Washington – The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began Tuesday with warring views of how it should proceed.
Democrats, including Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, slammed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s rules for conducting the trial, calling them corrupt and “rigged” to result in Trump’s acquittal before the president gives his State of the Union speech on Feb. 4.
The rules “do not allow a fair process to occur,” Murphy said.
With U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts presiding, both sides in the case debated the trial rules.
At the heart of Democratic criticisms of the rules are McConnell’s refusal to allow witnesses and documents to be presented at the trial — at least not until the very end of the proceedings.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., failed to win approval for a number of amendments that would force the consideration of new evidence in the form of documents House lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry were unable to obtain from the Trump administration.
Schumer also lost votes on amendments that would require testimony from key administration officials, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and two Office of Management and Budget Officials, Robert Blair and Michael Duffy.
To approve any of those amendments, at least four Republicans would have had to cross a party line and vote with the Democrats.
But Republicans moved in lock-step to wield their majority in the Senate to quash every Democratic attempt to change McConnell’s rules for the the impeachment trial.
Still, with midnight approaching, Schumer said he would continue to submit amendments, brushing aside McConnell’s suggestion the amendment be “stacked” or gathered together and subject to one vote.
“We need to put Republicans on record,” Murphy said. “We may not get another chance to offer amendments to get witnesses and documents before the Senate. This may be our only chance.”
Under the majority leader’s resolution, decisions about documents and witnesses would be put off until after House managers and Trump’s lawyers make opening arguments and senators have an opportunity to ask, in writing, questions of both sides.
McConnell defended the process and said he was following the model set by former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment 21 years ago. After push back from moderate Republican senators, however, he relaxed two of his rules, agreeing to stretch the proceedings over three days instead of two and to allow House evidence to be admitted more easily into the record.
Trump lawyers says charges are bogus
The president’s legal team maintains that the two articles of impeachment approved by the Democratic-led House — one accusing the president of abuse of power and the other of contempt of Congress — are not crimes or impeachable offenses under the U.S. Constitution.
The abuse of power charge was based on allegations that the president held up military aid to Ukraine to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate or announce an investigation into Trump’s political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter.
Democrats contend that Trump’s request for “a favor” in his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was a form of extortion that jeopardized national security and misused congressionally approved funding for a political purpose.
The contempt of Congress charge was based on the White House’s refusal to provide documents and witnesses to House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry.
“Why are we here?” asked Jay Sekulow, a member of Trump’s defense team. “Are we here because of a phone call or because since the president was sworn into office there have been efforts to have him removed?”
Pat Cipollone, the leader of the president’s legal team, repeated an incorrect claim that Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the leader of the House’s seven impeachment managers, did not allow Republicans into the closed-door impeachment depositions that were held late last year. Lawmakers of both parties attended those meetings.
Blumenthal dismissed the Trump team’s arguments.
“The Trump Team’s Constitutional concoction is legal gibberish,” Blumenthal said in a tweet. “But by the way, he did commit a crime. Bribery. It happens to be specifically named in the Constitution as an impeachable offense and is part of his corrupt abuse of power for personal gain.”
Resorting to social media
McConnell’s rules require all senators to sit at their desks for the duration of the trial, without cell phones or any other type of electronic device. But they were allowed to take written notes, and many of them have been.
“I want to make sure everyone in Connecticut knows what’s happening on the Senate floor,” Murphy said.
Just before the proceedings began, Murphy took questions about the Senate trial on Facebook.
In response to a question about how this trial compared to the Clinton impeachment trial, Murphy said they are like “apples and oranges.”
Murphy said the main difference is that Clinton cooperated, even to the point of providing his own blood, “while in this case the president is not cooperating at all.”
Murphy urged Americans to call their senators, “especially in red states” to ask them to join Democrats in voting to allow witnesses and documents at the beginning of the trial.
“We need to be jamming those phone lines,” Murphy said.
Under the changes he conceded to GOP moderates, McConnell is allowing the evidence collected by the House impeachment inquiry to be entered into the Senate record of the trial as it was during Clinton’s trial. Under the revised resolution, the evidence now will be admitted automatically unless there’s an objection, rather than be contingent on a proactive vote to admit it.
McConnell’s agreement to extend the amount of time Democrats and Republicans have to present their argument from two to three days means House Democratic managers, who will act as prosecutors in the trial, would lay out opening arguments Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, while Trump’s legal team would start its opening argument Saturday.
Although moderate Republicans pressed McConnell to relax his rules, they all voted with their GOP colleagues to vote to kill Schumer’s amendments. One after another they were tabled, or rejected by votes of 53-47.
The first amendment considered by the Senate would have required subpoenaing the White House for documents relating to Trump’s decision to hold up military aid to Ukraine until that government announced an investigation of the Bidens.
“I knew it was coming, but hearing every single Republican vote against evidence was a gut punch,” Murphy tweeted.
After votes on Schumer’s amendments are completed the Senate will vote on McConnell’s resolution. Then Democratic House managers will begin their 24 hours of opening statements.