WASHINGTON – The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump started Tuesday with partisan fighting over the rules governing the proceedings. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted he was following historical precedent, while Democrats argued that the Republicans were furthering a White House cover-up.
Ultimately, McConnell and his GOP majority prevailed in the early hours of Wednesday morning in securing the rules they wanted, turning back 11 separate attempts by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and the Democratic House managers to amend those rules to subpoena witnesses and additional evidence from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and the Office of Management and Budget.
Senators have been tasked with considering whether Trump should be removed from office on two offenses: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But a resolution defining the rules of the trial must be passed before Trump’s defense and the House of Representatives’ impeachment managers argue their cases.
The Senate is embarking on the third impeachment trial of a president in United States history.
Trump faces removal of office in connection with his efforts to halt aid to Ukraine until that nation announced investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running for president. But conviction and removal of the president on both or either article would require a vote by two-thirds of the Senate, which is controlled by Trump’s party.
In his opening remarks, McConnell, R-Kentucky, said the proceedings would mirror the rules of President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial. He also argued that the Democrats’ call for additional witnesses and documents to be used in the trial is an attempt to make up for an “inadequate” House of Representatives investigation.
“The Senate’s fair process will draw a sharp contrast with the unfair and precedent-breaking inquiry that was carried on by the House of Representatives,” McConnell said.
“The McConnell rules seem to be designed by President Trump, for President Trump,” Schumer said. “(They) are not even close to the Clinton rules.”
Lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, demanded a fair trial, saying the proceedings won’t be just if both sides are kept from bringing new evidence into review.
“If a president can obstruct his own investigation… then (he) places himself beyond accountability, above the law,” Schiff said. “It makes him a monarch… When the Founders wrote the impeachment clause, they had precisely this type of conduct in mind.”
Two major changes were made to the initial draft of McConnell’s rules resolution.
Instead of giving each side 24 hours over the course of two days to present their opening arguments, these 24 hours will be spread out over the course of three days. As a result, the hearings are unlikely to go into the early hours of the morning any given day. House evidence will also now be admitted into the record, as long as there are no objections.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a potential swing vote, was among the senators who apparently pressed for these changes in private conversations at a GOP senators’ luncheon.
“While I need to hear the case argued and the questions answered, I anticipate that I would conclude that having additional information would be helpful,” Collins said in a statement. “It is likely that I would support a motion to subpoena witnesses at that point in the trial just as I did in 1999.”
Schumer presented an amendment to McConnell’s resolution that would “subpoena certain documents and records from the White House,” including calls between Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky and investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. It was rejected on a 53-47 vote.
In identical votes later, the Republican majority also rejected Schumer amendments seeking evidence on Trump’s Ukraine dealings from the State Department, the Department of Defense, Department of State and the Office of Management and Budget. Also rejected by the GOP were amendments seeking to subpoena Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former National Security Adviser John Bolton and others.
A proposal by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, to have Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the trial, to rule on motions to subpoena witnesses and more evidence was also voted down.
“No Republican can question the fairness of this approach – having the chief justice of the highest court in our land, nominated by a Republican president, make rulings,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Despite the obvious fairness of this proposal, Republican senators voted against it as part of their ongoing effort to hide the truth about the president’s crimes against the Constitution. I will offer this motion again later in the trial.”
White House counsel Pat Cipollone expressed support for McConnell’s rules and requested that the Senate acquit Trump quickly.
“(The prosecution) has no case. Frankly, they have no charge,” Cipollone said.
Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said the charges against his client were part of a broader, years-long Democratic effort to truncate Trump’s presidency.
“Why are we here? Are we here because of a phone call?” Sekulow said. “Or are we here, before this great body, because since the president was sworn into office there was a desire to see him removed?”
Senators sat silently in their seats during the day’s proceedings, barred from speaking to each other or addressing the body. They also were prohibited from having cell phones or laptops in the chamber.
Roberts, sitting in the presiding officer’s chair, spoke only about procedural matters. But cameras showed him taking notes at times.
Amendments proposed by Schumer to bring certain witnesses and documents into the trial were rejected on party-line votes, although it is possible a small group of Republicans will join Democrats later to agree to request them.
If that does not happen, this would be the first-ever presidential impeachment without documents or witnesses, according to Schumer.
“A trial with no evidence is not a trial at all,” he said. “It’s a cover-up.”
He also contested McConnell’s assertion that the rules outlined in his resolution match those of Clinton’s trial. He also stressed the need for new witnesses and evidence.
Schumer said it’s unclear what the documents Democrats were requesting would reveal. They could benefit or harm the president, he argued, but the one thing that they seek is the truth.
“We don’t know with certainty what the documents will say. We simply want the truth … whatever (it) may be,” said House impeachment manager Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California. “So do the American people… And so should everybody in this chamber regardless of our party affiliation.”