Impeachment Trial Begins With Clash Over Rules

January 21, 2020 Updated: January 21, 2020
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The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump formally opened on Jan. 21 with the defense and prosecutors arguing over rules that will govern the proceeding.

The proceedings began with Trump’s attorneys backing the rules for the trial proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) The Democrats objected to the rules, and, over lunch, McConnell heard similar protests from fellow Republicans. McConnell then loosened some of the rules, including easing plans for a tight two-day schedule for opening arguments and agreeing that additional House evidence will be included.

The senators also listened to arguments for and against two amendments to McConnell’s rules proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who called for the Senate to authorize subpoenas for documents from the White House and the State Department. The Republican majority rejected the amendment for a White House subpoena 53–47.

The arguments on McConnell’s rules and Schumer’s amendments presented dual visions of reality, with the president’s attorneys calling the impeachment a baseless, unconstitutional act, and the House Democrats alleging there was “overwhelming” evidence of wrongdoing.

In seeking to remove Trump from office, Democrats allege that the president abused the power of his office by pressuring the leader of Ukraine to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and obstructing Congress after the alleged scheme was uncovered.

House Democrats voted to impeach Trump, charging him with “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress.” Trump denies wrongdoing and has cast down the proceedings as a hoax meant to derail his 2020 reelection.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is leading Trump’s defense, attacked the foundation of the charges against the Republican president and said Democrats hadn’t come close to meeting the Constitutional standards for impeachment.

“The only conclusion will be that the president has done absolutely nothing wrong,” Cipollone said. “There is absolutely no case.”

House impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who helped spearhead the House impeachment inquiry, summarized the charges against Trump and said the 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 by the president and those around him.

Trump’s attorneys rebutted Schiff’s claims, pointing out that if the evidence was overwhelming, the House impeachment managers wouldn’t be fighting for additional evidence and witnesses.

Trump counsel Jay Sekulow also recast Schiff’s “trifecta” to underline the three due-process rights Trump was denied during the House impeachment inquiry: the right to cross-examine witnesses, the right to have counsel at hearings, and the right to access evidence. Schiff responded by saying the hearings had to be closed in order to prevent witnesses from coordinating their testimony.

Democrats want a number of current and former Trump administration officials, including Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to testify.

McConnell unveiled a plan on Jan. 20 for what would be a potentially quick trial without new testimony or evidence. It would have given Democratic prosecutors and Trump’s lawyers 48 hours, evenly split, to present their arguments over four days.

That plan was changed to give each side three days of opening arguments over two 24-hour periods. The rules also will allow the House’s record of the impeachment probe admitted as evidence in the trial, as Democrats had demanded.

“We discussed it at lunch. It was pretty much a [Republican] conference consensus that that made a lot more sense,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said.

Democrats had accused McConnell of trying to rig a trial with proposed rules that they said would prevent witnesses from testifying and bar evidence gathered by investigators. Both Schumer and Schiff accused the Senate’s majority leader of being part of a coverup.

McConnell has repeatedly said the rules would mirror those the Senate used in the 1999 impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. Republican senators haven’t ruled out the possibility of further witness testimony and evidence.

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, in which a two-thirds majority is needed to remove him from office.

The Democrats accused the president of withholding military aid and the prospect of a White House meeting from Ukraine in order to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

The Republicans assert that not a single witness brought before the House impeachment investigators offered firsthand evidence of Trump directing the alleged scheme.

They also say the president was within his right to inquire about reported Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election and potential conflicts of interest on behalf of the Bidens. Cipollone has described the Ukraine investigation as an illegal attempt to remove a democratically elected president and avert his reelection.

“They’re not here to steal one election, they’re here to steal two elections,” Cipollone said on Jan. 21.

Hunter Biden received up to $83,000 per month from Burisma, a Ukrainian gas firm that was under investigation by Ukraine’s prosecutor general when Joe Biden forced the firing of the prosecutor. Biden has bragged about ousting the prosecutor by withholding $1 billion in loan guarantees from Ukraine.

As the impeachment drama unfolded, Trump secured several policy victories, securing bipartisan support for the replacement of the North American Free Trade Agreement and signing the first phase of a trade deal with China.

In arguments about the second article of impeachment, which alleges that Trump obstructed Congress, Schiff said that the White House has fought all of the subpoenas issued by the House Intelligence Committee and provided no documents. The president’s attorneys argued that it was Trump’s duty to defend the executive privilege enshrined in the Constitution.

The Senate trial is expected to continue six days a week, Monday through Saturday, until at least the end of January.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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