Trump Trial Rules Set After McConnell Fields GOP Pushback
(Bloomberg) -- The Senate set the terms for Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, but not before Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the president got a reminder that a small group of GOP senators can determine how it will play out.
The Senate voted 53-47 in the early hours of Wednesday to set the trial procedures after McConnell hastily revised his proposed rules in the face of a mini-rebellion from some Republicans over the compressed schedule for arguments in the case.
Despite that, Republicans repeatedly wielded their Senate majority over more than 12 hours of intense -- and at times volatile -- debate to quash every Democratic attempt to subpoena documents and witnesses from the Trump administration related to the president’s dealings with the government of Ukraine.
The votes set the stage for House impeachment managers to begin presenting their case as soon as Wednesday. They will have 24 hours over three days to make arguments, followed by Trump’s defense team with equal time.
The pushback against McConnell’s original proposal, which would have limited the time for arguments to two days for each side, came from moderates like Susan Collins of Maine as well as conservative Trump defenders like Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. It illustrated how each future turn in the proceedings could be dictated by a small group of GOP senators -- just four Republicans siding with Democrats would determine whether witnesses will be heard later in the trial.
The episode also showed how the impeachment trial, even though Trump’s acquittal is all but assured, is reverberating in an election year when control of the White House and both chambers of Congress is on the line.
Democrats hammered Republicans with accusations they were setting up a rushed and unfair trial with a pre-determined outcome, an argument designed to appeal to the urban and suburban voters they’re counting on in November. Republicans said McConnell’s initial proposal for a grueling schedule limited to just two days for each side invited such criticism.
“There was just no reason to open ourselves up to it,” Johnson, who won’t face voters until 2022, told reporters.
Trump, speaking in Davos, Switzerland, early Wednesday, said it was up to the Senate to decide whether to hear witnesses in the trial. He added that he would “love” for his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to testify, but said some potential witnesses would raise “national security” concerns.
Both parties and some of their allied outside groups are buying impeachment-themed ads targeting senators who face tough races in November.
Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster whose clients include the Senate Majority PAC, said incumbents in close elections will suffer in November if voters conclude they don’t act with independence or aren’t interested in finding the truth in the trial.
“For a lot of the senators the decision they arrive at will be less important than how they are perceived to arrive at it,” Garin said.
Those senators, along with voters, will be the main audience for the House prosecutors led by Democratic Representative Adam Schiff and for the president’s defense team led by White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.
The first day of debate got heated as Tuesday stretched into Wednesday. Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the trial, at one point asked the House managers and Trump’s legal team to “remember where they are,” after each side suggested that the other wasn’t telling the truth.
“It is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and president’s counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Roberts said shortly before 1 a.m. in Washington. “One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse.”
Trump’s team relied heavily on some of the same arguments Republicans have been making since the House impeachment inquiry began. They charged that the president’s House accusers are engaged in a politically motivated investigation that has distracted the administration from addressing the nation’s most compelling problems.
Cipollone suggested that the four Senate Democrats running for president were using their Senate positions to remove their GOP rival from the 2020 election.
“They’re trying to remove President Trump’s name from the ballot, and they can’t prove their case,” he said.
Cipollone dismissed the charges and proceedings as “ridiculous” at least eight times and also repeated some falsehoods that regularly circulate among Trump supporters, including that Republicans were barred from attending witness depositions during the House impeachment investigation. Schiff corrected him by saying GOP members of the three committees that led the House inquiry were invited to participate in the closed hearings.
Schiff delivered his own extended remarks, arguing that the Senate should call witnesses as was done in all other impeachment cases, including two former presidents and federal judges. McConnell’s rules defer the question of calling witnesses until after opening arguments and 16 hours of questioning by senators.
“I believe the most important decision in this case is the one you will make today -- will the president and the American people get a fair trial?” Schiff said.
Republican senators did stick together to reject a series of amendments from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to demand testimony and document from the Trump administration. Only Collins joined with Democrats on one of the 11 amendment votes.
The documents requested included any records related to meetings or calls between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and records of inquiries related to Joe Biden, his son Hunter and Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings, on whose board Hunter Biden served.
Nixing Witness Trades
In his defense of an amendment to give Roberts authority over trial subpoenas, Schiff rejected the notion that Republicans and Democrats could trade witnesses -- for example, by securing the testimony of former National Security Adviser John Bolton in exchange for that of Hunter Biden.
“We’re not making trades or we shouldn’t be,” Schiff said, arguing that the Bidens aren’t relevant to the charges against the president. “I think it betrays the weakness of your case.”
Schumer said his early votes on trial rules put Republicans on the spot with their constituents. He said McConnell’s last-minute rules changes show that GOP senators are starting to squirm amid public pressure for a fair trial.
“The real test will be witnesses and documents,” he told reporters. “Will our Republican senators pressure McConnell so we will have witnesses and documents produced.”
Still, Trump’s acquittal is all but assured, with 67 senators needed to convict and remove him from office. Some Republicans cautioned that McConnell’s early concession says little about what will happen later on the question of introducing further evidence.
Senator Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, said many GOP senators thought both sides should simply get more time to lay out their arguments.
“When we talked about it, there was flexibility in that if we did try to rush it or compress it, then that might not be the best thing to do,” he said.
Asked if that translates into pressure to call for more evidence, he said he “wouldn’t make that stretch.”
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