
Carefully and cleverly, Schiff portrayed a web that has Vladimir Putin has at its centre. In his version, the infamous Ukraine phone call was not separate and distinct from the Trump-Russia investigation but all of a piece.
“The military aid we provide Ukraine helps to protect and advance American national security interests in the region and beyond,” he said. “America has an abiding interest in stemming Russian expansionism.”
The Senate was shown, on video screens, clips including Trump the candidate urging Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s hacked emails and the former White House expert Fiona Hill warning against the repetition of Russia propaganda talking points about a Ukrainian computer server – her accent from the English town of Bishop Auckland resounding in the chamber.
Another clip was of Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, declaring: “I have news for everybody. Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
Schiff commented: “Should we just ‘get over it’? Is that what we’ve come to? I hope and pray the answer is no.” Unless Trump was held accountable and removed from office, he warned, the next president mighty simply say: “Just get over it. I’m just doing what Donald Trump did. Just get over it.”
Above all, Schiff made a masterly plea for the soul of the nation. He entreated senators to put the constitution before party and warned that every generation had to fight anew for democracy and freedom. “If we don’t stand up to this peril today, we will write the history of our decline with our own hand.”
Watching from afar, David Axelrod, former strategist for Barack Obama, tweeted: “Devastating, epic presentation by @RepAdamSchiff to open trial. Will it matter?”
He might as well have asked if facts matter. Think of Schiff as Clarence Darrow, a legal maestro who, at the “Scopes monkey trial” in 1925, challenged a Tennessee state law that banned the teaching of evolution. He was opposed by a defender of biblical creationism. He lost.
Nearly a century later, the Republican defence appears to be based on blind faith in Trump and the verdict on his conduct is preordained. As Schiff went on, McConnell, the Senate majority leader, nodded off a few times. The aide at his side wondered what to do while remaining tactful, eventually summoning a younger staffer to place a glass of water on McConnell’s desk, thereby making him stir.
Fellow Republicans dozed, slumped, rubbed their eyes or stretched their legs.