Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is getting under the skin of Republicans after embracing fiery rhetoric during his first appearance in the Senate impeachment trial.
The House Judiciary Committee chairman didn’t speak for the first time until approximately midnight, but he quickly sparked a fierce back-and-forth with Trump’s team, resulting in both sides receiving a rare public admonishment from the chief justice presiding over the trial.
President Trump and Republicans also teed off on Nadler on Wednesday, referring to him as a “sleazebag” and “stupid” and characterizing his remarks as “Nadler nonsense.”
“I thought what Chairman Nadler said and how he conducted himself was outrageous and an insult to the Senate. We don’t need to continue the clown circus that started over in the House,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
The blowback traveled beyond staunch Republicans, offending moderate GOP members who are viewed as possible swing votes to side with Democrats on calling in witnesses later in the trial.
“I took it as very offensive,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said when asked if Nadler should apologize. “As one who is listening attentively and working hard to get to a fair process, I was offended.”
Nadler, who presides over a rowdy committee known for its partisan flamethrowers, sparked a war of words early Wednesday morning as he made the House managers’ case in support of an amendment to subpoena former national security adviser John Bolton.
The chairman’s comments echoed previous statements he and other top Democrats had made on television and other public forums, but they marked a departure from the normally clubby decorum in the Senate.
They also came amid mounting frustration among some Democrats over what they felt were misleading characterizations by the president’s legal team about the ability of House Republicans to take part in the closed-door depositions and claims that the White House was not given a chance to defend itself during the House hearings (the administration opted not to participate).
“Any senator who votes against Ambassador Bolton’s testimony or any relevant testimony shows that he or she wants to be part of the cover-up,” Nadler said after midnight, speaking from the front of the Senate chamber.
“Unfortunately, so far I have seen — every Republican has shown that they want to be part of the cover-up by voting against every document and witness proposed,” Nadler said, characterizing opposing witnesses as a “treacherous vote” and a “vote against the United States.”
White House defense lawyer Pat Cipollone, who had made his own jabs about Senate Democrats running for president, then turned up the heat, accusing the Judiciary chairman of lying about the conduct of the president and the U.S. Senate.
“You don’t deserve what just happened. Mr. Nadler came up here and made false allegations against our team … against all of you. He accused you of a cover-up,” Cipollone shot back.
“The only one who should be embarrassed, Mr. Nadler, is you and the way you addressed this body. This is the United States Senate. You are not in charge here,” he added.
Clapping could be heard from the Republican side of the Senate chamber in response to Cipollone’s remarks — also a breach of the Senate’s impeachment decorum rules — though it wasn’t immediately clear who or how many GOP senators clapped.
Rep. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) acknowledged that “I might have put my palms together” when asked about the clapping.
After three rounds of verbal jousting, Chief Justice John Roberts stepped in and offered a rare public rebuke for the breach of decorum on both sides.
“I think it is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and the president’s counsel in equal terms to remember they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Robert said. “I do think those addressing the Senate should remember where they are.”
Nadler took on a more conciliatory tone Wednesday afternoon, thanking the senators for their patience and for listening to their case as they “went into the long hours” of the night.
It was hardly the first clash with Republicans for Nadler, who gained national recognition for his fierce defense of former President Clinton during the 1998 impeachment proceedings.
He more recently faced backlash from GOP Judiciary Committee members when he moved — without warning — a vote on the two impeachment articles charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress from late at night to early the next morning. Nadler defended the decision, arguing that it was to prevent Republicans from pushing the historic vote late into the night.
“I’ve known Chairman Nadler a long time,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a former member of the House who served with Nadler. “He was being himself. He would not have been successful as an insurance salesman.”
Some Democrats distanced themselves from Nadler’s tactics, though they stopped short of the outright criticism from Republicans.
“I thought some of the things he said were questionable, and I can understand how people on the other side might take offense,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who attributed the confrontation to the long day.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he wasn’t offended but that Nadler “could have chosen better words.”
Others, such as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), came to his defense.
“This is a tried and true Republican tactic. They used to do this all the time w Pelosi – claim they were voting a particular way because she was mean to them,” Murphy tweeted Wednesday. “It’s BS – just a way to try to build cover for a reckless vote.”
When asked by reporters about the criticism Wednesday afternoon, Nadler kept quiet.
Rather, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who was spearheading the press conference, interjected after reporters asked Nadler about the GOP criticism.
“I am responding to the questions,” Schiff said before addressing a different question on calling in witnesses.
Pressed again by reporters later, Schiff broadly described the matter as a result of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) trial setup.
Democrats offered amendment after amendment seeking document production and witness testimony, prompting hours of debate between the two sides and ultimately ending in the GOP-controlled Senate voting them all down. Democrats floated delaying some of the votes until Wednesday so senators would not have to work through the night, but Republicans turned down the offer.
“When you schedule a trial as Mitch McConnell did that’s designed to be hidden in the dead of night, where you require litigants who are going at it for the entire day to go into the wee hours, you’re going to have tempers flare,” Schiff said.
“But we are going to try to keep focused on the facts,” he added. “The president’s team would like nothing more than to provoke a bitter conflict. We are not going to let that happen.”