Impeachment trial begins with furor over rules

Senators engaged in a furious fight over the rules as they started President Trump’s impeachment trial on Tuesday, with Democrats earning a small victory when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) backed down from fast-tracking the proceeding. 

Democrats lost the bigger battle over subpoenaing key witnesses and documents at the start of the trial, which Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House impeachment manager, said was as important as the underlying articles of impeachment because that additional evidence could significantly shape how Americans view the charges against Trump.

The GOP leader made two last-minute changes to his resolution.

The first gave both Trump’s legal team and House impeachment managers three days instead of two for opening arguments, while the second automatically admitted House evidence into the trial record. 

The decision came after a closed-door Republican lunch where a small group of senators, including Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine), raised concerns that the compressed timeline for the trial differed from the Clinton proceeding, according to sources and aides. 

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who attended the lunch, said there was a fairly broad agreement about making the changes to the initial rules resolution. 

“Most of us didn’t really have time to really look at the resolution closely and when we did we thought that submitting evidence from the House proceedings would be a good thing, and then there was flexibility in terms [of] how long it would go,” he said. 

He said the prospect of sitting at his desk for as long as 12 hours in a single day to speed up the trial sounded like it would “be tough to do.”

A member of Republican leadership confirmed that the changes were made in response to concerns from the GOP caucus.

The changes, made in handwriting on the initial rules resolution, underscore the narrow path for McConnell as he relies on GOP votes, leaving him just two to spare if Democrats are united.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) immediately claimed victory, saying McConnell and GOP senators were “feeling the heat.” 

“The public realizes how unfair the McConnell proposal is, and the pressure that we have put on them and on Republican senators has gotten them to change,” Schumer told reporters. 

But Senate Democrats said the concessions were minor compared to the more important question of allowing new evidence to be considered at the beginning of the trial. 

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) noted that all of the relevant witnesses had already spoken to investigators before then-President Clinton’s 1999 Senate trial and senators had access to tens of thousands of pages of documents.

“That’s the fundamental problem,” he said, adding that GOP senators didn’t want to face the prospect of sitting through 12-hour days of opening arguments. 

“I think he heard from his own senators who didn’t want to sit in their seats for a long period of time,” he said.

Schiff opened his arguments by contending that the vote on new witnesses and documents would be perhaps the most important of the whole trial. 

“I believe the most important decision in this case is the one you will make today, the most important question is the question you must answer today. Will the president and the American people get a fair trial?” he said on the floor. 

McConnell’s initial draft resolution sparked a high-profile clash ahead of the Senate debate as Democrats and House impeachment managers accused him of establishing a “rigged” trial that would force prosecutors to make their arguments in the “wee hours” of the night.

After his concession, there was still an hours-long fight on the Senate floor as Democrats forced votes on requesting documents tied to aid to Ukraine delayed by the administration. They were tabled in 53-47 votes.

McConnell at the outset of debate on Tuesday announced that he had the votes necessary to establish the rules without Democratic support. 

“The organizing resolution already has the support of the majority of the Senate. That’s because it sets up a structure that is fair, evenhanded and tracks closely with past precedents that were established unanimously,” McConnell said from the Senate floor. 

He was backed up by crucial swing vote Republicans, including Collins, Murkowski and Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah).

Romney earlier had signaled his support for McConnell’s two-day rule, too.

“I think our Democratic friends have forgotten the fact that if you call everything outrageous then nothing is outrageous. Whether it’s two days or four days, each side gets as much time as they did in the Clinton trial,” Romney said on Tuesday. 

It is possible that Collins and Romney will join Democrats in calling for witnesses after both sides present their arguments.

Romney said the Senate didn’t need a vote on calling Bolton as a witness before arguments, but added that he “will be in favor of witnesses, I presume, after hearing the opening arguments. I would like to hear from John Bolton.”

Collins added Tuesday that she expects after the initial phase to think having additional information would be helpful, saying “it is likely that I would support a motion to subpoena witnesses at that point.”

The rules resolution doesn’t guarantee additional witnesses and documents, but it does require a vote after opening arguments and questions from senators on whether it will be in-order to require additional evidence. 

That vote, under the schedule outlined in the rules resolution, would likely take place at the end of next week. If the Senate does not agree to witnesses, it could pave the way for Trump to be acquitted before the scheduled Feb. 4 State of the Union address. 

“If the Senate votes no at that point, no party or senator will be permitted to move to subpoena any witness or documents,” a senior GOP leadership aide said about the provision. “If the Senate votes yes, both sides will be free to make motions to subpoena witnesses, and the Senate can debate and vote on them.”

Tags Adam Schiff Chris Van Hollen Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Impeachment John Bolton Lisa Murkowski Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Rob Portman Susan Collins

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