WASHINGTON – The US Senate set the rules for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, setting a more relaxed timeline but sticking with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to put off the question of calling additional witnesses.
The rules resolution, which passed 53-47, made concessions to some Republicans who pushed for House prosecutors and Mr Trump’s defence to have three days to present their arguments, rather than the two days Mr McConnell originally proposed. The final rules hew more closely to the precedent from the 1999 trial of President Bill Clinton, as Mr McConnell pledged he would do.
The trial’s first working day shows that even after some dissent behind closed doors, Republicans so far are supporting Mr McConnell on public votes. Over the course of more than 12 hours, all 53 Republican senators voted to shelve 11 amendments from Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to subpoena new documents and testimony.
This sets up a trial that could conclude as soon as next week if no new witnesses are called. With Mr Trump all but certain to be acquitted in the majority-Republican chamber, Democrats used their first day on the Senate stage to build a case against the President intended to resonate with voters, if not with the senators serving as jurors.
House Intelligence chairman Adam Schiff, leading the team of seven impeachment managers, argued in favour of Mr Schumer’s subpoenas, asking senators if they did, in fact, want to hear from the administration officials with first-hand knowledge of Mr Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine.
Mr Schiff and his fellow House Democrats also began laying out the evidence for the abuse-of-power and obstruction-of-Congress charges with prepared slides and video clips of witnesses speaking in last year’s House hearings.
Mr Trump’s defence team, led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, said the House should have asked courts to enforce subpoenas for the witnesses they are now seeking, even though it was the Trump administration that prohibited officials from participating.
The arguments got heated as Tuesday (Jan 21) stretched into Wednesday. Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the trial, asked the House managers and Mr Trump’s legal team to “remember where they are”, after each side suggested that the other was not 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,” Mr Roberts said shortly before 1am 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.”
Wielding a 53-47 Senate majority, it will be up to Republicans to maintain their partisan unity behind Mr McConnell, who publicly vowed to coordinate strategy with the White House.
The challenge for Democrats will be to convince at least four Republicans to join them on procedural votes, including the next fight over calling new witnesses.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who is considered a key vote on this issue, defended her vote against Mr Schumer’s initial amendment by saying that she supports deferring the question on additional testimony until after senators have the chance to ask questions of the House managers and Trump’s defence team.
The first day of the trial featured Mr Schiff and his House colleagues jumping straight into the legal case against the President. Mr Schiff said the House’s impeachment articles are “the most serious charges against a president”, and he urged senators to conduct a fair trial that uncovers the truth about Mr Trump’s actions.
Mr Cipollone and Mr Trump’s defence team echoed the President’s public claims that the charges against him are “ridiculous” and the impeachment process is unconstitutional. Mr Cipollone asserted that most Americans are turned off by such long hours of repetitive arguments.
Colorado Democrat Jason Crow, one of the House managers, countered that people actually do care about the charges facing the President, even if they are not following every development of the Senate trial.
“I don’t think the American people care very much whether people in Washington are sitting around debating all the time,” Mr Crow said. “What they are concerned about is whether their government is working for them, whether there’s corruption in their government, and that’s what this debate is about.”