Near the end of the first full day of the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, a Democratic staffer working on the House impeachment team received a message from a sibling. “It’s going really well,” the text said. “Do you think there’s a chance?” A week earlier, seven House Democrats—known as floor managers, in impeachment argot—had marched across the long axis of the Capitol, past statues of Brigham Young and Barry Goldwater, and delivered two articles of impeachment to the floor of the Senate. Hakeem Jeffries, a floor manager from New York, told me later that the experience of passing from one chamber to the other was “what it must feel like when a home team is playing in a game at someone else’s stadium.” The feeling was well warranted: just about every aspect of the trial—the amount of time the managers would have to present, the kind and quantity of evidence they could use, even the scope of press access—would be controlled by Senate Republicans, which was to say, in large part, by Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader. What’s more, the official task confronting the managers, to persuade sixty-seven out of a hundred senators to remove the President from office, was, as everyone had recognized from the start, all but impossible.
And yet, the staffer’s family back home could be forgiven for thinking that the House Democrats had reason for some modest optimism. In the hours before the trial proceedings got under way in earnest, on January 21st, McConnell had been forced by moderate members of his caucus to backtrack from a proposal that would have provided just two days for the managers to present their case. On that first day, the managers had also been able to take advantage of a series of procedural amendments proposed by Chuck Schumer, the Minority Leader, to start arguing the substance of their case, in a way that had clearly seemed to catch the White House lawyers, sent to the Senate to defend the President, off guard. The staffer recognized these minor victories but quickly set his sibling straight. “No,” he wrote back. “This is the Alamo. There’s only one outcome here.”
This feeling of inevitability was shared among those who were most intimately involved with the House’s impeachment efforts. As recently as July—coincidentally, on the same day that Donald Trump had his now infamous call with the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky—Adam Schiff, the ex-prosecutor who became the de-facto leader of the House’s impeachment inquiry last fall, said that he would “be delighted” if there was a real prospect of removing the President through impeachment. Unfortunately, he said at the time, “the only way he’s leaving office, at least at this point, is by being voted out.” For his part, Jerry Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told me more recently that, though he believed that “on any rational basis, the President should be removed from office,” he had no illusions about the possibility of such an event occurring. “I’m cynical,” he said. “I didn’t believe the Republicans would give a damn.”
The minimal odds of convicting Trump did not stop many House Democrats from seeing the chance to serve as a floor manager as intensely attractive. But they also understood, like aspiring popes, that grasping too openly for the position would not help their cause. After Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her selection of the managers, a few hours before the articles of impeachment were delivered to the Senate, several of them insisted that they had not lobbied to be chosen. Val Demings, for instance, a former police chief from Florida, told me that, during the meeting in which Pelosi told her that she would be a floor manager, the Speaker had first asked if she was even interested. “She had not heard from me,” Demings said. By all accounts, Pelosi kept her choice a closely held secret right up to the end. Schiff—whom she has called her “general,” and whom she selected to be the lead floor manager for the trial—was one of the few people with whom she discussed the matter. Nadler, who had chaired a hearing about the constitutional standards for impeachment last fall—debates about which would loom large over the trial—was another. The remaining five managers were selected to make up a group that Pelosi hoped would reflect the diversity, in several dimensions, of the House Democratic caucus. Zoe Lofgren, of California, had seen two previous impeachment inquiries at close hand. Jeffries was recognized as one of the House’s more talented communicators. Demings was a member of both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, which had given her a role in both major phases of the House impeachment inquiry. Sylvia Garcia, of Texas, was a freshman congresswoman and a former judge. Staffers working on the inquiry said that the one surprise on Pelosi’s list was Jason Crow, of Colorado, a former Army Ranger who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan but had not been on any of the committees conducting the impeachment inquiry.
The Laurel and Hardy–esque physical contrast between Schiff and Nadler, the team’s most senior members, could stand as a metaphor for their differing attitudes toward impeachment. Schiff had resisted calls to begin proceedings against Trump even after the release of the Mueller report, and had urged Pelosi last fall to keep the scope of the articles narrowly focussed on the Ukraine matter. Nadler, on the other hand, was an early advocate for impeachment. Last summer, a month before news of the Ukraine scheme had broken in the press, he told CNN that the Judiciary Committee was engaged in “formal impeachment proceedings,” a declaration that caused some consternation among his more cautious colleagues in the House. And, when we spoke during the trial, he confirmed to me, for the first time on the record, that he had pushed Pelosi, unsuccessfully, to include an article of impeachment dedicated to the obstruction-of-justice allegations in the Mueller report. “It was clear to me by the beginning of 2019 that, on the merits, he ought to be impeached,” Nadler said, of Trump. By December, when the actual articles were drawn up, he said, “we could have impeached him on a dozen, literally a dozen, different arguments. But there’s a prudential political judgment to be made in terms of which articles and how many, and that’s the judgment that Nancy”—Pelosi—“ultimately made. That’s not a judgment on values, on the merits. It was a judgment, ultimately, on which could be most easily explained.”
The House floor managers had three days to present their case against Trump. They would end up using nearly all of their allotted twenty-four hours, building their case out of a series of scripted modules. As a lawyer working on the impeachment told me, the aim of the presentation was to put together something like a closing argument in a typical criminal trial, “where you are weaving the evidence together—the text messages, the documents, the video, the argument—to show how it all meshes together.”
From the start, the managers and the staff had been aware of the need to reach two audiences. One was the hundred senators in the chamber, who were forced to sit silently through eight hours of lectures each day, without smartphones or laptops to distract them. Lofgren, who knew many of the Republicans from earlier in their careers, when they had served in the House with her, said that she took special care to make eye contact with her former colleagues. “I’m looking at them, wondering what they’re thinking and how to speak to them,” she said. By far the more important audience, however, at least as far as the managers were concerned, was the public watching at home, who would not have the time or inclination to absorb hours of sometimes tedious presentations at a stretch. “In order to appeal to the broader public, you have to have some repetition,” the lawyer told me. “But that annoys the senators, who are sitting there listening to what they perceive, potentially, to be the same thing over and over.”
Another challenge was the peculiar legal structure of the trial itself. “In this trial, as opposed to every other trial in America, criminal or civil or whatever, the jury gets instructions from the judge,” the lawyer told me. “The jury is told that they have to follow the law, regardless of what they think of it. They need to apply the facts to the law.” In the impeachment trial, by contrast, “there’s no definitive legal standard that the jury of the Senate needs to abide by. And so the message that we’re trying to convey is not that we have proven the facts as much as it is that we have persuaded the jury. That’s a slightly different analysis.” As a result, the lawyer suggested, some of the most contentious aspects of the impeachment trial tended to focus less on the facts of the case than on their ultimate significance. “For our side, the notion that a President would use the powers that only the President has, to benefit himself, is really anathema to everything that our country stands for. That just became the overarching message that we funnelled through everything that we did.”
The scripts for each module were typically drafted by the staff of the impeachment inquiry. “We started with the facts,” the lawyer said. “And then we tried to pull out from the weeds, to focus on some of the broader messages.” The managers themselves were also keen to put their individual stamp on speeches they delivered. “You can’t talk like a lawyer and bore the entire room,” Lofgren told me. The daughter of a beer-truck driver, she said that she wanted to “use regular words that people understand, that don’t put them to sleep.” Crow, who, while deployed in Afghanistan, had studied for the LSAT during rocket attacks, told me that he liked to write his own scripts from outlines while listening to music from a playlist that, to the mortification of his communications director, he had named “Jason’s Chillin’ Playlist,” with songs by Journey, Foreigner, and Billy Joel. For Jeffries, a former corporate litigator who defended CBS against a lawsuit over Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during Super Bowl XXXVIII, in 2004, the cycles of intense editing reminded him of being a young legal associate. “The staff here has been giving us great drafts, but we’re still marking them up heavily and putting ourselves into it,” he said.
Some of the most memorable moments of the managers’ presentations were not scripted at all. During the arguments over Schumer’s amendments, Jay Sekulow, one of the President’s lawyers, had asked the senators, “Why are we here? Are we here because of a phone call or are we here before this great body because, as the President was sworn into office, there was a desire to see him removed?” At the next break, Jeffries suggested to Schiff that the question gave the managers an opening to explain what their case was about. When Jeffries spoke later in the day, he extemporized a series of answers to Sekulow’s question before ending his speech with an allusion—surely the first on the Senate floor—to a lyric by the Notorious B.I.G. “That is why we’re here, Mr. Sekulow,” he said. “And if you don’t know, now you know.” Later, he told me, “Perhaps this is just my Brooklyn upbringing, but it came to me that I could think of no better way to finish this off.”
In October, one staffer working on the impeachment inquiry had described Schiff to me as “incredibly wonky, a prosecutor devoid of any emotion,” and several of his colleagues noted his imperturbably even keel. Jason Crow told me that he saw in Schiff a quality he saw in himself. “He operates within a tight band,” he said. “The highs are moderated, the lows are moderated.” Since the Intelligence Committee hearings last fall, however, I’d noticed that Schiff was letting himself get increasingly emotional in his speeches. Sometimes he sounded angry, other times elegiac or aspirational, still others almost pleading. When I asked Schiff about this later, he told me that, during those Intelligence Committee hearings, he had felt “very strongly about the seriousness of the undertaking” and began keeping notes on “what was particularly revealing, a new insight into a witness’s testimony or something that one of the Founders said.” At the end of each day, he would weave the notes into an improvised closing argument—a process, continued through the Senate trial, that produced several rousing speeches, which were repeated endlessly on cable news and social media. “I think, when you’re able to get away from the script, it’s more engaging for the senators and those watching,” Schiff said. “There’s always obviously some risk in doing that, too, but that was my practice.”
Throughout the proceedings in the Senate chamber, the floor managers and their staff, and the White House lawyers across the aisle, sat at comma-shaped tables that were custom-built for the Clinton impeachment trial, in 1999. Another two dozen or so Democratic staffers monitored the proceedings from a room near the Senate chamber that was ordinarily the possession of the Senate’s Rules and Administration Committee. Tables, computers, and heavy-duty staplers had been brought in for the duration of the trial, a copy machine had been wheeled into a corner, and a direct line to the House’s computer network had been installed. On the mantle of a marble fireplace, usually home to a stately clock, were arranged heaps of Skittles, boxes of Clif Bars, and a cache of Cheez-Its that were monopolized by Jason Crow. “I’m a huge carboholic,” he told me. “A big Cheez-Its guy.” For all the planning, the trial held several surprises for the managers. One was the close physical quarters of the Senate chamber, which is much smaller than the House. “Mitch McConnell is right there, front and center,” Jeffries said. “You are talking to the opposition, and he’s about ten feet away from you.” Garcia told me that, during the breaks, both the managers and the senators tended to make a beeline for the same set of bathrooms. “We can’t help but see each other,” she said. “There’s only so much room.”
Another surprise was how little many of the senators seemed to know about the alleged Ukraine scheme before the trial started. On the first day of the managers’ presentation, John Kennedy, of Louisiana, told reporters that he had “learned a lot. Everybody has. Senators didn’t know the case. They really didn’t. We didn’t stay glued to the television. We haven’t read the transcripts.” That evening, Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, went out of his way to shake Schiff’s hand after the presentations were over. According to a House Democratic aide working on impeachment, those two events were “pretty shocking. We just assumed everybody has been living with every level of detail of this, as we have. The Republicans coming and congratulating our members like that meant a lot to us.”
The major question of the trial—asked of virtually every senator throughout the first week—was whether the managers and their Democratic counterparts in the Senate would be able to persuade four Republican senators to break ranks and allow them to call witnesses. As the managers reminded the senators repeatedly, every previous impeachment trial had involved witnesses, many of whom testified in the Senate for the first time. Despite this precedent, McConnell had beat back the Democrats’ first attempt to secure subpoenas for witness and documents, securing the support of moderates such as Susan Collins, of Maine, and Mitt Romney, of Utah, with an assurance that they would get a vote on the witness question after the presentations and a sixteen-hour question period concluded. The possibility that they might not hear from witnesses, Nadler told me, was “so far beyond the pale that it had never occurred to me” that it might be a possibility. But, in some ways, it simplified the task. “It lowers the bar of what’s necessary for there to be an achievement, a win,” a staffer for the managers said. “Because you’re not going to get sixty-seven senators to vote to remove the President.”
Schiff had a similar moment during the close of the managers’ three-day presentation. Near the end of a generally well-received peroration on the theme of political courage, he mentioned a CBS report that claimed a Trump ally had warned Republican senators, “Vote against the President and your head will be on a pike.” Instantly, the mood in the chamber turned against him. “It’s not true!” Collins said, as she and other Republicans shook their heads vigorously. Schiff, backpedalling furiously, said, “I hope it is not true.” Schiff, like Nadler, didn’t put much stock in the senators’ reactions. “There was maybe a character of ‘Methinks they doth protest too much,’ ” he told me afterward.
The six-day-a-week schedule mandated by the Senate impeachment rules meant that most of the managers, especially those from the western half of the country, could not make it home between the first and second weeks of the trial. Jason Crow, who stayed in Washington, told me that he took advantage of the day off to sleep in a little, go to the gym, and eat a decent breakfast. (“You still did TV,” his press secretary reminded him. “Oh, my God, I forgot about that,” Crow said, shaking his head. “Yeah, I did ‘Face the Nation.’ ”) Hakeem Jeffries took an Acela back to New York on Saturday afternoon, spent time with his family, and visited not one but two Brooklyn churches on Sunday morning. “The timing worked out,” he said. “On any given Sunday, I’ll usually attend two, if not three, church services.”
By Sunday afternoon, all of the managers were back in Washington, except Jerry Nadler, whose absence was explained by a public statement released by his staff. In December, the day before the House vote on the articles of impeachment, Nadler’s wife of forty-four years had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She had emergency surgery to remove the tumor a few days later, and had been in the hospital and at a rehab center to recover ever since. Now, finally, she was due to come home, and Nadler planned to stay in New York to help with the transition. (When I asked what it was like dealing with impeachment and his wife’s cancer at the same time, Nadler said, “Just more pressure. It’s more pressure.”)
That evening, the other six managers gathered in a conference room in Pelosi’s office suite to discuss which arguments to expect from the White House and how to rebut them. The group was silently reading through a strategy document when a staffer said, “Whoa, something big just came through on Bolton.” An article in the Times described the contents of a manuscript written by John Bolton, Trump’s former national-security adviser, which reportedly corroborated the managers’ allegations of a quid pro quo involving security aid to Ukraine. “We read the headline, and then started reading the article,” Jeffries told me. “Everybody was, like, ‘This seems big.’ ”
The next day, at the Capitol, the Bolton news overshadowed not only the birthday of Chief Justice John Roberts but even the appearance of Kenneth Starr, the architect of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, who had come on behalf of Trump to argue on the Senate floor that America was suffering through an age of too frequent impeachments. That morning, I met Jeffries in his office on the House side of the Capitol. Sitting in a leather wingback chair, he told me that he thought the possibility of seeing witnesses in the trial had increased “significantly” because of the Bolton news. And, though some Republican senators grumbled loudly about a replay of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process—there, too, a last-minute revelation had upended McConnell’s carefully laid plans—others were conceding that, in the words of Mike Braun, of Indiana, the development “probably will make the dynamic different.” A few of Braun’s colleagues, speaking to reporters in the basement of the Senate, started talking up the possibility of a witness swap, which would allow them to subpoena Joe Biden or his son Hunter, the targets of the investigation Trump requested from Ukraine, if the Democrats got Bolton. Meanwhile, James Lankford, of Oklahoma, one of the President’s fiercest defenders in the Senate, proposed making the Bolton manuscript available to senators in a classified setting, an idea that even Graham, who had long opposed the idea of witnesses, said he thought was a good one.
By the end of the White House presentation, on Tuesday night, it was still unclear how Senate Republicans were going to deal with the Bolton revelations. That night, I sat down with Nadler, who had just returned from seeing his wife in New York. Earlier in the day, the White House’s lawyers had shown a video of Nadler, from 1998, arguing against party-line impeachments. “When I said that, it never occurred to me that an American political party would degrade itself to an authoritarian political party where anything goes, no matter what,” he told me. “I never thought an American political party could get as bad as now, where they completely don’t care how bad the crimes are.” Nadler reminded me that the “smoking gun” tape during Watergate had captured Richard Nixon instructing H. R. Haldeman, his chief of staff, to get the C.I.A. to tell the F.B.I. to call off the investigation. Within days of its release, three senior Republicans in Congress, Barry Goldwater, John Jacob Rhodes, and Hugh Scott, had urged Nixon’s resignation. “That was so horrible,” Nadler said. “But what was that? That was the President using the power of government to protect himself from an investigation involving a burglar. Compared to what is alleged and proven now? It’s piddly. You wouldn’t notice it.”
Starting Wednesday, in the course of sixteen hours, divided between two days, the senators conducted a highly artificial debate that involved each of them rising, in turn, to announce that they’d submitted a written question to the Chief Justice. The questions were addressed to the floor managers, the White House, or, occasionally, both parties, and once they’d been read by Roberts the chosen side would get five minutes to respond. For the most part, the questions were alley-oops lobbed to the senator’s home team. The House Democrats came in with fresh binders full of pre-scripted responses. “We tried to choreograph who would handle which questions,” Schiff told me later. “We didn’t always get our signals exactly right, but I think we did a nearly flawless job of giving each member responsibility for different parts of the case while also keeping the flexibility of making decisions on the fly.”
Perhaps the most consequential question asked over the two-day period—not counting the Kentucky senator Rand Paul’s attempt to out the whistle-blower, which Roberts refused to read—came early on the first day, when Ted Cruz, of Texas, asked the White House whether, as a matter of law, it mattered if the President engaged in a quid pro quo. Two days earlier, the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz had argued on behalf of the President that, even if Trump “were to have done what the Times reported about the content of the Bolton manuscript, that would not constitute an impeachable offense.” Now, in response to Cruz’s question, Dershowitz leaped up from the White House table to insist that a quid pro quo could only be impeachable if it involved a personal financial gain. A President could not be impeached for actions that served the national interest, Dershowitz argued, and, since every politician believed that his own electoral success was in the national interest, it was unfair, and unconstitutional, to impeach Trump for an effort to win reëlection that did not meet the definition of a statutory crime.
For the floor managers, Dershowitz’s answer was remarkable for the clarity with which it laid out the stakes of the trial. Throughout much of their presentation, the White House lawyers had disputed the managers’ case on narrow factual, legal, and procedural grounds. But now here was Dershowitz asking senators like Cruz, who had once accused Barack Obama of acting like “an unaccountable monarch,” to accept a theory of uncheckable executive power. “I think it was shocking to the senators,” Schiff told me. “It gave us an opportunity to show just how dangerous the President’s misconduct is, and how dangerous the argument is that, as the President put it, he has the right to do whatever he wants.”
On Thursday night, less than twenty-four hours before the vote on the witness question, senators made use of the final break of the evening to talk with their colleagues across the aisle. Mitt Romney spoke to Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, and Dick Durbin, of Illinois. Maria Cantwell, of Washington, and Mark Warner, of Virginia, crossed the floor to the G.O.P. side and took turns talking to the Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander, who, along with Collins, Romney, and the Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, was widely considered one of the four potential Republican votes still in play on the question of witnesses. A few minutes after the trial adjourned, I caught up with Cantwell as she was leaving the Capitol and asked what she’d been discussing on the Republican side during the break. “Oh,” she said, sounding dejected, “just talking to them, trying to tell them that we need witnesses.” I asked if she knew how Alexander was planning to vote. “I don’t have any real intel,” she said. “I don’t know what to say about him. I wish . . . ” She stopped herself. “It’s such an important thing. We should be able to agree on the facts. You might have a different idea about the outcome, but we should have the facts in front of us, and we should be able to agree on them.”
A few minutes later, after Cantwell had climbed into a waiting car, Alexander posted a sixteen-tweet thread. As it happened, he and Cantwell did seem to agree on the facts: the floor managers had proved the factual basis of their abuse-of-power case so thoroughly, in fact, that, according to Alexander, no new witnesses were necessary to add to their “mountain of overwhelming evidence.” What they had not proved, he argued, was that those facts were impeachable. Nor had they proved the “frivolous” second article, of obstruction of Congress. “It’s heartbreaking,” an aide told me the next morning. “It’s, like, ‘You’re absolutely right, but I’m not going to do anything about it.’ ”
Between the House vote on impeachment, in December, and the adjournment of the trial, on Wednesday, about the only thing all sides could agree on was that two-thirds of the Senate was never going to vote for Trump’s removal and disqualification from office. But, once that option was off the table, the significance of what happened was entirely up for grabs. The White House could claim not just exoneration for the President but also a vindication, of sorts, for its expansive theory of executive authority. McConnell could claim that he had thwarted a “precedent-breaking impeachment” that threatened the constitutional integrity of the Senate, as well as a tactical victory in persuading his caucus to prevent the trial from spiralling into a process that he, and they, might no longer be able to control. Schumer had not only kept his own caucus unified, which denied the President the chance to claim a bipartisan acquittal, but he’d also been able to get several vulnerable Republican senators who are up for reëlection this fall on the record voting against witnesses, which, according to polls, more than seventy per cent of Americans hoped to see.
For the managers, the final calculations were no less complicated. Alexander’s argument that no new witnesses were necessary because the managers had proved the facts of the case with “a mountain of overwhelming evidence” offered little comfort. Neither did Murkowski’s explanation, on Monday, that she voted against witnesses in part because she didn’t want to put the Chief Justice in the position of deciding whether to break a fifty-fifty tie. Murkowski would end up voting no on both articles of impeachment, despite her assertion that “the President’s behavior was shameful and wrong,” something no other Republican in Congress had previously been willing to concede.
On Wednesday, however, the managers learned that, in one respect, at least, the case they had presented in the Senate would break permanent new ground. Speaking on the floor of the Senate a few hours before the final vote, with the emotion of the moment obviously weighing upon him, Romney declared that “the President is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust. What he did was not ‘perfect.’ No, it was a flagrant assault of our electoral rights.” Romney’s single vote against the President, on the abuse-of-power article, changed nothing about the ultimate outcome of the trial, but it will almost certainly become a central feature of how Trump’s impeachment is remembered. For the first time in the country’s history, a senator voted to remove a President of his own party. That evening, through a spokesperson, Schiff noted that, during the trial, he had wondered whether even one Republican would have the courage to do impartial justice, as required by the oath they took at the outset of the trial. “There was, and it was Mitt Romney,” he said. “The fact that he and a number of courageous Democrats in difficult states displayed the courage they did vindicates the Framers’ confidence that we possess the virtue necessary for self-governance.”
Last July, during an interview with CNN, Schiff had warned that, though impeachment was “among the strongest forms of censure” available to the House, an acquittal in a Senate trial would also be “the strongest form of exoneration” for the President. Like Pelosi, who has lately argued that Trump cannot claim exoneration in the absence of a fair trial, Schiff has made clear that the circumstances of the trial over the past three weeks have changed his mind about the significance of the Senate’s vote to acquit. On Friday, before the witness vote, I watched from the press gallery as a page delivered news to the floor managers that John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, had told reporters in Florida that “a Senate trial without witnesses is a job only half done.’’ A little later, Schiff stood at the lectern in the well of the Senate chamber and said that he could not agree with Kelly. “A trial without witnesses,” he said, “is no trial at all.” A few days later, I asked Schiff what he made of the argument, captured in a headline in the Times over the weekend, that the vote in the Senate would leave Trump “triumphant and unshackled.” Not surprisingly, he disagreed with this notion, too. “I do think that the impeachment in itself, regardless of what happens with the ultimate verdict, is a deterrent to Presidential abuse of power,” he said. “It is certainly not as effective a deterrent as removal from office, which is the proper remedy. But, nonetheless, I think it sent the message to this President and others this does matter, that there is accountability, that they’re not above the law.”