After 13-hour session, Republicans OK rules for Trump impeachment trial over Democratic objections
In an overtly partisan start to the third presidential impeachment trial in American history, Senate Republicans on Tuesday repeatedly brushed aside Democratic proposals to subpoena witnesses and documents, and approved trial rules that will punt those critical questions into next week.
As the long session reached nearly 2 a.m. EST Wednesday, the Republican-led Senate had already rejected — entirely along party lines in all but one case — 11 Democratic amendments, mostly to subpoena the White House, State Department, Office of Management and Budget, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former national security advisor John Bolton and two other officials — Robert Blair, senior advisor to Mulvaney, and Michael Duffey from the OMB.
Democrats were seeking documents or testimony related to the Trump administration’s effort to hold and then release military aid for Ukraine. One amendment would have required Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. — not the Senate — to serve as the arbiter of whether potential witnesses could have “probative evidence relevant” to the case. It was also rejected.
In the end the GOP plan was adopted, clearing the way for House Democrats to start formally presenting their case to the Senate at 1 p.m. EST Wednesday.
Trump was impeached by the House in December for pressing Ukraine to announce an investigation into potential 2020 political rival Joe Biden, while withholding nearly $400 million in U.S. aid from the country.
Tuesday’s votes came after Republicans abruptly backed off their plan to fast-track the trial by squeezing arguments from both House Democrats and Trump’s lawyers into four days. Under pressure from some Republicans, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed to a total of six days for the two sides to present their cases, a retreat that Democrats initially hoped might signal weakness in the GOP’s unity on the rules for the trial.
But while some Republicans have said they might eventually vote in favor of having witnesses, for now all remained supportive of the GOP timetable to address that question next week.
Tuesday’s session also provided the first glimpses of how House Democrats and the president’s lawyers will present their cases over the next week. With the cable television networks airing nearly all of the trial Tuesday, both parties took advantage of the prime-time exposure, each bitterly accusing the other of lying about the facts and endangering the nation’s democracy.
The rhetoric got so heated and personal — particularly between White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) — that Roberts, who is presiding, felt compelled around 1 a.m. to admonish both sides about making comments “not conducive to civil discourse .... I do think those addressing the Senate should remember where they are.”
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and other House managers used the rules debate to begin making the broader outlines of their case to senators. They frequently showed video clips of the president and other administration officials to bolster their case, such as Trump stating that he would “love” to have Mulvaney testify, or one of Mulvaney insisting that leveraging U.S. aid to pressure a foreign country is common practice and people should “get over it.”
“If you really want to get to the bottom of this, if [the administration is] really challenging the fact that president conditioned $400 million in military aid to an ally at war, if Mick Mulvaney has already said publicly that he’s talked to the president about it ... don’t you think you should hear from him?” Schiff asked senators, turning to face the Republican side of the chamber.
The president’s lawyers dismissed the Democrats’ demand for witnesses as proof that the House didn’t prove their case before they voted to impeach last month.
“They spent the entire day telling you and the American people that they can’t prove their case,” Cipollone told senators. “I could have told you that in five minutes and saved us all a lot of time.”
He cast the impeachment in starkly partisan terms as an attempt to undo the 2016 election. The articles are “not only ridiculous; they’re dangerous to our republic. It’s time for it to end. It’s time for someone — for the Senate — to hold them accountable,” Cipollone said of House Democrats.
Schiff was equally caustic, calling it “ass-backwards … to have a trial and then ask for witnesses.”
All 100 senators, in accordance with impeachment rules, sat at their desks for the entirety of the day to listen to the debate. With their electronics banished to shelves outside the chamber, senators listened while taking notes, fidgeting at their desks, passing notes to their neighbors and stifling — or not stifling — yawns. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) was caught sleeping by a New York Times sketch artist.
Both House Democrats and the White House will have to release some details of their plans Wednesday morning. They face a 9 a.m. deadline to share all motions they plan to file during the trial, except for subpoenas for additional witnesses or documents. Trump and his allies initially indicated they would like the trial to end quickly, and could file a motion to dismiss the case.
But several Senate Republicans have rejected the idea of a quick dismissal, suggesting such a motion would fail. White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland, speaking on Capitol Hill, declined to reveal White House strategy, but didn’t rule out the idea of a dismissal motion.
On a 10th Democratic amendment offered early Wednesday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) broke with Republicans on a proposal to delay the deadline to respond to proposed motions, but the Democrats’ effort still failed.
McConnell’s surprise change in the GOP rules proposal was made after a discussion at a closed-door GOP lunch Tuesday during which several Republicans raised concerns about the original timeline, according to Republicans who were in the room. There were also some complaints that the House impeachment inquiry record was not automatically being admitted into the trial record, and would only be admitted if approved by a vote at the end of the trial.
McConnell left the lunch about halfway through and the remaining senators had a “pretty civil conversation” about expanding the length of arguments, said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “I think we arrived at a good common-sense decision.”
Collins “and others raised concerns about the 24 hours of opening statements in two days and the admission of the House transcript in the record,” according to Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark. “Her position has been that the trial should follow the Clinton model as much as possible. She thinks these changes are a significant improvement.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), viewed as another potential GOP vote for witnesses when the Senate returns to that debate next week, also supported the changes, according to her spokesperson.
With a narrow majority of 53 seats in the Senate, McConnell has little wiggle room to keep his caucus united behind the GOP rules package without any Democratic support.
McConnell has said repeatedly that his trial plan was based on the one used during the Clinton impeachment, which included 24 hours over three days for each side as well as admission of the House records. The updated resolution also automatically accepts the House’s record of evidence.
Democrats had also blasted the idea of holding 12 hours of opening arguments daily spread over four days, arguing that McConnell was trying to ensure portions of the trial were conducted in the dark of night and completed as quickly as possible. That plan also would have meant extraordinarily long sessions for senators that might not have ended until 3 a.m., after including breaks and meals.
Democrats framed the changes as significant wins and a sign that a few more Republicans could be convinced to buck their party on a second round of witness votes next week.
“The public said this is unfair. Republican senators felt the heat and went to McConnell and said you’ve got to change it,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). That “shows they can make other changes and that we can get documents and witnesses.”
Some Republicans, including Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a Trump ally, defended the shorter schedule, calling the third day for each side, “another day of life that none of us get back.”
The new timeline would push the trial — which could have wrapped up by early next week — at least into the end of next week.
Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.
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