During the last four months, congressional Democrats pored over thousands of pages of evidence, listened to dozens of hours of testimony and compiled a 300-page report outlining how President Donald J. Trump abused his office when he withheld Ukraine’s military aid in exchange for politically-motivated investigations into Democratic opponents.
Through it all, Trump appeared defiant, even calm, in the face of one of the most significant U.S. political storms in modern history. The phone call was “perfect;” the motivations pure; the investigation into it merely a partisan witch hunt designed to overturn an election that Democrats still couldn’t stomach.
On Wednesday, the president’s defiance paid off. Despite several Republican Senators conceding that House Democrats had proved the case that Trump had abused his office, all but one, Mitt Romney of Utah, voted to acquit him on grounds of abusing his office and obstructing Congress. The two articles of impeachment failed to pass the Senate, the first by a vote of 48 to 52 the latter by a vote of 47 to 53. All Democrats voted to convict on each count. Romney only voted to convict on the abuse of power article.
The tally was just the latest illustration of the degree to which the president has become the political commodity that the Republican Party seems most keen on protecting. Indeed, the loyalty exhibited by Republicans on Capitol Hill during the course of the trial often left Democrats despondent, wondering what else they could have possibly done to prove that Trump deserved to be removed from office.
For President Trump, Wednesday’s acquittal will almost certainly framed as a complete vindication—an outcome long feared by senior Democratic leaders who, for months, questioned behind closed doors whether impeachment proceedings would backfire in the long run. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drew ire from fellow House lawmakers when she pumped the brakes on impeachment talks—largely for this reason—in April following the release of the Mueller report, which found that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential elections and outlined the various contacts Team Trump had with Russians. It was only when news of Trump’s efforts to get Ukrainians to dig up dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden surfaced, through a complaint of an anonymous whistleblower, that she came around to it.
“I think the speaker was very reluctant despite compelling evidence. I think she was very aware of the divisions that impeachment proceedings bring,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) who serves on the House judiciary committee. “But I think when the Ukraine scandal broke that changed a lot of things. I think everyone recognized that this was conduct different even from the Mueller report because it took place while he was president and it was a crime in progress. If we didn’t take action we would be a country with a president who could just pick up the phone and seek foreign assistance.”
Following the news of the whistleblower complaint that alleged Trump had not just pressured Ukraine for investigations but attempted to hide records of it, some Republicans initially took interest. Several said they were willing to acknowledge Trump engaged in a quid pro quo with Ukraine. But as the trial inched closer, the majority of GOP lawmakers denounced the proceedings as a partisan attempt to kick Trump out of office.
Still, for months Democrats clung to the hope that a steady stream of evidence and testimony from people inside the president’s own administration—including individuals he himself had appointed—would be enough to convince a handful of Republicans to support ousting Trump. During the heart of the inquiry, one Democratic senator told The Daily Beast that he imagined roughly half a dozen of his GOP colleagues as being potential yes votes for conviction.
The Democrats’ argument that Trump abused his office seemed to lose steam as the days rolled by in the senate. The chamber itself was often filled with sleepy senators, on both sides of the aisle, doodling on notepads as House managers laid out the evidence that they’d already made public months before.
Meanwhile, Democrats quickly went from hailing their work in the House to defending the very essence of why they moved to an impeachment investigation in the first place. By design of the president’s legal team, the trial became an argument primarily over process, not the evidence, and turned into a tit-for-tat over whether the case was even worth debating.
“There’s a proper way to do things and an upside-down way of doing things,” Patrick Philbin, deputy White House counsel, said on the senate floor in the days leading up to the witness vote. “And to have the House not go through a process that is thorough and complete, and to just rush things through in a partisan and political manner and then dump it on to this chamber to clean everything up is a very dangerous precedent to be set.”
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), a member of the House intelligence committee, told The Daily Beast in an interview that Republicans were “hiding behind the process” because they understood the facts of the case looked “really bad.” And after more than a week of GOP lawmakers slamming the House impeachment investigators for presenting an incomplete case to the senate, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-NY), who worked on the House investigation, batted away accusations that she and her colleagues could have done more. They had “jumped through hoops” to try and gather evidence and present the case to the American public,” Scanlon said.
And yet, not everyone in the party was left fully satisfied. The House questioned dozens of witnesses during its investigation in the fall but it never issued subpoenas for witnesses for fear that the White House would defy them or bottle it up in court in order to drag the process along into irrelevancy. That formed the basis for another article of impeachment. But it also meant that key witnesses like former National Security Advisor John Bolton, were allowed to hide behind legal rationales for not having to appear.
“It was the House of Representatives who refused to pursue the testimony of the witnesses because they wanted to impeach the President before Christmas,” Graham said on Twitter last week. “Only in Washington would someone call that decision “Blocking Witnesses.”
Eventually, House Democrats and their aides told The Daily Beast that they began to view the committees’ relationship with Bolton as a dance —a will he/won’t he guessing game about whether he’d tell all to Congress and not just in a forthcoming book.
Their hopes were raised when Bolton said he would appear in the senate for questioning if required by subpoena.
“What we’re saying now is that if you have any questions about what the president did you now have a new witness who was not willing to testify when we prosecute our case in the House who is now willing to testify and you should hear from him,” said Re. Eric Swallwell (D-CA), a member of the House intelligence committee.
And for a brief moment during the three-week-long senate trial, Democrats believed that the tide was about to turn in their favor and that Republicans would have no choice but to at the very least call Bolton to testify. The New York Times published a story January 26 that said Bolton’s upcoming book outlined the details of how Trump linked the investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election with his administration’s freezing of military aid. And in the waning hours before senators voted on witnesses, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, released a statement that sent reporters into a tizzy, when he said he spoke with Bolton in September in the beginning stages of the House investigation and that the former Trump official had encouraged him to look into the ousting of former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.
News of Bolton’s possible testimony reached as far as Kyiv where Oleksandr Danylyuk, Ukraine’s former counterpart to Bolton, told The Daily Beast that he trusted the former U.S. national security advisor more than anyone else in the Trump administration.
But even with these revelations, GOP senators didn’t budge.
“I certainly am not interested in hearing [Bolton] testify,” Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) said during the witness debate. “The truth is if he wants to testify… the one place where you can have a dual lane where you can actually do the work of the people and have the impeachment process is in the House.”
In the service of protecting Trump, no line of defense seemed to be too extreme or outlandish. The president’s legal representative, the media-loving lawyer Alan Dershowitz, took to the well of the senate to push the novel theory that if Trump had done precisely what he was accused of doing—and in the service of his re-election no less—it would be de facto constitutional so long as he believed his actions were in the public interest.
That line, along with broader pushback from Republicans, baffled and frustrated Democrats, particularly those intimately involved in the House investigations, whose cries for new witnesses seemed to grow from a place of annoyance.
“We invited John Bolton to testify and you know what he told us? I’m not coming and if you subpoena me I will sue you,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) on the Senate floor in his role as House manager.
As focus centered on Bolton, another former Trump associate was pushing for his documents and testimony to be submitted for the record in the senate trial. For weeks, Lev Parnas, an ex-associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, made public statements and television appearances discussing his time working with Giuliani and the efforts undertaken by President Trump in Ukraine. The Daily Beast obtained a recording from Joseph Bondy, the attorney for Parnas, that taped President Trump calling for the firing of Yovanovitch. Bondy said it was made by Igor Fruman, a former partner of Parnas.
Bondy penned a letter to McConnell revealing that he had in his possession information “directly relevant to the President’s impeachment inquiry.” But Republicans once again were unmoved, denouncing any attempts from Democrats to insert new evidence into the record as post-facto efforts to clean up an incomplete House investigation.
With 51 votes needed for new witnesses or documents to be submitted, attention turned to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a key Republican swing vote. When the Tennessee Republican announced late on January 30—the night before the vote—that he would not call for more witnesses, it all but assured that the trial would end without additional testimony.
“The grave question the constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor. Yes, he did.”
— Mitt Romney
Democrats made a last-ditch attempt to make their case, this time in a unified press conference with members of the senate. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) finished the presser with a warning:
“The bottom line is that at the end of this they will probably get what they want,” Harris said, referring to Republicans and the witness vote. “We are going to end this today or maybe tomorrow, but the evidence, the evidence that we know is available will not be presented and what that means as its bottom line is that this will not have been a fair trial and therefore they cannot walk out of this building and allege and assert that there has been a true acquittal.”
But by Wednesday morning, all the pleading, the emotional speechifying on the senate floor, the calls for lawmakers to vote their conscience—not their political interests—had seemed to be for naught. No witnesses had come and the time to vote was upon the chamber. A sense of sadness had set in; the realization that the measure would fail rather dramatically and Trump would get the vindication he craved.
That still may be true. But before lawmakers registered their positions, Democrats were offered the rarest of political developments: a genuine surprise.
Romney took to the floor to announce that he would back conviction. And in doing so, he gave them just a smidgen of affirmation that their efforts had indeed been strong enough to overcome the president’s pull on his party. He became the first senator in U.S. history to vote to convict a president of his own party.
“The grave question the constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor. Yes, he did,” Romney said. “My vote will likely be the minority in the Senate but irrespective of these things, with my vote, I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me.”