In the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the protagonist is strapped to a chair with his eyes held open, unable to avoid the horrifying images that his torturers show him in order to reprogram his brain. Watching Republicans in the Senate during the opening hours of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump put me in mind of that moment, as the House of Representatives’ impeachment managers showed clip after clip of the president incriminating himself – clips of him directly calling for Russia, Ukraine, and China to interfere in US elections in both 2016 and 2020. These are the clips that Republicans have always tried desperately to avoid commenting upon throughout his presidency – “I haven’t seen that” or “you’ll have to direct that question to the White House” – and so there was some considerable schadenfreude in watching the senators squirm as their president’s voice was broadcast to them in the chamber.
The House of Representatives passed the Articles of Impeachment formally last week – meaning Trump has technically already become one of only three US presidents, after Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, to have been impeached. The Senate, the US upper chamber, is now sitting as a jury in a sort of trial, presided over by the supreme court chief justice, John Roberts, to decide whether to remove or acquit him on the charges levelled by the House.
Because the Republican party controls the Senate (unlike the House, which changed hands to Democratic party control in the 2018 midterms) the tactical questions are different here. With little evidence that Senate Republicans will do anything other than remain in lock-step during the process, there are three things left that the Democrats want and can achieve from this impeachment trial proceeding.
First, having been denied the ability to subpoena documents and the opportunity to call witnesses, they plan to ensure that the public narrative is that of a cover-up by Republicans, leading to an unfair trial. Those lines – “fair trial” and “cover-up” – have already been repeated over and over, and will likely stay core to the Democrat line. Even the reliably rabid pro-Trump Fox News has been carrying at least parts of the Democrats’ case live on air, and Democrats hope that some of the message will filter through.
Second, given that the Senate is overwhelmingly likely to vote against removing the president from office, the Democrats’ priority is to make the case to the US people, rather than in the Senate itself.
Third, whatever they may say about wanting to give the accusations due and lengthy consideration, the Democrats are also under considerable pressure from within the party to have the proceedings over in reasonable time for those Senators currently running for the nomination for the presidency to get back to the primaries. That pressure is especially acute now, because the Iowa caucuses are in less than a fortnight, and presidential contenders Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar are stuck in the Senate, where they do not even have interrogative speaking roles.
Meanwhile their rivals, especially former vice-president Joe Biden and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, are rampaging around the first-in-the-nation caucus state virtually unopposed. Sanders, whose campaign has found itself in a spat with Biden’s over social security, must be particularly frustrated to be stuck indoors without access to Twitter.
The most dramatic, and probably the most important part of the trial so far, however, happened before the impeachment manager and House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff’s elegant opening argument began to lay out the chronological case against Trump on Wednesday afternoon.
It came on Tuesday evening, when the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, proposed the resolution that would lay out the rules for the trial. In a marathon effort that harked back to the golden age of the Senate filibuster as portrayed in films such as Mr Smith Goes To Washington, McConnell’s Democratic opposite number in the Senate, minority leader Chuck Schumer, began proposing amendments to the trial resolution. Democrats objected to the fact that the resolution as proposed by McConnell gave the trial no opportunity either to subpoena documents or call witnesses – though it did promise a potential vote on the latter later on, after both the impeachment managers and the president’s legal team have made their case.
Instead of proposing the amendments all at once, however, on Tuesday night Schumer split them into 11 separate amendments – some for subpoenas of documents from specific executive branch departments, some for subpoenas of witnesses – each of which entitled senators to two hours of debate and a vote. The session lasted for almost 14 hours. By 2am, the frustration of McConnell and his fellow Republicans was tangible. This allowed the Democrats – and especially Schiff, who has shown himself to be an able frontman for the proceeding, threading the needle perfectly between forensic prosecutor and exasperated everyman – to make the specific case for each witness and subpoena of documents. It also made the Republicans, especially McConnell, look more and more as if they were orchestrating a cover-up as they voted each amendment down.
In contrast to the calm, clinical preparedness of Schiff and his team, the president’s legal team, led by his personal attorney Jay Sekulow, looked bellicose and unprepared.
While the eventual result is all but decided, the Democrats have shown that there are gains to be had. On Wednesday night, as the clock ticked past 1am, the Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine voted with the Democrats on one of the amendments. It wasn’t enough for it to pass, but it implied that cracks may yet form in McConnell’s armour. Other Republicans have also hinted that they might be inclined to vote to call witnesses later in the proceedings. This puts the Republicans in a corner, caught between acceding to the Democrats’ demands for witnesses and evidence and losing votes in the Senate, or shutting the impeachment down quickly and potentially losing votes in the election.