Senators Battle Over Rules as Trump Impeachment Trial Begins

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell presses for a swift acquittal of the U.S. president.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 16. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In what may prove a relatively swift proceeding, U.S. senators began to decide Tuesday whether to take the unprecedented step of removing a sitting president from office as Donald Trump’s impeachment trial got underway. 

While senators in the Republican-held chamber have promised to pursue impartial justice as jurors, the proceeding was fraught with partisan rancor from the start as rules unveiled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set a speedy timetable that could see the third impeachment trial in U.S. history concluded ahead of the president’s State of the Union address on Feb. 4. 

McConnell had previously indicated that he would use the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton as a blueprint for proceedings. The rules for the Clinton trial were passed by the chamber in a unanimous vote, but key differences in McConnell’s resolution made such a display of bipartisanship unlikely this time around. 

The proposed rules initially put forward by McConnell on Monday were a sharp departure from those that governed the Clinton impeachment trial. However, by the time the resolution was read out in the Senate, a couple of key changes had brought proceedings more in line with those used in 1999 trial.

The initial draft rules would have given both House impeachment managers and the president’s defense team 24 hours to make their case to the chamber over a two-day period. With proceedings set to being at 1 p.m. each day, this could have seen arguments continue until well past midnight and be wrapped up by the weekend.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused McConnell of orchestrating a “cover-up” and said that the proposed rules would see key evidence heard “in the wee hours of the morning.” This was later extended to give both sides three days to present their arguments, mirroring the proceedings of the Clinton trial.

In another about-face, the draft resolution published Monday would have required a separate vote at the tail end of the trial to admit evidence gathered by House impeachment investigators. But the resolution put forth on Tuesday would see the House’s evidence automatically entered into the record of the Senate trial, as happened during the Clinton impeachment trial.

The changes were made after Republican senators, including possible swing voter Susan Collins of Maine, raised concerns about the two provisions, according to the New York Times.

Once both sides have presented their evidence, senators will have 16 hours to put their questions to either side, which is likely to take place early next week. Questions will be submitted through Chief Justice John Roberts, who will preside over the trial. After four more hours of arguments, lawmakers will weigh whether to subpoena further witnesses or documents.

The Democrats are keen to hear from witnesses close to the president such as his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former National Security Advisor John Bolton. They have argued that these senior officials or ex-officials could give key evidence about Trump’s involvement in efforts to pressure Ukrainian authorities to announce corruption investigations that could aid his 2020 reelection chances. It is unclear whether Schumer would be able to woo the four Republican votes needed to support calling further witnesses.

House Democrats concluded this past December that, in soliciting election interference, Trump had abused the power of his office, which was the grounds for the first article of impeachment. The second article, obstruction of Congress, concerned the president’s efforts to prevent key officials and documents from being made available to House investigators during the fall.

In a 110-page brief submitted to the Senate on Monday, Trump’s lawyers outlined their defense of the president, describing the impeachment as a “brazenly political act.” Without disputing the underlying facts of the case, the president’s legal defense team argued that the articles of impeachment were baseless, as he hadn’t broken the law and had acted within the bounds of executive privilege. Legal scholars have challenged the notion that an impeachable offense must also be a criminal one. 

Last week the Government Accountability Office, an independent federal watchdog, concluded that the president had broken the law by temporarily withholding almost $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, which had already been appropriated by Congress. The decision was just the latest new development to emerge in recent weeks. 

On the eve of Wednesday’s House vote to hand over the articles of impeachment to the Senate, House Democrats released a tranche of documents and messages provided to lawmakers by Lev Parnas, who was closely involved in efforts by the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to lean on Ukrainian officials. 

Included among the documents is a letter from Giuliani requesting a personal meeting with the president of Ukraine in which he states he was acting “In my capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent,” the first explicit piece of evidence that undercuts the already strained argument that Giuliani was acting on his own initiative in Ukraine. 

House impeachment managers, who serve as prosecutors during the trial, submitted their own detailed filing on Saturday, restating their case for impeaching the president and arguing that Trump’s conduct is an ongoing threat to the integrity of U.S. elections. 

On Friday, the White House confirmed three new additions to Trump’s legal defense team: Ken Starr, who oversaw the investigation that led to Clinton’s impeachment; the former Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz; and Robert Ray, who succeeded Starr as the independent counsel in the Clinton probe.

On Monday night the White House named the eight House Republican lawmakers who will serve as part of the president’s defense team. Among them are John Ratcliffe of Texas, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, and Elise Stefanik of New York, who were some of Trump’s most strident defenders during the impeachment investigation.

In what is set to be a day of dueling narratives, Trump is in Davos, Switzerland, where he gave a speech at the World Economic Forum on Tuesday morning.

Asked whether Trump was planning on watching the impeachment trial from Davos, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said, “He has a full day here in Davos, but will be briefed by staff periodically.”

Update, Jan. 21, 2020: This story was updated to reflect changes to the rules proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.


Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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