Impeachment trial grinds on, testing physical endurance of senators

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — After keeping the august members of the U.S. Senate in their seats for roughly 18 of the previous 30 hours, Adam Schiff told the group of not-so-young lawmakers that he and a fellow impeachment manager had just over two hours more to go Wednesday night.

But Schiff, a Democratic congressman from California who is leading the impeachment effort, acknowledged that it had been a grueling day and a half.

“As an encouraging voice told me, keep it up but don’t keep it up too long. So we will do our best not to keep it up too long,” Schiff told the Senate.

Schiff, who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has taken the impeachment effort by the horns ever since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put him in charge of it in late September.

And he has wowed many observers who have watched him make lengthy and compelling arguments on the Senate floor to explain why the House believes President Trump should be removed from office, and why the Senate should subpoena documents and a handful of witnesses that the White House has held back.

Schiff was a force on Tuesday afternoon in the first few hours of the impeachment trial, and was again impressive in a two-hour-plus presentation at the beginning of Wednesday’s session.

But Schiff’s persuasiveness was offset late in the day Wednesday by the sheer exhaustion being felt by many of the senators, some of whom are in their 70s and 80s.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is 78, sat at his desk in the late afternoon, his face flushed red, his hair askew, holding his eyeglasses in his left hand and holding his right hand to his forehead. If not for the trial, Sanders would be in Iowa or New Hampshire trying to win over voters ahead of the first two contests in the Democratic presidential primary, in which he is a leading candidate.

House impeachment manager Adam Schiff speaks during the impeachment trial in the Senate on Wednesday. (Senate Television via AP)

Sitting nearby, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, shut his eyes and squeezed them hard, exhaling, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., raised herself off her chair and stretched her back. Schatz is 47 and Gillibrand is 53, but the proceedings appeared to be taking a toll on them as well.

And a few seats over, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is 79, appeared to be nodding off intermittently, leaning back in his chair, his hands folded on his lap. 

On the other side of the chamber, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., stood behind his chair, leaning on it with both hands, grimacing and shaking his head.

“They’re already repeating the same points,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said during a break a few minutes later. “The longer they talk at this point, the weaker the case is getting.”

Cruz’s comment would have sounded more like a partisan talking point earlier in the day, but as the day blurred into night, after an evening that went all the way until 2 a.m., it became harder to dispute.

“Last night was a long night and so it was just kind of fun to watch how many people were having trouble staying awake,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told Yahoo News. “But this is really important.” 

“Think about how much they hate this right now,” said a source familiar with Senate leadership conversations. This Republican operative crowed that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had baited the Democratic impeachment managers into using all 24 hours available to them to make their arguments through his procedural maneuvers.

McConnell on Monday evening unveiled rules that would have limited the impeachment managers and Trump’s lawyers to 24 hours of argument over just two days. On Tuesday afternoon he suddenly changed that to three days.

But Democrats had been pushing for more time. Maybe it’s ascribing too much strategic insight to McConnell, but the Republican aide close to Senate leadership said the back-and-forth had put Democrats in a position to exasperate the senators by maximizing their time for arguments.

However, there are only a few Republican senators who will make a substantive difference in this trial regarding the key question facing the Senate: whether they will subpoena documents and witnesses. And that handful of lawmakers — Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., most prominent among them — looked to be quite attentive throughout the day as the House managers presented their first of three days of arguments.

And then there is the fact that even if that small group of Republican senators votes to allow documents and witnesses, there are nowhere near enough Republicans open to voting for removing Trump from office, which requires a supermajority vote of 67 senators out of 100.

So in that context, how the senators feel moment to moment and day to day, and what they think of the case is far less relevant than how many Americans see some of the Democratic arguments on TV. And if those Americans are swing voters in key states that will decide the presidency, all the better from the point of view of many Democrats who are working on the 2020 campaign.

Hunter Walker contributed reporting.

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