Wednesday, January 22, 2020
Republicans Block Subpoenas for New Evidence as Impeachment Trial Begins
WASHINGTON — A divided Senate began the impeachment trial of President Trumpon Tuesday in utter acrimony, as Republicans blocked Democrats’ efforts to subpoena witnesses and documents related to Ukraine and moderate Republicans forced last-minute changes to rules that had been tailored to the president’s wishes.
In a series of party-line votes punctuating 12 hours of debate, Senate Republicans turned back every attempt by Democrats to subpoena documents from the White House, State Department and other agencies, as well as testimony from White House officials that could shed light on the core charges against Mr. Trump.
The debate between the House impeachment managers and the president’s legal team stretched into the early hours of Wednesday morning in a Senate chamber transformed for the occasion, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. presiding from the marble rostrum and senators sworn to silence looking on from desks piled with briefing books. It was the substantive start of the third presidential impeachment trial in American history.
Tensions grew so raw after midnight that Chief Justice Roberts cut in just before 1 a.m. to admonish the managers and the president’s lawyers to “remember where they are” and return to “civil discourse.”
“They are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body,” he said.
On its face, the prolonged debate was about the rules and procedures. But it set the stage for a broader political fight over Mr. Trump’s likely acquittal and will help shape the 2020 campaign.
Democrats were laying the groundwork to argue that the trial was rigged on Mr. Trump’s behalf and to denounce Republicans — including the most vulnerable senators seeking re-election — for acquiescing. Republicans, for their part, insisted that the Senate must move decisively to remedy what they characterized as an illegitimate impeachment inquiry unjustly tarring the presidency.
Standing in the well of the Senate, the Democratic House impeachment managers urged senators to reject proposed rules from the majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, that would delay a debate over witnesses and documents until the middle of the trial, with no guarantee that they would ever be called.
“If the Senate votes to deprive itself of witnesses and documents, the opening statements will be the end of the trial,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the lead manager. He said Mr. McConnell’s proposal was tantamount to saying, “Let’s have the trial, and maybe we can just sweep this all under the rug.”
But Republicans were unpersuaded and, just before 2 a.m. Eastern, voted along party lines, 53 to 47, to ratify Mr. McConnell’s trial plan. As adopted, the resolution would pave the way for oral arguments against Mr. Trump to begin as soon as Wednesday.
They rejected 10 other amendments by the same margin. An 11th Democratic proposal, to lengthen the timetable for the prosecutors and defense to file trial motions, gained the support of one Republican, Susan Collins of Maine, but still failed.
At the heart of the trial are charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congressapproved last month by the Democratic-led House. They assert that Mr. Trump used the power of his office to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into his political rivals, withholding as leverage nearly $400 million in military aid and a White House meeting. The president then sought to conceal his actions from Congress, the charges say, by blocking witness testimony and documents.
Mr. Trump’s legal team argues that the charges are baseless and amount to criminalizing a president’s prerogative to make foreign policy as he sees fit. In a break with most constitutional scholars, they also claim that the impeachment was unconstitutional because the articles of impeachment do not outline a specific violation of a law.
But on Tuesday, the debate focused principally on what would constitute a fair trial.
“This initial step will offer an early signal to our country,” Mr. McConnell said before it got underway. “Can the Senate still serve our founding purpose?”
Mr. McConnell also received a sharp reminder about the limits of his power to control an inherently unpredictable proceeding.
Under pressure from Republican moderates, he was forced early in the day to make some last-minute changes to the set of rules he unveiled on Monday, which would have squeezed opening arguments by both sides into two 12-hour marathon days. Mr. McConnell’s rules also would have refused to admit the findings of the House impeachment inquiry into evidence without a separate vote later in the trial.
The compressed timetable was in line with a White House request to quickly dispense with opening arguments so that Mr. Trump’s team could complete his defense before the weekend.
But Ms. Collins, Rob Portman of Ohio and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, among others, objected privately to those provisions, which they believed departed too much from procedures adopted unanimously for the 1999 trial of President Bill Clinton and could further expose Republicans to accusations of unfairness.
The objections were raised at a closed-door luncheon just before the trial was to begin, according to aides familiar with the conversation. Mr. McConnell rushed to submit a revised copy of the resolution — with lines crossed out and changes scrawled in pen in the margins — when it was time for the debate.
When the resolution was read aloud on the Senate floor, two days had been extended to three and the House’s records would be automatically admitted into evidence, though Mr. McConnell inserted a new provision that would allow Mr. Trump’s team to move to throw out parts of the House case.
The last-minute reversal underscored the influence of a small group of moderate Republicans in the narrowly divided Senate whose interests and demands could prove decisive in a more formal debate over witnesses and documents to come.
Half a world away, Mr. Trump sought to use the global stage at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to project confidence about his standing at home. He swatted away questions from reporters about the trial, instead bragging about the strength of the American economy under his leadership.
But in the Senate chamber, Mr. Trump’s lawyers replayed many of his most frequent and personal grievances, accusing Democrats in only slightly more lawyerly terms of conducting a political search-and-destroy mission.
“It’s long past time that we start this so we can put an end to this ridiculous charade and go have an election,” said Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel.
The historically rare debate was rendered even more unusual by the traditional Senate rules that prohibit senators from speaking on the chamber floor for the duration of the proceedings and instead empower the House managers and White House defense lawyers to debate the proposals. The effect was that on the trial’s first day, the Senate chamber split cleanly into partisan factions, with the managers siding with Senate Democrats and Mr. Trump’s lawyers taking the place of the Republicans.
Mr. Cipollone rose first, delivering a brief statement urging senators to support Mr. McConnell’s proposed rules and accusing Democrats of seeking to use the Senate to complete their sloppy investigative work.
“We believe that once you hear those initial presentations, the only conclusion will be that the president has done nothing wrong,” Mr. Cipollone said, “and that these articles of impeachment do not begin to approach the standard required by the Constitution.”
Democrats, who came armed with slick digital slides and video clips to drive home their arguments, spent hours detailing the factual record compiled by the House investigation and cataloging the witnesses and thousands of pages of highly relevant documents Mr. Trump had succeeded in withholding. Senators facing such a grave decision as removing a president, they argued, have a responsibility to try to push all the facts to light.
“With the backing of a subpoena authorized by the chief justice of the United States, you can end President Trump’s obstruction,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, the first woman in history to speak on the Senate floor as an impeachment manager. “If the Senate fails to take this step, you won’t even ask for the evidence. This trial and your verdict will be questioned.”
Just an hour or so before the trial began, the seven House managers submitted one final written rebuttal to arguments put forward against their charges by Mr. Trump’s lawyers. In 34 pages, they rejected the lawyers’ assertion that abuse of power was not an impeachable offense and that Mr. Trump had acted legally when he ordered administration officials not to appear for questioning in the House or provide documents for the impeachment inquiry.
Locked in silence for much of the day, senators were able to talk only before the proceeding began or during brief breaks. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, denounced Mr. McConnell’s rules as deeply unfair and skewed toward Mr. Trump.
Inside the chamber, Mr. Schumer forced votes on demanding documents and compelling testimony from four current and former Trump administration officials who were blocked from speaking with the House: John R. Bolton, the former White House national security adviser; Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff; Robert B. Blair, an adviser to Mr. Mulvaney; and Michael Duffey, a White House budget official.
Each time, Mr. McConnell moved to kill the proposal before it could be considered, and was sustained by unified Republican support. At one point, he offered to short-circuit the debate to speed up the votes, but Democrats who want a full account of Mr. Trump’s blockade on record declined.
“This is the fair road map for our trial,” Mr. McConnell declared. “We need it in place before we can move forward.”
Even after Tuesday’s changes, Mr. McConnell’s proposal makes way for potentially the fastest presidential impeachment trial in American history, particularly if the Senate declines to call witnesses.
Only two other American presidents have stood trial in the Senate for high crimes and misdemeanors. Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, and his trial took the better part of three months, featuring testimony from dozens of witnesses and extended periods for discovery, before he was ultimately acquitted by just a single vote. Mr. Clinton’s trial lasted five weeks, included testimony from just three witnesses and resulted in an overwhelming acquittal.
Without witnesses, Mr. Trump’s trial could conclude by the end of January. If senators ultimately do call witnesses, that timeline could stretch weeks longer.
Catie Edmondson and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.
Nicholas Fandos is a national reporter based in the Washington bureau. He has covered Congress since 2017 and is part of a team of reporters who have chronicled investigations by the Justice Department and Congress into President Trump and his administration. @npfandos“