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McConnell's grip on Trump impeachment trial loosens just a little

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday. Credit: Senate Television via AP

GOPers on the swing shift

As the Senate impeachment trial got underway, the chances that enough Republicans would join Democrats to remove Donald Trump looked as slim as ever. But maybe, just maybe, a small but critical bloc of GOP moderates will give the House impeachment managers a chance to more fully make their case.

That group, including Susan Collins of Maine and Rob Portman of Ohio, leaned on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to ease up on a schedule that would have pushed opening arguments into the post-midnight hours. Each side will get three eight-hour segments, instead of two 12-hour segments. McConnell also dropped resistance to admitting evidence collected in the House inquiry into the record.

But Republicans stood unanimously against amendments offered by Democratic leader Chuck Schumer to subpoena documents and witnesses to support the charge that Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations of political foes. Schumer's proposals failed on 53-47 party line votes. Wait, a couple of GOP centrists said, until after the arguments from both sides and the senators' chance to ask questions. 

"It is likely that I would support a motion to subpoena witnesses at that point in the trial,” said Collins. Utah's Mitt Romney said he still wants to hear from former national security adviser John Bolton. Whether two more Republicans would join them — so a vote for witnesses would prevail — is not assured.

But if such a motion succeeds, it could throw the trial into turmoil. Trump's lawyers, worried what Bolton might say, are readying contingency plans such as arguing his testimony should be classified. If they do, a fight could go all the way to the Supreme Court. “Pursuing those witnesses,” McConnell said, “could indefinitely delay the Senate trial.”

The Democratic impeachment managers were adamant that witnesses must be heard. “If the House cannot call witnesses or introduce documented evidence, it is not a fair trial. It is not really a trial at all,” said House intelligence chairman Adam Schiff. “It is a mockery of a trial.”

That position was mocked by Patrick Philbin, a deputy White House counsel. “After saying for weeks that they had overwhelming evidence to support their case, the first thing the house managers have done … is to say, ‘Well, actually, we need more evidence,’ ” he said. Newsday's Tom Brune has five takeaways from the opening of the trial.

Trump lawyers target Schiff

The president's lawyers scarcely dealt with the details of Trump's actions on Ukraine beyond saying, as White House counsel Pat Cipollone put it, that the president “has done absolutely nothing wrong.”

Instead, they concentrated on attacking the House investigation. "Believe me, what is taking place in these proceedings is not to be confused with due process. Because due process demands, and our Constitution requires, that fundamental fairness and due process … is designed to protect the person accused,” said Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow.

Cipollone falsely claimed that Republican House members were kept out of Schiff's early closed-door hearings. In reality, GOP members of three House committees were allowed to attend. Schiff said he would not suggest “Mr. Cipollone would deliberately make a false statement," but “I will tell you this: He's mistaken." 

Schiff said Trump was guilty of "the trifecta of constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment," meaning "conduct that abuses the power of office for a personal benefit, that undermines our national security, and that invites foreign interference in the democratic process of an election.”

What's ahead

The trial schedule is very tentative, depending on further wrangling over procedures and whether each side uses all of its allotted time, but here's one way it could play out:

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — Democratic arguments.

Saturday, Monday and Tuesday — Trump team arguments.

Wednesday, Jan. 29 - Thursday, Jan. 30 — Senators' questions.

Friday, Jan. 31 — Debate on whether to subpoena witnesses and documents. Votes on those questions and other motions. If the Democrats lose, the Senate could move then to a vote on acquittal. If the Democrats win key motions, the trial continues.

Sell it on the mountain

Trump didn't display his scarlet "I" during his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He trumpeted "America's extraordinary prosperity" on his watch, telling the foreign leaders and business titans that "America is winning again like never before.”

Thousands of miles from "Shifty Schiff" and "Cryin' Chuck" and "Crazy Nancy," he took on another foil — environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who also spoke at Davos. He didn't bestow a nickname on the Swedish teen, or say her name for that matter, but he pronounced her "very angry" when asked about her in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. That was right after saying, “I don’t really know anything about her.”

More broadly, Trump rejected the climate change concern that's a main theme of this year's forum. He denounced “the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse” and went out of his way to urge Europe to “use America’s vast supply” of oil and natural gas.

By the end of his day, the president’s only comments on impeachment were a rote “That whole thing is a hoax” and a lone tweet — an all-caps “READ THE TRANSCRIPTS.” He repeated the theme on Wednesday with an added feint about wanting to see his aides testify but there are "national security" concerns.

Janison: The show goes on

For a few moments, even the impeachment had the feel of a Donald Trump celebrity contest, with Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz brought on the team, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

They were 1990s-era star balance for the workhorses, such as Sekulow and Cipollone, who, if less famous, should please Trump with their broadcast-ready voices.

As an impresario, the president also shows an odd versatility by fueling celebrity for those he scorns, such as young Thunberg. 

From a showbiz perspective, her persona as the earnest and plucky underdog is enhanced by Trump playing the humorless heavy deploring her fame.

The grudge report

Hillary Clinton is still feeling burned. In a new documentary series about her ("Hillary" on Hulu), Clinton ripped into Bernie Sanders, her 2016 primary opponent and now a top 2020 contender.

"Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done," Clinton says. "He was a career politician. It's all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it."

Interviewed about the film by The Hollywood Reporter, she hedged on whether she would support him if he won the nomination — "I'm not going to go there yet." — and vented some more.

"It's not only him, it's the culture around him," Clinton said. "It's his leadership team. It's his prominent supporters. It's his online Bernie Bros. and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women."

Playing cleanup, spokesman Nick Merrill said Clinton would work to support the Democratic nominee, whoever that is. Sanders, asked for his reaction to Clinton's "nobody likes him" remark, told NBC News: “On a good day, my wife likes me, so let’s clear the air on that one.”

Obamacare on SCOTUS later list

The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to grant Democrats a fast-track review of a lawsuit, backed by the Trump administration, that threatens Obamacare. The move makes it highly unlikely that the justices would decide the case before the 2020 election.

A coalition of blue states and the House, which are defending the Affordable Care Act in the lawsuit, had pressed the high court to intervene after a federal appeals court last month refused to rule on the law’s constitutionality.

The turndown was a relief to Republicans who will face less pressure to show during the campaign how they would replace Obamacare.

What else is happening:

  • Several Senate Democrats are privately discussing the possibility of calling Republicans’ bluff on witnesses with a trade: the testimony of Hunter Biden for the testimony of a key administration official, The Washington Post reported.
  • Trump offered some pretzel-like reasoning in an effort to preserve the appearance that no Americans were seriously injured in an attack by Iranian forces. The president seemed to minimize the severity of head injuries by rationalizing that soldiers didn't lose limbs.
  • Rudy Giuliani was told that his rich Venezuelan client, avoiding charges in a money-laundering scheme, provided financial support for Venezuela’s opposition, Reuters reports. He then touted that alleged assistance to U.S. prosecutors as a reason to remove the legal cloud dogging his client.
  • Aiming to curb the "birth tourism" route to citizenship, the Trump administration has drafted plans to make it more difficult for pregnant women from abroad to obtain tourist visas, BuzzFeed News reports. Trump has been openly hostile to "birthright" citizenship but hasn't followed through on his claim that it's not constitutionally protected.
  • Trump told The Wall Street Journal in its interview from Davos that he is serious about imposing tariffs on European autos if he can’t make a trade deal with the European Union. But he backed off a threat to impose a 100% tax on French wine after French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to hold off on taxing U.S. digital companies.
  • Most beverages are banned from the Senate floor, no matter how much caffeine would boost alertness for the impeachment trial, but the rules are lactose tolerant. Milk is allowed, as is water.
  • Michael Bloomberg is shifting his TV ad messaging to call directly for Trump's removal from office via impeachment, The Washington Post reports. He's buying time in states with Republican senators who face competitive reelection fights this year.
  • Sanders apologized to Joe Biden after one of his prominent surrogates, New York progressive Zephyr Teachout, wrote an op-ed charging the former vice president "has a big corruption problem and it makes him a weak candidate." Sanders told CBS News: "It is absolutely not my view that Joe is corrupt in any way. And I'm sorry that that op-ed appeared."

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