A behind-the-scenes look at the crucial Senate vote and that phone call to Trump
Posted February 1, 2020 2:09 p.m. EST
CNN — The end seemed imminent -- until it wasn't anymore.
Internal disputes and a "clash of competing priorities" interrupted expectations that the all-but-certain acquittal vote in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial would come late Friday.
Debate over lunch, intense huddles on the Senate floor and a final phone call to Trump instead produced a schedule that extends the five-month saga into another week, overlapping with the Iowa kickoff of Democrats' presidential contest and Trump's State of the Union address.
It's a coda to proceedings that neither side appears to particularly enjoy. Discussing the next steps over a GOP lunch on Friday, some Republican senators voiced misgivings at dragging the trial into another week, according to people familiar with the matter, particularly after it seemed the party's leaders were intent on moving to a quick acquittal vote.
Across town, the White House made it known a vote before Trump's yearly address to Congress -- which would allow for a victory lap in the Democrat-led House -- was their preference. Many of Trump's allies were already betting on a Friday evening acquittal; a graphic on Laura Ingraham's Fox News program Thursday proclaimed "24 Hours to Victory."
But other Republican senators wanted an opportunity to express their views on the floor after sitting mostly silent -- occupying themselves with fidget spinners and glasses of milk -- for the duration of the trial. And Democrats, eager to avoid vindicating Trump any earlier than necessary, also appeared wary of allowing the impeachment to further impede on their party's nominating process.
"I think most people would like to get it over like right now," South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top confidant of the President's, said as Senate leaders worked to strike a deal. "The cake is baked. And we just need to go ahead and move on as soon as we can."
But moving on, however popular among some, was not in the cards Friday.
Meeting with McConnell
During a midday break in the trial proceedings, a number of GOP senators -- including Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney and Lamar Alexander -- met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in his office to talk over how and when the trial would conclude. Collins, a source close to the Maine Republican said, was "trying to help come up with a solution" that would allow senators an opportunity to voice their reasoning on whether to convict or acquit Trump.
"She doesn't care how much time members get," the source said. "She thinks the speeches can be short."
Other senators disagreed. Some agitated during the party's lunch for a quick end to the trial that would prevent it from stretching into another week. Others expressed concern about another weekend being eaten up in Washington. And some voiced the White House view that Trump should be acquitted before delivering the State of the Union address scheduled for Tuesday.
By mid-afternoon, the dramatics of the procedural wrangling were on full display on the Senate floor. McConnell, fresh from a successful bid to block new witnesses being called, engaged in an intense discussion with the Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who had come to cameras earlier to denounce a rushed ending to the impeachment trial, saying he would wield his minority power "to prevent things from just being truncated in the dark of night."
The conversation on the floor did not appear heated, but did look direct. The two talked directly for more than 10 minutes before each retreated to confer with aides. McConnell's team huddled for several minutes with other Republican senators.
The extended pause in the proceedings stretched on as each side positioned itself for the trial's next steps. While the leaders haggled, other senators ambled around the Senate floor engaging in small talk and awaiting word.
Behind closed doors
After casting votes on whether to call witnesses, the senators retreated behind closed doors to learn the decision: Republicans to the Strom Thurmond Room, near McConnell's office and the Capitol Rotunda, and Democrats to the Lyndon B. Johnson Room, their normal meeting space just off the Senate floor.
There, they learned the trial would resume on Monday with closing arguments and allow for Senators to speak before a final vote on the two articles of impeachment scheduled for 4 p.m. ET, on Wednesday.
Republican senators said McConnell had no choice but to agree to the Wednesday acquittal vote because Democrats could have used their power under the rules to drag out the process. Republicans decided to cut the deal and spare themselves late nights and a weekend session.
"Democrats were willing to use any number of dilatory tactics, many of which would probably carry us into next week," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Trump signs off on timeline
It fell to McConnell to inform Trump the trial wouldn't wrap up by week's end. Speaking by phone, the Republican leader walked the President through the timeline that will bring the impeachment era to a close. Trump signed off, but he wasn't thrilled.
"No matter what you give to the Democrats, in the end, they will NEVER be satisfied. In the House, they gave us NOTHING!" he tweeted as he arrived in a torrential downpour to Palm Beach, Florida, where he is spending the weekend.
A senior Trump administration official acknowledged Friday that Trump's State of the Union speech could come in the midst of his impeachment trial -- the second time in American history a president will deliver the annual address after being impeached.
But the official said the speech will be "forward-looking" and "optimistic," comparing the situation to last year when the government had just emerged from a long shutdown.
Rushing to flee the Capitol on Friday evening, few senators seemed overly triumphant at the prospect of returning to their role as jurors for another three days, even though the schedule was the result of compromise.
Instead, lawmakers seemed satisfied to at least have a weekend to decompress -- or to campaign:
"I've had so much drama today," Murkowski said as she departed, "I'm just going to chill."
"I can't wait to see my grandson," Schumer, fresh from negotiations, told reporters as he left.
"I'm on my way to Iowa," said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, sounding excited as he dashed from the Capitol.