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Senate Impeachment Trial Kicks Off With Heated Fight Over Rules

Jan 21, 2020, 10:01 AM
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks with security as he arrives at the U.S. Capitol...
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks with security as he arrives at the U.S. Capitol on January 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. The Senate impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump resumes on Tuesday. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

(CNN) — President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial begins in earnest Tuesday with a heated debate over the rules, which Democrats charge are an attempt by Senate Republicans to zoom through the process while covering up evidence and ignoring witnesses.

Democrats are furious at the four-page organizing resolution from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that was released Monday night. McConnell’s resolution gives each side 24 hours split over two days for opening arguments, puts off the question of witnesses until after the arguments are made and requires a vote for the House evidence to be submitted.

“The reason this was kept hidden is that this does not prescribe a process for a fair trial,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager and a California Democrat, told reporters on Tuesday. “This is not the process for a fair trial. This is a process for a rigged trial.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer plans to offer amendments to the resolution, including for the Senate to seek witnesses and documents in the trial. Schumer is pushing for the Senate to subpoena witnesses and documents at the outset, and not after the arguments are made, arguing that Republicans are coordinating with the President to rush to the trial’s conclusion.

“Mitch McConnell will go down in history as one of the people eroding democracy because he has gone along with President Trump’s cover-up — hook, line and sinker,” Schumer said on CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday.

But McConnell appears to have the votes from Republicans to move forward with his rules for the trial, and key GOP moderates like Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Mitt Romney of Utah said Monday they would back it. McConnell worked with his moderate members to include language in the resolution that includes a vote on whether the Senate should subpoena witnesses and documents — but later in the trial.

“Overall, it aligns closely with the rules package approved 100-0 during the Clinton trial,” Romney said of McConnell’s proposed rules. “If attempts are made to vote on witnesses prior to opening arguments, I would oppose those efforts.”

The White House has praised McConnell’s resolution and brushed aside Democratic concerns about rushing the trial.

“House Democrats insisted that the impeachment process needed to be sped up, and now that the McConnell resolution takes them at their word, they suddenly want to slow it all down. House Democrats can’t have it both ways,” said White House legislative director Eric Ueland.

Tuesday’s session will be the first substantive day in the Senate trial after the House impeached Trump last month for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. House Democrats charge that the President abused his office by withholding US security aid and a White House meeting while pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, and then covered it up by obstructing the impeachment inquiry.

The House impeachment managers and the President’s legal team will debate the resolution on the Senate floor when the trial gavels in at 1 p.m. ET. There will be two hours of debate for the McConnell’s resolution and then two hours of debate for Schumer’s amendment. When senators want to debate the resolution themselves, they will have to go into closed session, removing the public and the media from the chamber, something that’s expected to occur on Tuesday.

While the main debate on Tuesday is over the rules of the trial, House Democrats also opened up another front in the fight with the President’s legal team, accusing White House counsel Pat Cipollone of being a “fact witness” in the President’s Ukraine scheme.

“You must disclose all facts and information as to which you have first-hand knowledge that will be at issue in connection with evidence you present or arguments you make in your role as the President’s legal advocate so that the Senate and chief justice can be apprised of any potential ethical issues, conflicts, or biases,” the House impeachment managers wrote to Cipollone.

The White House dismissed the House’s allegations.

“House Democrats are trying to run one of the President’s strongest advocates off the case before it even starts,” Ueland said. “They won’t succeed.”

From 1999 to now

Since the House passed the two articles of impeachment last month, McConnell has said he would follow the precedent of President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial. McConnell has pointed to the fact that the Senate put off the question of witnesses until later in the trial, after opening arguments and the senators’ period for asking questions had concluded. At that point, three witnesses were deposed, and portions of those depositions were played in the Senate chamber.

McConnell’s resolution similarly puts the question of witnesses until after each side has 24 hours for their opening arguments — split over two days — and 16 hours of Senate questions. At that point, the Senate will vote generally on whether it should seek witnesses and documents, and then it will consider individual witnesses.

But Democrats say there are key differences. The Senate’s Clinton witnesses had already testified before the grand jury, while the witnesses Democrats are now seeking — former national security adviser John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, White House budget official Michael Duffey and White House aide Rob Blair — refused to testify during the House’s impeachment inquiry.

Democrats have also pointed to other divergences from Clinton as a sign McConnell is trying to rush the trial. The number of days for arguments shrunk from four to two, with 12-hour days for opening arguments raising the prospect of sessions stretching beyond midnight. The Senate resolution does not automatically admit the House’s evidence, requiring a vote to do so, and there’s been no effort to obtain relevant documents from the White House.

Schiff on Tuesday cited the documents Democrats are seeking from the Trump administration as the most important pieces of evidence to still obtain.

“If we’re truly interested in fair trial, the first step ought to be the production of the documents,” Schiff said. “Those will reveal precisely who the most important witnesses are.”

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Senate Impeachment Trial Kicks Off With Heated Fight Over Rules