WASHINGTON — Senator James M. Inhofe, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma, has made clear that he intends to vote to acquit President Trump. But after Representative Adam B. Schiff’s fiery speech Thursday night calling for the president’s removal, Mr. Inhofe felt compelled to give his fellow lawmaker some grudging respect.
“I have to say this,” Mr. Inhofe told reporters Friday morning in the Capitol. “Schiff is very, very effective.”
Mr. Schiff, a California Democrat who steered the impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump and is the lead prosecutor in his Senate trial, has long been a hero to the left and a villain to the right. But never has he aroused as much passion as he has during his closing arguments in the president’s impeachment trial, first with Thursday’s declaration that “you know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country,” and then again Friday when he invoked a news report that Republican senators had been warned that their heads would be “on a pike” if they voted against Mr. Trump.
On Friday morning, the phrase #RightMatters — from the last line of Mr. Schiff’s Thursday speech — was trending as a hashtag on Twitter. The Daily Beast declared that the remarks “will go down in history.” Ryan Knight, a progressive activist, called it “a closing statement for the ages.” Video of the speech quickly went viral. Liberals lavished him with praise.
“I am in tears,” wrote Debra Messing, the “Will & Grace” actress and outspoken Trump critic. “Thank you Chairman Schiff for fighting for our country.”
Republicans had precisely the opposite reaction. Many view Mr. Schiff, 59, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, as a slick and self-righteous political operator intent on undoing the results of the 2016 election — or preventing Mr. Trump from winning in 2020. In the Senate, Republicans took particular umbrage at his declaration that they could not trust the president.
“I don’t trust Adam Schiff,” Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, shot back.
On Fox News, Mr. Schiff was filleted. “Amateur Thespian Schiff Tries Out Some New Lines,” TV monitors broadcasting the network declared Thursday, as the host Tucker Carlson mocked the congressman, calling him a “wild-eyed conspiracy nut.”
And if Mr. Schiff had made any inroads with Republicans in the Senate chamber, he may have undercut them on Friday with his “head on a pike” remark, drawn from an anonymously sourced CBS News report. Mr. Schiff used it to liken Mr. Trump to a monarch, but the implication was that Republicans were terrified of crossing him.
“The whole room was visibly upset on our side,” said Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, “and it’s sad, it’s insulting and demeaning to everyone to say that we somehow live in fear and that the president has threatened all of us to put her head on the pike.”
A Stanford- and Harvard-educated lawyer, Mr. Schiff is drawing on skills he honed as a young federal prosecutor in Los Angeles. He first drew national attention in 1990 by winning the conviction of an F.B.I. agent who became romantically entangled with a Russian spy, and was accused of selling government secrets in exchange for promises of gold and cash.
Prosecutors said Mr. Schiff took a risk in his bald declaration Thursday night that the president could not be trusted because Republicans in the chamber, almost all of whom support Mr. Trump, would see the criticism as implicitly directed at them.
“When you make an argument like that, you better be sure that your entire audience is with you,” said James G. McGovern, a criminal defense lawyer at Hogan Lovells in New York and a former prosecutor.
Multiple Republicans said afterward that they had not at all been moved by Mr. Schiff. “It seems to me their case is weaker today than it was yesterday,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Senate Republican.
But Anne Milgram, a former attorney general of New Jersey and now a law professor at New York University, described Mr. Schiff’s sharp criticism of Mr. Trump as a “wise calculation,” because unlike a regular jury trial, Mr. Schiff does not need a unanimous verdict. The argument was aimed, she said, at the four or so moderate Republicans whose votes Democrats will need to call witnesses at the trial.
Regardless of the risk, it was clear on both sides of the aisle — and to experienced prosecutors who watched — that after a long day of complicated and sometimes monotonous testimony, Mr. Schiff’s oratory broke through. Mr. Schiff apparently thought so himself. He posted the last eight minutes, the most dramatic part of his speech, on Twitter Thursday night, and by Friday evening it had been viewed 5.9 million times.
“Sometimes when Schiff steps to the mic I think he’s a little scripted,” Ms. Milgram said. “I did not feel that last night. I thought it was the most authentic I have seen him. He sort of crossed into another level.”
Mr. Schiff opened by carefully leading the Senate through the House’s case that the president abused his office by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, weaving in bits and pieces of testimony and commentary along the way. He then turned to his Senate audience and stated what he believes to be the obvious: Mr. Trump is guilty.
“Do we really have any doubt about the facts here?” Mr. Schiff asked. “Does anybody really question whether the president is capable of what he’s charged with? No one is really making the argument Donald Trump would never do such a thing, because of course we know that he would, and of course we know that he did.”
But that, Mr. Schiff said, led to the most critical question of all: “Does he really need to be removed?” The answer was yes, Mr. Schiff said, then offered a situation in which the Russians interfered in the 2020 election to help Mr. Trump, just as they did in 2016.
“Can you have the least bit of confidence that Donald Trump will stand up to them and protect our national interest over his own personal interest?” Mr. Schiff said. “You know you can’t, which makes him dangerous to this country.’’
In the Capitol, Mr. Schiff is ordinarily serious, composed and in control. But as he moved toward his closing comments, he grew visibly emotional as he recalled the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the White House national security aide and Ukrainian immigrant who testified in impeachment hearings before Congress and helped Democrats build their case.
Colonel Vindman, who fled the former Soviet Union with his family when he was 3, testified that he felt deeply uncomfortable with a telephone call Mr. Trump had on July 25 with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, when Mr. Trump asked the Ukrainian leader to “do us a favor” and investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Mr. Schiff recalled how Colonel Vindman told lawmakers that unlike in the former Soviet Union, “right matters” in the United States.
“Well, let me tell you something,” Mr. Schiff went on, his forefinger jabbing the air for emphasis. “If right doesn’t matter, if right doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter how good the Constitution is. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the framers were. Doesn’t matter how good or bad our advocacy in this trial is.” If “right doesn’t matter,” he concluded, “we’re lost.”
Trump on Trial is a continuing series of articles offering reporting, analysis and impressions of the Senate impeachment proceedings.