U.S. Senate approves Trump impeachment trial plan, rejects Democrats on documents, witnesses
There will be 48 hours of opening arguments — 24 hours for each side — over six days
The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate voted early on Wednesday on party lines to approve the rules for President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, rejecting Democratic efforts to obtain evidence and ensure witnesses are heard.
As the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history began in earnest, Trump's chief legal defender argued the Democratic case was a baseless effort to overturn the 2016 election, but a top Democratic lawmaker said there was "overwhelming" evidence of wrongdoing.
Trump was impeached last month by the House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress for pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, and impeding the inquiry into the matter. The president denies any wrongdoing.
After U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts convened the proceedings, the two sides began more than 12 hours of squabbling that lasted into Wednesday morning over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's proposed rules for the trial.
Senators voted along party lines, 53-47, to block four separate motions from Democratic leader Chuck Schumer to subpoena records and documents from the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget related to Trump's dealings with Ukraine.
By the same tally, senators also rejected requests for subpoenas seeking the testimony of acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former national security adviser John Bolton, White House aide Robert Blair and White House budget official Michael Duffey.
Under McConnell's hastily revised set of procedures for the trial, there will be 48 hours of opening arguments — 24 hours for each side — over six days, easing off an earlier plan to keep them to two days each. It also allows the House's record of the probe to be admitted as evidence.
The arguments will begin when the trial resumes at 1 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
WATCH | How the impeachment trial may play out:
Republican senators have not ruled out the possibility of further testimony and evidence at some point after opening arguments and 16 hours of senators' questions, but they held firm with Trump's lawyers to block Tuesday's Democratic requests for witnesses and evidence, a potentially good sign for the White House.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is leading Trump's defence, attacked the foundation of the Democrats' charges against the Republican president and said they had not come close to meeting the U.S. Constitution's standard for impeachment.
"The only conclusion will be that the president has done absolutely nothing wrong," Cipollone said as he argued in favour of McConnell's proposal to decide on whether to allow further witnesses or documents later in the trial.
"There is absolutely no case," he said.
After a particularly heated exchange over whether Bolton should testify, Roberts admonished both parties to remember they were addressing the world's greatest deliberative body. "I do think those addressing the Senate should remember where they are," he said.
WATCH | Cipollone calls the trial 'a partisan impeachment'
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who helped spearhead the House impeachment inquiry, summarized the charges against Trump and said the Republican president had committed a "trifecta of constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment."
Schiff said that although the evidence against Trump was "already overwhelming," further witness testimony was necessary to show the full scope of the misconduct of the president and those around him.
Republican senators have not ruled out the possibility of further testimony and evidence at some point after opening arguments and senators' questions.
But Democrats said they forced repeated votes on evidence and witnesses, which extended late into the night, to get Republicans on the record immediately.
Opening arguments over 3 days
Democrats want a number of current and former Trump administration officials, including Bolton, to testify.
"For all of the name-calling and finger-pointing from the president's counsel, we did not hear a single argument on the merits about why there should not be the documents and witnesses we requested in this trial," Schumer said.
WATCH | Rep. Schiff makes his argument against the proposed rules:
Under McConnell's plan, lawyers for Trump could move early in the proceedings to ask senators to dismiss all charges, according to a senior Republican leadership aide, a motion that would likely fall short of the support needed to succeed.
Even if such a motion fails, Trump is almost certain to be acquitted by the 100-member chamber, where a two-thirds majority is needed to remove him from office.
McConnell has repeatedly said the rules for the trial would mirror those the Senate used in the 1999 impeachment of President Bill Clinton, and Republican senators have not ruled out the possibility of further witness testimony and evidence.
Schumer took great exception to the comparison during a morning news conference.
"The McConnell Rules are not even close to the Clinton Rules," said Schumer, pointing to the compressed timeline for presenting the case and the allowance of a dismissal motion at any point during the trial.
"McConnell wants a trial with no existing or new evidence," he said.
Trump support firm
Democrats accuse Trump of pressuring a vulnerable ally to interfere in U.S. elections at the expense of American national security and say he needs to be removed from office because he is a danger to American democracy and national security.
Trump and his legal team say there was no pressure and that the Democrats' case is based on hearsay. Cipollone has described the Ukraine investigation as an illegal attempt to remove a democratically elected president and avert his re-election.
"They're not here to steal one election, they're here to steal two elections," Cipollone said on Tuesday.
Cipollone also repeated a trope that Republicans were excluded from the secure facility where the initial depositions for the House impeachment hearings took place. In fact, Republican members of the House intelligence committee were not only present but questioned witnesses.
At the heart of the impeachment trial is Trump's request to Ukraine in July to investigate Joe Biden, a top Democratic contender to face Trump in the 2020 election, and his son Hunter. The younger Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company for a period that included over two years while his father was U.S. vice-president.
Trump also sought the announcement of a probe based on a discredited theory involving the hacking of Democratic computers ahead of the 2016 election, which have been attributed by the U.S. intelligence community and a Republican-led Senate as being the work of Kremlin-connected Russian actors.
Democrats charge that Trump withheld nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine that had been approved by the Pentagon and Congress, with the money only released as it became public knowledge that a whistleblower had lodged a complaint after Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Last week, a congressional watchdog found the White House broke the law by withholding the security aid. The assessment from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office was seen as a setback for Trump, but it remains unclear whether it will figure in his trial given that key questions such as whether witnesses will testify or new evidence will be considered remain unanswered.
The obstruction of Congress charge relates to Trump directing administration officials and agencies not to comply with House subpoenas for testimony and documents related to impeachment.
Trump has sought to rally his base with the impeachment issue, fundraising off it and at raucous election rallies painting himself as the victim of a witch hunt.
Trump is attending the annual gathering of world business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday to project an air of business as usual and tout the strength of the U.S. economy.
Asked whether Trump was planning to watch the trial, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said, "He has a full day here in Davos, but will be briefed by staff periodically."
This is only the third impeachment trial in U.S. history. No president has ever been removed through impeachment, a mechanism the nation's founders — worried about a monarch on American soil — devised to oust a president for "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
Bill Clinton, like Andrew Johnson in the 19th century, was acquitted in the Senate, while Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 before a full House vote on articles of impeachment could occur.
With a two-thirds majority needed in the 100-member Senate to remove Trump from office, he is almost certain to be acquitted by fellow Republicans in the chamber. But the impact of the trial on his re-election bid is far from clear.
Trump, 73, has gone through a succession of controversies since taking office in January 2017.
House Leader Nancy Pelosi had previously resisted pressure from her party's left flank to take the step after special counsel Robert Mueller spelled out instances in which Trump sought to impede the federal inquiry that documented 2016 Russian election interference to boost Trump's candidacy.