The impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump began in full Tuesday in the U.S. Senate, with the expectation of a spirited debate over the rules governing the third such trial in U.S. history over whether a president should be ousted from the White House for allegedly violating his oath of office.
One of the first pieces of business for the Republican-led Senate is an hours-long debate on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed timeline and parameters for the trial. Democrats are sharply contesting McConnell’s plan, denouncing it as a “coverup” and “national disgrace”, although McConnell says he has enough Republican votes to push through the schedule he wants.
It is a plan that could lead to Trump’s acquittal as soon as next week. A two-thirds vote in the Senate would be needed to convict Trump to oust him from the White House, but no Senate Republican has called for his removal.
McConnell’s resolution would give Democratic impeachment managers from the House of Representatives – who will act as prosecutors – and Trump’s legal team 24 hours each over two days to present their cases. The resolution calls for decisions on whether to subpoena White House documents related to Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine to launch investigations to benefit himself politically or to call witnesses to be put off until after the House managers present their case and Trump’s lawyers respond with their defense.
McConnell and the Republicans have made no secret of wanting the trial to be as quick as possible and ending in Trump’s acquittal.
“Here in the Senate, the president’s lawyers will finally receive a level playing field with the House Democrats, and will finally be able to present the president’s case,” the majority leader said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
Hours ahead of Tuesday’s session, the lead House impeachment manager, Congressman Adam Schiff, derided McConnell’s call for potential 12-hour trial sessions from Wednesday through Saturday this week and refusal, at least initially, to admit mounds of evidence against Trump collected by House impeachment investigators during their weeks-long inquiry late last year.
“This is part and parcel of trying to hide the president’s conduct,” Schiff, a Democrat, said. He said that McConnell, in planning trial sessions that could last late into four straight evenings, “is hoping the American public will not be watching.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called McConnell’s plan “a national disgrace” and a “blueprint for an impeachment trial on fast forward.”
The Democratic leader said that if McConnell has “nothing to hide, why won’t he present it when the sun is shining instead of the dead of night?”
Fight to call witnesses
Schumer said he would offer amendments during the Senate debate to subpoena White House documents and force testimony from Trump aides familiar with his efforts to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate one of Trump’s chief 2020 Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian natural gas company and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to undermine Trump’s campaign.
Trump made his requests to Zelenskiy in a late July phone call at the same time he was temporarily blocking release of $391 million in military aid to Kyiv that it wanted to help fight pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Trump, after a 55-day delay, released the assistance in September without Zelenskiy launching the Biden investigations. That was proof, Republicans say, that Trump did not engage in a reciprocal, quid pro quo deal — the Biden investigations in exchange for the military aid.
Schumer said, “Republican senators will face a choice of getting the facts or joining Leader McConnell and President Trump in covering them up.”
President derides process
Trump has almost daily assailed the impeachment effort against him, including in Davos, Switzerland, where he is attending the World Economic Forum.“
That whole thing is a hoax,” Trump told reporters. “It goes nowhere because nothing happened. The only thing we’ve done is a great job. … That whole thing is a total hoax, so I’m sure it’s going to work out fine.”
In the hours ahead of the Tuesday session, the House managers told Trump’s lead defense attorney, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, that he might be a material witness during the trial since his office played a role in handling some of the Ukraine-related issues as they emerged in the latter half of 2019. The Democratic lawmakers said Cipollone should disclose what role he played.
Trump’s lawyers are assailing the impeachment case against him as a “dangerous perversion of the Constitution,” asserting he did “absolutely nothing wrong” in pressing Ukraine to launch investigations to benefit himself politically.
The lawyers say Democrats pushing for Trump’s removal are not trying to find the truth about Trump’s Ukraine-related actions, but are looking to overturn his 2016 election and interfere with his 2020 re-election campaign.
The House of Representatives impeached Trump on two articles. One alleges he abused the presidency by pressing Zelenskiy for the Biden investigations and the others is that he allegedly obstructed Congress in its investigation of his Ukraine-related actions.
Democratic lawmakers had earlier said it was clear that the “evidence overwhelmingly establishes” that Trump is guilty of both charges.
The Trump lawyers, in their 110-page filing on Monday, said that the president was conducting normal foreign policy affairs in dealing with Zelenskiy.
They said he did not commit a crime, even though conviction of an impeached U.S. president and removal from office does not depend on a specific violation of a criminal law. Rather, it is how the 100 members of the Senate, acting as jurors, interpret the standard for conviction set out in the U.S. Constitution, whether a president has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
No matter the legal arguments for and against Trump, he almost certainly will be acquitted by the Republican-majority Senate. At least 20 of the 53 Senate Republicans would have to join all 47 Democrats to convict Trump, and no Republican has called for his ouster.
The White House predicts Trump’s acquittal within two weeks. But the trial could last much longer if Democrats succeed in persuading four Republicans to join them in calling for testimony from key Trump aides about the president’s Ukraine-related actions.
Key witness testimony
Democrats want to hear testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and others about Trump’s actions.
Trump has said he wants to call the Bidens as witnesses at his trial, along with the still-unidentified whistleblower who first disclosed that Trump in a July phone call asked Zelenskiy to launch the Biden investigations. But on Twitter Monday, he seemed averse to hearing testimony from Bolton, whom he ousted in September.
Democrats, Trump said, “didn’t want John Bolton and others in the House” to testify. “They were in too much of a rush. Now they want them all in the Senate. Not supposed to be that way!”
House Democrats had sought testimony from Bolton and others in Trump’s orbit. But the potential witnesses complied with the president’s edict to not cooperate with their investigation, although others ignored it and testified. Democratic lawmakers abandoned efforts to subpoena some witnesses out of fear that the legal fights over their testimony would extend for months and instead moved ahead to adopt the impeachment articles without hearing them testify under oath.
Bolton now says he is willing to testify at Trump’s impeachment trial if he is subpoenaed by the Senate.
US impeachment history
Two other presidents — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 were impeached by the House but acquitted in Senate trials and remained in office.
U.S. President Richard Nixon faced almost certain impeachment in 1974 in the Watergate political scandal, but resigned before the House acted.