Why Should I?
The Senate chamber was so much smaller than I remembered. I had tried an impeachment case against a federal judge ten years earlier and hadn’t been on the Senate floor since. In the House, I could see members on the other side of the chamber, but only dimly, their faces indistinct in the distance. Some of the Republican members of the House have been there for years, but sit in the far corner and are not on any of my committees, and if I passed them at the airport, I wouldn’t know them from a stranger. Indeed, I have
passed them at the airport and not known who they were until they stopped and introduced themselves. But as I walked onto the Senate floor again after so long, I couldn’t get over how intimate it was—how closely I could observe each of the senators and their expressions, faces so familiar to me even if I had never worked with them, or spoken with them, before.
During the trial, with one glance I could tell how closely they were paying attention, or not paying attention—frowning, thoughtful, drifting off, engaged, moved, angered, or, worse, indifferent. You could see when their eyelids got heavy after lunch or long argumentation, or when their eyes glistened with emotion. We had twenty-four hours, spread out over three days, to make our case for the impeachment of a president, which didn’t seem like much, which wasn’t much, to sum up all of the reasons why Donald J. Trump posed a continuing danger to the Republic. We had spent two of those days making what I thought was a powerful case, my talented colleagues and incredible staff having put together a series of compelling presentations, integrating the testimony of the witnesses, documentary records, constitutional sources, and all of the powerful argumentation we could muster—but before the last argument of the day, one of my staff put his hand on my arm and stopped me.
“They think we’ve proven him guilty. They need to know why he should be removed.”
I didn’t have time to ask my staff who “they” were. We had been getting feedback during the course of the trial, sometimes directly from senators who would walk past us in the small lobby behind the Senate floor, going to and from lunch, or on a break, or who would wander up to our small table on the Senate floor when the day’s presentations were done. But the best sources of information came from Senator Schumer’s staff, passed on to my staff in whispers and handwritten notes. Were these questions coming from Democratic senators, like Joe Manchin from West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, or Doug Jones of Alabama? If so, we were in trouble.
Or was this feedback coming from Republican senators, several of whom had kept their cards close to the vest? If the Republican senators were asking, that meant their minds were still open to conviction, and that was good, even though at this point in the trial they had yet to hear the defense case.
And still, what were “they” really asking? If senators believed that we had proven Trump guilty of withholding hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid from an ally at war in order to coerce
that nation into helping him cheat in the upcoming election, wasn’t that
enough? Had the bar become so high with this president that that wasn’t enough? It was like a juror in an extortion case involving the president asking the judge, “Okay, he’s guilty, but do we really need to convict? Can’t he just go on running the country?”
But as I walked to the lectern, I suddenly understood, in a way I hadn’t fully appreciated until that moment, that this was the central question: Why should he be removed? He was the president of their party. He was putting conservative judges on the court. He was lowering their taxes. Why remove him? I had watched during breaks in the trial as the president’s Senate defenders took to the airwaves to proclaim his innocence, and I had believed them—not their claims about the president’s conduct, but that they
believed what they were saying, that they
believed there had been, to quote the president’s mantra of defense, no quid pro quo. But I could see now that that wasn’t it at all.
I should have known better. For the past three years, Republicans had confided, to me and to many of my Democratic colleagues, their serious misgivings about the president. Some would go on Fox News and bash me, only to urge me privately to keep on with the investigation. And it became clear that many Republicans felt someone needed to do it, someone needed to put a stop to it all, even if they couldn’t, or wouldn’t. And the question wasn’t so much “Why should he be removed?” as “Why should I be the one to remove him? Why should I risk my seat, my position of power and influence, my career and future? Why should I? Why should I
There was only half an hour left of our case that day when I pulled my thoughts free of my staff to make those seven short paces from the House managers’ table to the lectern, and I had no idea how I was going to answer that question. I had prepared to go through the record of the president’s call again, the one in which he says “I want you to do us a favor, though”—because I had discovered there was so much more to that transcript, so much more now that we understood the whole scheme, and I had planned to go through it, line by line. It had become a practice of mine, during the hearings in the House, to do a kind of impromptu summary at the end of each proceeding, to try to distill the importance of what we had heard or learned, to try to express simply the significance of something that had struck me as particularly powerful or telling. It didn’t even have to be all that important in its own right, as long as it spoke to something larger, something that shed light on the bigger issue, on what was at stake. But the call record now seemed insignificant, compared to the question: Why should I?
I needed time to think, and so I did go through the call record with the senators, pulling out a line here or there to explain its new significance. Most of the senators were listening politely after a long day, but not all, and their concentration was wandering, and so was mine. I was doing a kind of extreme multitasking, reading and speaking about the call but thinking about the question I needed to answer, and all the other questions that it presumed: What made this man so dangerous? What had he done to the country? How, in three short years, had he been able to so completely remake his own party, get it to abandon its own ideology, get my friends and colleagues to surrender themselves to his obvious immorality? How had he caused us to question ourselves, our values, our commitment to democracy, what the country even stood for? How had he been able to convince so many of our fellow citizens that his views were the truth, and that they should believe him no matter how obvious the lies?
When I was finished going through the call record, when I could delay no longer, I told the senators, “This brings me to the last point I want to make tonight.” At the end of the trial, I said, I believed that we would have proven the president guilty—that is, he had done what he was charged with doing. But it was a slightly different question, I acknowledged, whether he really needed to be removed. Still, I was wondering, even as I was saying the words, how do I answer the question? In the few minutes I have left, what do I say? And all of a sudden, every senator seemed to be watching, alert and keenly interested in the answer. The moment stretched on in silence. “This is why he needs to be removed,” I said at last, and did my best to tell them. . . .
In the year and a half since that day, I have thought a lot about what I might have said differently, or done differently, to persuade the senators of what a danger the now former president posed then, and poses still. Whether there was any course we might have taken, not just in the trial but in the years that preceded it, to prevent what was coming: a violent insurrection against the Capitol, a wave of antidemocratic efforts aimed at the heart of our democracy, and a full-out assault on the truth.
There is now a dangerous vein of autocratic thought running through one of America’s two great parties, and it poses an existential danger to the country. In this we are not alone. All around the world, there is a new competition between autocracy and democracy, and for more than a decade, the autocrats have been on the rise. This trend toward authoritarianism began before Donald Trump and will not have spent its force when he steps off the political stage for good. The experience of the last four years will require constant vigilance on our part so that it does not gain another foothold in the highest office in our land.
Copyright © 2021 by Adam Schiff. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.