Hastings was a British official who served as the Crown’s governor-general in Bengal, India. The British Parliament was attempting to impeach Hastings in the late 1780s. That’s right around the same time the Founders convened the Constitutional Convention in the United States. Word of Hastings’s impeachment trial even made the papers in the incipient, young nation. It helped form debate and the final verbiage in the American Constitution about impeachment.
The British Parliament tried to impeach Hastings over a seven-year period stretching from 1788 to 1795. The trial dragged on for so long that a third of the House of Lords’ membership hearing the case died before it was over. Parliament eventually acquitted Hastings.
President Trump’s trial won’t run that long here – although some would say it’s felt like seven years. And, the senators hearing the case aren’t hoping they meet the same demise as those listening to Hastings’ case in the House of Lords.
In his opening remarks at the trial Saturday as the president’s lawyers began their defense, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone took a veiled swipe at the exhaustive 24 hours of arguments presented to the Senate by the House impeachment managers.
“We are going to be very respectful of your time,” Cipollone told the senators. “We anticipate going about two to three hours at most and to (have) you be out of here by 1:00 at the latest.”
A spontaneous, collective roar seemingly nearly lifted the dome off the Capitol – regardless of anyone’s position on impeachment. Senate aides, U.S. Capitol Police and members of the media likely were joining in the euphoria.
All things are relative. Those working on the impeachment trial were practically ebullient that lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., concluded the House’s presentation just before 9 p.m. Friday night. That sure beat Tuesday’s session, which stretched until 1:50 Wednesday morning.
This was the first Saturday session in Trump’s impeachment trial. Senate impeachment Rule III dictated that the trial needed to run six days a week, Saturdays included. The Senate sat for three Saturdays during then-President Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999.
Remarkably, Cipollone and his team didn’t burn three hours of time on Saturday. They didn’t even incinerate two hours. The president’s defense team clocked in at one hour and 50 minutes.
Brevity was the theme – perhaps to appeal to weary senators, utterly whipped by events of the past week.
“I’m ecstatic that it was only two hours,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., after the trial adjourned for the day.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., bragged that the president’s defense team needed less than two hours on the floor, yet they “annihilated three days of work by Adam Schiff.” Meadows characterized the approach as “surgical.”
Trump’s defense team aimed to contrast its more efficient approach with what some analysts regarded as the talkativeness of the impeachment managers.
“Very few souls are saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., noted that a demonstrator somehow managed to bolt into the chamber on Wednesday night, shouting about abortion and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Officials from the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Office shoved the man out of the chamber. U.S. Capitol Police charged the suspect.
“I’m thinking about possibly doing the same thing so the sergeant-at-arms will take me out also,” Scott said.
Graham complained that the House impeachment managers played some of the video clips “seven times.” He added that after hearing the same points “four times, that’s about twice too much.” But generally, Graham was complimentary of the Democrats.
“They did a good job of taking bits and pieces of the evidence and creating a quilt,” he said.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, didn’t mind hearing the repetition, even though he said he spotted Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney on the video screen so many times. “I feel like I’m having dinner with him.”
“Sometimes guys might catch it the first time,” King said, suggesting that the Democrats employed an “old southern, preacher rule of public speaking.”
King said the practice went like this: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. And then, tell them what you told them,” he said. “Repetition is a part of persuasion.”
It’s just like hearing a commercial on the radio over and over again for a plumber or heating and air conditioning company. Then, when your furnace goes out on a cold February night, whom do you call?
Most Republicans were really just happy to be done with the House impeachment managers. Many fumed that in his closing remarks Thursday night, Schiff cited a CBS News report suggesting the president wanted the heads of Republicans who opposed him “on a pike.”
“Adam Schiff’s best two hours were the first two, and his worst ten minutes were the last ten,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., complained. “He left a bad mark going out the door.”
But, it’s not like the Democrats’ arguments were winning over Republicans anyway, no matter how comprehensive or compelling their points may have been. It seemed many Republicans simply were not buying the arguments and evidence presented by the Democrats. Perhaps that’s why the president’s defense team’s presentation was so condensed.
It wasn’t just that it was Saturday and folks wanted to jet out of Washington. Trump’s counsel argued a compressed case because they didn’t have to do that much persuasion. Senators had made up their minds already.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, asserted his Republican colleagues were fretting about the GOP base if they deviated from the president.
“They don’t want to say things that will anger them,” Brown said. “There is fear in the eyes of Republican senators. They realize the president didn’t tell the truth.”
“I think they’re wrestling with their conscience, which is what they should be doing,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, of Republicans. “My Republican colleagues should be a helluva lot more upset by what the president did, not only to Ukraine, but to our own country by not being good for our word.”
But, those arguments appeared to fall on deaf ears, and after the succinct session Saturday, tribalism kicked in again. Everyone ran to their usual corners.
A team of eight House GOP surrogates headed to a stakeout position, filled with reporters, in the Senate subway station. Schumer and Schiff bolted to the press gallery studio for separate news conferences. Senators who wanted to avoid pesky reporters ran for the exits. Democrats running for president raced to the airport so they could campaign for a day-and-a-half in the snows of Iowa.
There are multiple audiences for this trial: senators, the public, voters in the presidential race, voters in House races and voters in Senate races. Each cohort likely will interpret the trial differently. But, in some ways, this trial faced an audience of one.
“The president was pleased with the presentation. He thought they did an excellent job with rebuttal on the facts,” said one GOP source who spoke with Trump after the trial concluded. “Because of the effective oral arguments, he sees this as a mandate to end the impeachment process expeditiously.”
Votes to call witnesses later this week could certainly elongate the trial. That seemed to be the only unresolved issue. Republicans honed in on the issue of calling the Bidens as witnesses after the House managers cited them 226 times during Thursday’s session.
“That would be like calling Hunter Biden to be a witness in the OJ [Simpson] trial. He doesn’t know anything about it,” King said. “So, the question then would be relevance.”
But, this newfound rocket docket could mean Republicans simply have wanted to wrap things up. Cramer said dithering over witnesses “would open a whole can of worms.”
If things continue at this clip, the Senate could vote to dismiss the case or vote on each article of impeachment by next weekend.
Back in England, there was intense interest in the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings. But, interest started to drop as figures once keyed up about Hastings retreated.
Trump’s trial won’t consume anywhere near the seven years devoted to Hastings tribunal. But, the verdicts from his trial certainly will reverberate for years to come.