WASHINGTON — Whenever the impeachment trial pauses for a break, Democrat and Republican senators flood out towards cameras and microphones to push their competing messages. Democratic Sen. Tom Carper summed up his strategy with the words of an old Methodist minister from his home state of Delaware — “He used to say to me ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.'”
It sounds simple but Democrats are grappling with a question: What is their main thing?
They’re torn between two options. One is the evidence that President Donald Trump abused his powers of office to extort a foreign country, Ukraine, into launching an investigation into his political rival, former vice president Joe Biden.
The other is that Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans are committing a cover-up by blocking any new information that could further expose Trump’s guilt. Republicans spent Tuesday voting down 10 amendments to subpoena key witnesses and documents. The Trump administration has refused to provide documents or allow staff to testify, though former national security adviser John Bolton said he would appear before the Senate if subpoenaed.
During the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry, House Republicans relentlessly hammered the proceedings as a sham, a show trial, and a political hit job. They overwhelmingly attacked the process and largely avoided getting into the contents of witness testimony. Now some Democrats are working to turn that back on them.
“It’s a cover-up,” Sen. Michael Bennett said early and often during one media scrum in a break from the trial. “Mitch McConnell is trying to cover up what Donald Trump did.”
The hope is that by applying maximum pressure, Democrats may convince some Republicans to break ranks and vote to call witnesses. There will be one more vote on witnesses next week and it will take four Republicans to succeed. If it fails, the Senate will almost certainly vote to acquit Trump quickly, likely before the end of the week.
Politicians are used to honing their top sound bites, knowing only one or two of their lines are likely to make it into print or onto TV. But the risk of attacking the process is taking attention away from the substance, which Democrats think overwhelmingly harms the president.
Rep. Adam Schiff and other impeachment managers finally have the floor to themselves as they spend three days laying out the evidence that Trump abused the powers of his office and obstructed Congress.
Melding the two can get rocky. After Rep. Jerry Nadler accused Republicans of a cover-up while speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Susan Collins sent a note to Chief Justice John Roberts. Shortly afterward, Roberts admonished both legal teams and directed them to use more respectful language. That gave Republicans an opening to stress their indignation.
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said the solution is to taper your approach to your audience. In the chamber, it’s about the case against Trump. But in the media, Democrats need to loudly object to the process.
“If your jury is the senators in the room, go through the facts, go through the evidence, go through the argument. Because I think when laid bare it’s pretty hard not to conclude that there’s a very troubling set of facts here,” said Coons.
“But for the general public who is kind of watching at a distance, it is far more compelling to say this is not on the level, this is not a fair trial, we are working without all the facts and the facts are easy to get.”
But most Democrats say they are trying to follow Schiff’s lead and do both at once. Schiff is not yet publicly declaring a cover-up, but he is taking every chance he gets to poke Republicans on the subpoena issue. Over two days of testimony he’s outlined documents and evidence the Trump administration has refused to turn over, such as the contemporaneous notes of then-acting Ukraine ambassador Bill Taylor, who told Trump administration officials at the time that he thought it was “crazy” to withhold aid for the country to benefit Trump politically.
“Maybe those notes say ‘no quid pro quo.’ Maybe those notes say it’s a perfect call,” said Schiff. “I’d like to see them. I’d like to show them to you. They’re yours for the asking.”