Democrats defend decision not to call witnesses as strategy under scrutiny

‘We needed more senators with spines,’ said Stacey Plaskett after vote to convict fell short of two-thirds majority needed

Stacey Plaskett speaks at a press conference in Washington DC on 13 February.
Stacey Plaskett speaks at a press conference in Washington DC on 13 February. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Stacey Plaskett speaks at a press conference in Washington DC on 13 February. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

First published on Sun 14 Feb 2021 11.32 EST

Democrats defended their prosecution of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on Sunday and hinted at the possibility of criminal charges, after failing to convince enough senators the former president was guilty of inciting the deadly Capitol attack.

The 57-43 vote for a conviction, which fell short of the two-thirds majority required, was still the biggest bipartisan impeachment vote in US history and amounted to “a complete repudiation” of Trump’s conduct, lead House manager Jamie Raskin insisted. Seven Republicans crossed party lines to vote with every Democratic and independent senator after the five-day trial.

But the tactics of Raskin and his team have come under scrutiny, with some Democrats asking if the decision not to seek witness testimony, after senators voted early on the trial’s final day to allow it, was a mistake.

Specifically, evidence was not heard from the Washington congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler about a call between Trump and Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy during the 6 January riot showing that the president would not call off his supporters.

“Well Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election theft than you are,” Beutler said Trump replied when the House minority leader pleaded for him to recall the mob who overran the Capitol in support of the president’s false claims of a stolen election.

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that the question of whether to call witnesses sparked lengthy debate among the House managers, who ultimately agreed to a deal to accept Beutler’s statement as a written record. The decision diverted the likelihood of the trial extending days, if not weeks as both sides deposed witnesses.

“I know that people are feeling a lot of angst, and believe that maybe if we had this, the senators would have done what we wanted,” Stacey Plaskett, a congressional delegate from the Virgin Islands and impeachment team member, told CNN’s State of the Union.

“We didn’t need more witnesses, we needed more senators with spines. We believe that we proved the case, we proved the elements of the article of impeachment. It’s clear that these individuals were hardened, that they did not want to let the [former] president be convicted, or disqualified.”

Raskin concurred.

“These Republicans voted to acquit in the face of this mountain of unrefuted evidence,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press. “There’s no reasoning with people who basically are acting like members of a religious cult.”

Among the 43 senators to vote to acquit Trump was Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader who nonetheless followed his “not guilty” vote with a fiery and contradictory post-trial speech on the Senate floor, in which he condemned Trump for a “disgraceful dereliction of duty”.

“There’s no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” McConnell said. “No question about it.”

“President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office as an ordinary citizen,” the Kentucky Republican added, raising the prospect of criminal charges for the 45th US president over the riot. “He didn’t get away with anything. Yet.”

Mitch McConnell lambasts Donald Trump but votes not guilty in impeachment trial – video
Mitch McConnell lambasts Donald Trump but votes not guilty in impeachment trial – video

Neither Raskin nor Madeleine Dean, an impeachment manager who told ABC’s This Week McConnell was “speaking out of two sides of his mouth”, ruled out criminal prosecution for Trump, saying the decision would be up to others.

Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland and a frequent Trump critic, went further.

“There was yesterday’s vote, but there’s still a number of potential court cases that I think he’s still going to face, in criminal courts and the court of public opinion,” he told CNN. “This is not over and we’re going to decide over the next couple of years what the fate of Donald Trump and the Republican party is.”

Prosecutors in Georgia are investigating calls by Trump and an ally, Lindsey Graham, in which state Republican officials were pressured to overturn Biden’s victory.

Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator for Connecticut, said Trump’s acquittal proved he was still firmly in charge of the Republican party, and that trial witnesses would not have swayed any more senators.

“They weren’t going to get any more Republican votes than they had and I think they made the right decision to move to closing arguments,” he told CNN. “I don’t know that they would have lost votes, I just am pretty confident they were at their high watermark yesterday morning. I know that [among the] Senate Republican caucus, I can’t figure out who their eighth or ninth vote was going to be.

“Donald Trump’s going to be in charge of their party for the next four years. As they were deathly afraid of him for the last four years, they are going to continue to be afraid of him for the next four years.”

Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana senator who was among the Republican dissidents, expanded on his reasoning for his vote after declaring on Saturday it was simply “because [Trump] is guilty”.

“We can see the president for two months after the election promoting that the election was stolen,” he told ABC. “He scheduled the rally for 6 January, just when the transfer of power was to take place. And even after he knew there was violence taking place, he continued to basically sanction the mob being there. And not until later did he actually ask them to leave.”

Cassidy said he was unconcerned by a backlash in Louisiana, where the state GOP has censured him and the chair of the Republican caucus warned him not to expect a warm welcome back.

“I have the privilege of having the facts before me and being able to spend several days deeply going into those facts,” he said.

“As these facts become more and more out there, and folks have a chance to look for themselves, more will move to where I was. People want to trust their leaders, they want people to be held accountable.”