It was one of the most high-stakes moments in a dramatic impeachment process. After weeks of debate and speculation, House Democrats were finally taking the stage to formally make the case that the Senate should convict President Donald Trump for abusing the power of his office and obstructing Congress.
But as Rep. Adam Schiff embarked on a lengthy two-and-a-half hour opening statement, it was clear that Democrats were laying out the case for a country which, like many Senators in the chamber, seemed to be tuning out.
As Schiff outlined the now-familiar contours of the Ukraine saga, the mood in the chamber seemed tense but resigned. The previous day’s proceedings to establish the rules of the trial had stretched until nearly 2 a.m., and the group weariness showed, with several lawmakers appearing to doze off during Schiff’s presentation.
By late afternoon, lawmakers were pacing, coming in and out of the chamber with great frequency and starting to openly ignore the rules that require them to stay silent during the proceedings.
But the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee made it clear that the sleep-deprived lawmakers, many of whom had followed every twist and turn of the Ukraine inquiry in the fall, were not the only people he was trying to reach.
“We will go into extensive detail about what happened, and when, and how we know that it happened,” he told reporters before entering the chamber. “We do not assume that everyone in the Senate was able to watch all of the House testimony…let alone that the American people were able to do so.”
While 70 percent of Americans said Trump acted unethically in a Pew Research Center poll released on Wednesday, and 63 percent said he definitely or probably broke the law, a smaller 51 percent said he should be removed from office. The impeachment process has had little bearing on Trump’s overall job approval rating, which has hovered around 40 percent since September, before the formal inquiry was launched, according to Pew.
In beginning to lay out Democrats’ case, Schiff tried to condense the complicated events that brought Congress to the chamber today into an easy-to-understand format, arguing that “so much of the story” of Trump’s alleged efforts to solicit election interference from a foreign country comes down to “three days in July.”
His voice rose and became more animated, seeming to shake some Senators out of their daze, as he recounted how the very day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on July 24 — which Trump and the White House celebrated as the end of the “Russia hoax” — he decided to ask the Ukrainian President for a now-infamous “favor.” Trump asked the newly elected President Zelensky to open politically beneficial probes into his 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and used both military aid and a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainians as leverage, he said.
Trump “did not feel shamed by what the special counsel found, he did not feel deterred by what the special counsel found, he felt emboldened by escaping accountability,” he said. “For the very, very next day he is on the phone soliciting foreign interference [from Ukraine].”
At the same time, Schiff argued that this short, crucial window was emblematic of a larger pattern of impunity for Trump, and that if he is not removed from office, the pattern of alleged abuse of office would continue.
Republicans seized on Democrats’ strategy of meticulously recounting facts that came out in House proceedings to accuse them of having “no new substance,” in the word of Rep. Mark Meadows.
“I think the troubling thing for many of us is actually staying alert enough to be able to follow it,” said Meadows, who is part of Trump’s impeachment defense team but not among the lawyers crowded on the Senate floor to make the actual legal case. “It’s one of those things when you’ve heard the story over and over again, the punch line to this joke…at this particular point, Adam Schiff reruns are not getting good ratings.”
As the sun set over the Capitol and staffers started to sort of dinner plans for a scheduled 6:30 p.m. half-time recess, the mood did indeed grow restless on the floor. Some seized on projected videos and slides as an excuse to leave their desks and move closer. Others wandered; at one point, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey stood hunched over his desk chair and then took leave and sat in the rear of the chamber in seats typically occupied by staff.
It wasn’t just Democrats showing signs of weariness as the only the first day of opening statements came to a close. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana at one point crossed his arms and paced at the rear of the GOP side. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah leaned all the way back in his chair and stared at the Senate’s ceiling. At one point, half of the entire back row of Senate Republicans was standing behind their chairs just to stretch their legs.
Schiff argued there are still crucial facts and witnesses being withheld by the White House that would add this new information — and which Democrats hope could possibly shake Americans out of impeachment fatigue.
Not everyone has made up their minds already. In a Monmouth University survey released on Tuesday, before the trial got underway, 57 percent of Americans said that new information, including witness testimony, should be considered before the Senate votes.
“Let the American people hear what John Bolton has to say. Let the people hear what Mick Mulvaney has to say, or Secretary Pompeo, or any of the other witnesses with relevant information,” he said. “They want to know. The American people overwhelmingly want to hear from these witnesses.”
—With reporting by Alana Abramson and Philip Elliott/Washington