Senate Republicans Won't Call Witnesses In Trump's Impeachment Trial — For Now
The third presidential impeachment trial in US history is underway. The first thing senators did is get into a big partisan fight over witnesses and other rules.
WASHINGTON — The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began Tuesday afternoon with a fight over the rules.
The House impeached Trump in December, charging him with abuse of power for withholding aid from Ukraine in a campaign to pressure the country to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his family. Trump was also charged with obstruction of Congress for preventing members of his administration from testifying about the Ukraine saga.
The first step in the trial was to pass a set of rules Tuesday that will dictate the next steps. Democrats wanted to guarantee that witnesses will be called, but Republicans, whose majority carried a party-line vote, ensured that is a decision to be made later.
As promised, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell passed the rules without Democratic support just before 2am Wednesday, after 13 hours of debating amendments — all of which failed. Starting Wednesday afternoon, House Democrats and the White House will begin to lay out their respective cases while senators, acting as the jury, sit silently without even access to their phones. The new rules will compact the trial into long days, allowing each side 24 hours to make its opening arguments over the course of three days that the Senate is in session.
Those opening arguments are expected to begin Wednesday with Democrats making their case through Friday. The White House will likely make its arguments Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday. (The Senate will take Sunday off.)
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts is presiding over the trial.
After opening arguments, senators will be able to ask questions of both legal teams — but they have to be written down, as the senators must stay silent as jurors during the trial. McConnell's rules would allow senators 16 hours to question the two sides.
After that, there would be debate for a maximum of four hours again taking up the issue of whether to subpoena witnesses or documents, followed by a vote. It takes 51 senators for that vote to be successful. All 47 Democrats are likely to be in favor, meaning they’ll likely need four Republicans to join them.
It will be an uphill battle for Democrats to be able to subpoena witnesses or documents during the impeachment with 53 Republicans holding the majority in the Senate.
The first attempt by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to be able to call witnesses and subpoena documents from the White House before opening arguments was shut down along party lines Tuesday afternoon, with all 53 Republicans tabling the motion.
In all, 11 amendments from Schumer were voted down — 10 on party-line votes, including motions to request documents from the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Defense Department, as well as motions to subpoena testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, his aide Robert Blair, and OMB's Michael Duffey. Significantly, Democrats also proposed having Chief Justice Roberts authorize subpoenas for witnesses and documents, but that too failed on a party-line vote.
Republicans also voted down a Schumer amendment that stated that if Trump's defense team introduced any evidence in the trial that Democrats had already subpoenaed, they would have to release all the other information requested in that subpoena as well. And they rejected a measure that would have removed a hurdle toward calling witnesses later in the trial.
Just one amendment received any bipartisan support — Republican Sen. Susan Collins joined Democrats in voting for another Schumer motion to give the legal teams more time to respond to each others' motions. But, with just 48 votes, it still didn't pass.
Schumer said McConnell "is hell-bent on making it much more difficult to get witnesses and documents and intent on rushing the trial through."
McConnell had said for weeks that he had all 53 Republican senators on board for his rules package. Still, Democrats proposed a series of amendments Tuesday to try to force vulnerable Republicans into politically awkward votes. What's less clear is whether Democrats can eventually muster 51 votes to call witnesses. Though Sens. Susan Collins and Mitt Romney voted Tuesday to table the motion on calling witnesses, they may vote for it later.
It remains unclear how long the trial will last, but it will begin every day — Monday through Saturday — at 1 p.m. All senators must be in attendance during the trial, meaning that the Senate Democrats running for president will be away from the campaign trail as the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses near.
Trump’s top advisers refused to answer subpoenas during the House investigation into whether Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine unless the country announced an investigation into Biden and his family. But in recent weeks Bolton announced he would testify before the Senate if subpoenaed.
Whether that happens will not be decided anytime soon.
Pushing back against McConnell's proposed rules, Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff argued in his opening remarks that the Senate should be able to hear from new witnesses and evidence, pointing out that many witnesses have not already testified because the White House instructed them not to.
"It would be wrong to assert that the Senate is unable to obtain and review new evidence during a Senate trial regardless fo why evidence was not presented in the House," Rep. Schiff said. "The president cannot complain that we did not call these witnesses before the House when their unavailability was caused by the president himself."
Pat Cipollone, who is representing Trump in the impeachment trial, argued that the rules are based on the rules that were set during the impeachment trial of former president Bill Clinton (though McConnell did make changes).
"It is a fair way to proceed with this trial," he said in his brief opening statement. "It is modeled on the Clinton resolution, which had 100 senators supporting it the last time this body considered an impeachment."
But Democrats argued Tuesday that there were significant changes to the rules.
"If we're really serious about modeling this proceeding after the Clinton trial, the Clinton precedent is one where all the documents had been provided upfront, where all the witnesses had testified prior to the trial," Schiff said.
McConnell had originally said that both sides would have up to 24 hours to make their arguments over the course of just two session days; since the proceedings start every day at 1 p.m., House managers would have to talk past midnight to use up their full 24 hours in that time. Democrats accused McConnell of pushing testimony to the dead of night. But on Tuesday, the Republican leader introduced rules that would give both sides three session days to make their cases, so the trial is still likely to go late each day of arguments, but not until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., as originally thought.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi selected seven members to serve as impeachment managers who will make the case to impeach Trump: Schiff, Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler, and Reps. Zoe Lofgren, Hakeem Jeffries, Val Demings, Jason Crow, and Sylvia Garcia.
The White House’s impeachment defense team will include Ken Starr, the prosecutor who headed the investigation that led to Clinton’s impeachment; White House counsel Pat Cipollone; Trump’s personal lawyers Jay Sekulow and Jane Raskin; constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz; former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi; and Robert Ray, who took over for Starr as independent counsel during Clinton’s presidency.
Trump has also named several House Republicans to his impeachment team, though they will reportedly not speak during the trial. Instead, they’ll work on messaging for the president, so expect to see these faces on cable news: Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Doug Collins of Georgia, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, Debbie Lesko of Wisconsin, John Ratcliffe of Illinois, and Elise Stefanik and Lee Zeldin of New York.