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Senators Surprised Themselves With A Vote On Witnesses, Sending Trump's Impeachment Trial Into Chaos For Hours

Senators unexpectedly agreed to call witnesses in the impeachment trial on Saturday morning, but then decided against it.

Last updated on February 13, 2021, at 1:08 p.m. ET

Posted on February 13, 2021, at 12:30 p.m. ET

Handout / Getty Images

The Senate's vote to subpoena witnesses in Trump's impeachment trial

WASHINGTON — Former president Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial fell into confusion and disarray Saturday when a vote to call witnesses passed, surprising senators who thought they were coasting to end the trial later in the day.

The vote to call witnesses passed 55–45 Saturday morning, sending the Senate into chaos. A few hours later, senators agreed not to call witnesses after all, accepting a deal between the House Democratic impeachment managers and Trump's defense lawyers to submit a statement into the record and move on to closing statements and then vote on whether to convict Trump.

Saturday was expected to be a short and straightforward day. Up to four hours had been allotted for closing arguments, then, after some procedural votes, it was widely predicted that there would be a final vote where Trump would be acquitted. For the entire weeklong trial, both parties had largely dismissed the idea of calling witnesses.

But on Friday, Trump’s lawyer Michael van der Veen made the dubious claim that Trump had never been told at any point that then–vice president Mike Pence was in danger during the Jan 6. insurrection at the Capitol. But Sen. Tommy Tuberville confirmed he told Trump on the phone at the time that Pence and senators were being evacuated because the mob had breached the Capitol perimeter.

On Friday night, CNN reported that Trump refused to call off the mob during an angry and profane argument with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in the middle of the siege. “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” CNN reported Trump as saying, based on lawmakers briefed on the call by McCarthy.

House impeachment managers ended up asking to call witnesses Saturday afternoon, including Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler who went on the record with CNN to confirm the content of Trump’s call with McCarthy. All Democrats voted to call witnesses along with five Republicans — Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Ben Sasse, and — after it was clear the vote would pass — Lindsey Graham. Graham, who had warned Democrats that “floodgates” would open if they tried to call in people to testify, switched his vote from no to yes just as the vote was ending.

What followed was more than two hours of confusion as Trump's team threatened to call hundreds of witnesses and senators described utter pandemonium. Finally, both sides agreed to put a statement from Herrera Beutler in the official record, allowing the Senate to finish up the trial Saturday.

Uncertainty defined the trial on Saturday morning. During the initial witness vote, Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan stood up to say that he and his colleagues weren’t even sure “what we just voted on.”

“There’s a little confusion here. Was that a vote on one witness or many witnesses?” he asked Sen. Patrick Leahy, who responded that senators couldn’t talk during a vote so Sullivan couldn’t ask and Leahy didn’t clarify.

Senators flooded out of the chamber expressing bewilderment.

Sen. Bill Cassidy threw his hands up when asked if he expected this. “[Sen. Richard] Shelby says he’s seen three of these and this is the craziest one,” he said. Sen. Ron Johnson got visibly upset at fellow Republican Sen. Mitt Romney on the Senate floor after Romney voted in favor of calling witnesses.

“I thought we were going to come to a conclusion here today,” Cassidy told reporters afterward. “Let’s rip the wound back open and let’s rub more salt in it.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito almost burst out laughing when asked if she was surprised. "Yeah! I think we all thought we would be done today."

Greg Nash / Getty Images

Trump adviser Jason Miller carrying a list of 301 witnesses the defense says they may want to call

Sen. Ted Cruz warned that Democrats would be opening Pandora’s box if they call Herrera Beutler to testify, suggesting that Republicans could try to counter by calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (A majority of senators would need to agree on which witnesses are called, so each party would need at least one senator from the other side of the aisle to agree.)

"It's kind of a bizarre morning because it is chaos that's played out. … At this point, it’s pandemonium," Cruz said.

Trump lawyer Bruce Castor told reporters he would call “lots” of witnesses and their team was showing off a list of 301 witness possibilities “so far” on Friday. Sen. Jerry Moran said the whole process of depositions and testimony could take months. In the meantime, the Senate would likely have been able to go back to its normal business while the depositions were taking place.

Democrats dismissed talk of huge numbers of witnesses as bluster and generally seemed more excited about the twist development. “These are breaking developments,” said Sen. Ron Wyden. “I believe this is very much an honor.”

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