Democrats and Republicans in the US Senate headed off a prolonged impeachment trial for Donald Trump on Saturday with an agreement to enter into evidence details of the former president’s remarks in a call with a top Republican during the deadly Capitol riot.
The agreement followed a chaotic vote to allow witnesses in the proceedings, which could have delayed a conclusion for weeks, heightened divisions and stymied efforts by President Joe Biden to move beyond the controversies of his predecessor.
The Senate, Trump’s lawyers and the House legislators serving as prosecutors later agreed that a statement from Republican Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler about a call between Trump and the top Republican in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, could be entered into evidence.
“‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,’” Beutler quoted Trump as saying in the call in the middle of the attack.
Herrera Beutler was one of 10 House Republicans who voted last month to impeach Trump, making him the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice.
Closing arguments kicked off after the decision about the 55-45 vote in favor of witnesses, which had unsettled members of the Senate.
Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, who earlier this week was one of just six in his party to vote that the trial should continue, threw up his hands when asked if he had expected Saturday’s vote on witnesses.
“Shelby says he’s seen three of these and this is the craziest,” he said, referencing Senator Richard Shelby whose 34-year tenure included the 1998 impeachment of former Democratic President Bill Clinton and Trump’s first impeachment trial.
The Senate floor appeared chaotic during and after the vote. Senators clustered together in apparent confusion and Senators Ron Johnson and Mitt Romney engaged in a heated conversation.
Trump is the first US president to be impeached twice and the first to face trial after leaving office. If convicted, the Senate could then vote to bar him from running for office again.
Conviction is seen as unlikely, however, as at least 17 Republicans in the 100-seat chamber would have to join all 50 Democrats to find the former president guilty.
Only six Republicans voted with Democrats to move forward with the trial, rejecting an argument made by other Republican senators that the constitution does not allow Congress to impeach a president who has already left office.
Questions about Trump’s role in riot
The trial has highlighted the extraordinary danger lawmakers faced on January 6, when Trump urged his followers to march to the Capitol and “get wild” in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying his defeat to Democrat Joe Biden in the presidential election. Five people died in the chaos.
Security camera footage presented at the trial showed rioters came perilously close to lawmakers as they were evacuated from the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Among those targeted was Vice President Mike Pence, who had refused Trump’s entreaties to interfere with the proceedings earlier that day.
Trump criticised Pence on Twitter as lacking “courage” shortly after Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville told Trump that the vice president was being evacuated for his own safety.
Trump’s lawyers gave conflicting answers on Friday when asked if Trump knew Pence was in danger when he issued his tweet. Several Republican senators said they still had questions about Trump’s role.
“The issue is what was the president’s intent, right? Only the president could answer. And the president chose not to,” Republican Senator Bill Cassidy told reporters. He said he had not made up his mind on how to vote.
Trump refused to testify in the trial.
House Democrats making the case for impeachment have argued that Trump set the stage for violence through repeated – and baseless – claims that the election results were fraudulent. They say he summoned the mob to Washington, DC, gave the crowd its marching orders and did nothing to stop the violence as it played out on television.
“I don’t know, at this point, how many minds get changed,” Senator John Thune, the chamber’s number two Republican, told reporters on Friday.
As many as 10 Republicans could find Trump guilty, according to a Senate aide, which would still be short of the 67 votes needed for conviction. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, who reprimanded Trump after the January 6 attack, will vote to acquit Trump, a source told the news agency Reuters.
‘Hatred’ not facts
Meanwhile, Trump’s impeachment lawyers accused the Democrats of waging a campaign of “hatred” against the former president, a day after they vigorously denied Trump had incited the deadly riot.
According to Al Jazeera’s Heidi Zhou-Castro, Trump’s defence team has three prongs to their argument.
“One being that this trial is unconstitutional because it is trying a former president for the very first time,” Zhou-Castro said, speaking from Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
“They also say that the First Amendment protected Trump’s political speech. They showed videos of Democrats using similar language like ‘fight’ in some of their political talk.”
The third argument is that Trump’s lawyers say the trial “lacked due process”, she continued, which is another reason for it being “unconstitutional” in their point of view.
Trump’s first impeachment trial, which stemmed from his efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, ended in an acquittal a year ago in what was then a Republican-controlled Senate.
Richard Pacelle, a professor of American politics at the University of Tennessee, told Al Jazeera that the American public is split on impeaching Trump for a second time.
“Impeachment is a pretty political weapon,” he said. “Around 60 percent support conviction and 40 percent don’t.”
He said the partisan divide in the US is “very bad” but suggested that there could be a slight move towards the political centre, with some Republicans in Congress voting with Democrats to convict Trump.
“With 10 Republicans in the House and maybe six or seven set to cross in the Senate, and with about 140,000 people in the last few days renouncing their membership of the Republican Party, we may be seeing a little bit of a movement back towards the middle,” he said.