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Jamie Raskin
“We could have had 50 million witnesses that day, and it would have made no difference,” Rep. Jamie Raskin said. Shawn Thew/AP

Democrats Had a Chance to End the Trump Era After Jan. 6. Some Are Now Haunted by It.

After the Supreme Court’s presidential immunity decision, some Democrats are reflecting on whether his post-Jan. 6 impeachment trial could have gone differently.

“We could have had 50 million witnesses that day, and it would have made no difference,” Rep. Jamie Raskin said. Shawn Thew/AP

Democrats had a slim chance in 2021 to keep Donald Trump from ever returning to the White House. Now that he looks likely to escape legal repercussions for his involvement in Jan. 6 until after Election Day and is the front-runner to become president again, some are worried they squandered it.

“The urgency of that moment was something that we should not have lost, and losing it made everything after worse,” a senior Democratic congressional aide, who asked to speak anonymously to be frank, told NOTUS, arguing the party should have pressed for a longer impeachment trial with witnesses while they had the spotlight.

The monthslong delay between the trial’s conclusion — after less than a week of proceedings — and the launch of a House select committee to investigate the attack “helped conspiracy theories start earlier and proliferate faster, it gave Trump’s defenders’ cover,” the aide said, and it made it so much easier for Republicans “to escape scrutiny for a bad vote that they knew was a mistake.”

One House Democratic lawmaker, who served as an impeachment manager and asked to speak anonymously, said they’d been thinking about it more in recent days — although it haunts this lawmaker constantly.

“I’ve thought about the impeachment trial every week since it happened,” the manager said. “There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t think about it.”

“It was a moment to hold Donald Trump accountable and to avoid what I think is — well, already what has been — a lot of pain for the country,” the lawmaker added, saying they resented being hurried to finish the trial by senators who wanted to get home on a weekend. “And what could be even more painful if he becomes president again.”

As Democrats reckon with whether President Joe Biden can defeat Trump this year, some are also rethinking their actions more than three years ago, including a potentially fateful decision not to call witnesses against Trump. Still, Democratic lawmakers and staff who spoke with NOTUS this week agreed they probably couldn’t have changed the outcome: Republicans were always going to rally behind their man, even though he tried to reject lawful election results to hold onto power. In the end, only 10 House Republicans voted with Democrats to impeach Trump, and just seven GOP senators voted to convict him.

“We kind of left it all out on the field,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who led the House’s case in the Senate trial after Jan. 6.

Raskin and other House Democratic impeachment managers said they were limited by procedure and the Republican Party’s devotion to Trump. Most Senate Republicans weren’t winnable by the time the trial began because they had overwhelmingly decided the chamber didn’t have jurisdiction to convict Trump after he had left the White House, Raskin said.

Moving sooner might have made a difference, said the other impeachment manager, who requested anonymity: “If we had done it closer to when the feelings were so raw, and before there was this pushback by Donald Trump to twist what actually happened, then who knows?”

“But I still think that it was an uphill climb,” the impeachment manager said.

The trial did not include witnesses. After all, impeachment managers reasoned, everyone in the chamber was a witness in their own right. Many had hidden from rioters in offices around the Capitol complex for hours while waiting for law enforcement to secure the building.

“We could have had 50 million witnesses that day, and it would have made no difference,” Raskin told NOTUS.

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Raskin during the impeachment trial. AP

Some Democrats regret the decision not to bring in-person witnesses, though, particularly then-Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Washington Republican who had described a phone call between then-GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump on Jan. 6 in which the then-president seemed to defend the rioters.

Herrera Beutler was willing to testify if she’d been called, her spokesperson said at the time. It would have been a striking moment, televised for the world to see: A Republican lawmaker arguing that Trump was complicit in the attack.

Not hearing from her was “a clear mistake in retrospect,” the senior Democratic aide told NOTUS this week. “I still remember how fucking livid I was at the Senate for just ending the trial without witnesses.”

Instead of pushing her or any other witnesses to testify in person, Democrats chose to enter a written statement from Herrera Beutler into the official record and conclude the trial. Senators wanted a quick vote on whether to convict Trump rather than spending several more days — or possibly weeks — debating the issue, particularly when Democrats suspected it was a losing battle.

“There was no critical thinking or intellect involved in the Republican senators’ assessment of the evidence,” former Rep. Marie Newman, an Illinois Democrat, told NOTUS. “They had this preordained. There was no way to change their minds.”

And another Democratic congressional aide told NOTUS, “There’s no universe where Trump could have been convicted.”

“His supporters are in a cult,” he said. “Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Jesus could have all testified against him and they would have voted to acquit.”

Senators were itching to get to their pending work in the new Congress, like approving President Joe Biden’s cabinet nominees and passing a sweeping pandemic relief bill. (Perhaps most importantly for some, senators also wanted to get home for Valentine’s Day.)

By the last day of the trial, the managers were under “intense pressure to move forward,” Raskin said.

Raskin was initially interested in bringing Herrera Beutler to speak. But he now believes extending the trial would have sparked chaos, with Republicans calling in their own witnesses and turning it “into a circus.”

“What could be more damning than Donald Trump’s own words in the video of him telling people, ‘You go, and you fight, and you fight like hell, and if you don’t, you’re not going to have a country anymore’?” he wondered. The idea that Herrera Beutler’s testimony could have made a difference is “fantasy,” according to Raskin.

“If anybody really thought that that was going to make a difference,” Raskin added, “we would have moved heaven and Earth to make it happen.”

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“I don’t think that the senators would have convicted Trump anyway because it was purely political,” Rep. Diana DeGette said. Susan Walsh/AP

Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, another Democrat who served as an impeachment manager, said she reached out to Herrera Beutler during the trial but claimed the Republican “stopped returning our calls.”

Herrera Beutler didn’t respond to a request for comment this week on DeGette’s remarks. A different person familiar with the discussions, who asked to speak anonymously, refuted the idea of blaming Herrera Beutler, noting she wasn’t in D.C. during the witness conversation, and it unfolded very quickly, from a late Friday night to a Saturday morning. (The Senate also has the ability to subpoena witnesses.)

Still, DeGette believes there was no way to convince Senate Republicans to stop Trump in the early days of 2021.

“I don’t think that the senators would have convicted Trump anyway because it was purely political,” she said.

Because he wasn’t convicted, the impeachment trial did not end with Trump being banned from holding future office, as some past impeachment convictions for lower-ranking officials have. While Democrats may have hoped that would be determined by the courts, the Supreme Court’s recent immunity decision means he’s unlikely to face legal consequences before November, if he does at all.

For now, it’s up to voters whether Trump’s conduct around the 2020 election was acceptable. And even a longer impeachment trial may not have been able to change the views of the GOP base.

“No Republican who voted to impeach Trump would have moved the needle one way or another,” said a political strategist who previously worked as a Republican staffer on the Hill. “Americans either love him or hate him — their decision wouldn’t have changed because of one witness who already was on the record voting to impeach the president.”

Correction: This article initially identified Kevin McCarthy as the then-speaker; he was GOP leader.

Haley Byrd Wilt and Oriana González are reporters at NOTUS.