WASHINGTON — The Senate impeachment trial opened Tuesday with a fiery clash over rules on evidence and witnesses as well as the schedule, but despite the impassioned pleas for changes by Democratic House managers the Republicans stood firm.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House manager prosecuting the case against President Donald Trump, raised the stakes by asserting that votes on including new evidence for a “fair trial” would be more important than deciding the president’s “guilt or innocence.”
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), after a slight adjustment to his resolution on the trial’s rules, kept his majority in line and on party-line votes sidelined Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s amendments requiring subpoenas for new evidence and witnesses at the start of the trial.
Schumer complained that the rules “seem to be designed by President Trump for President Trump to be executed by Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans.” McConnell said they closely tracked the bipartisan rules of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
With senators forbidden to speak during the trial, Schiff led the seven House managers arguing for Schumer’s amendments; Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and Jay Sekulow led the Trump defense team’s opposition to them.
Here are highlights of the trial Tuesday.
Clash on witnesses, documents
The central clash occurred over Schumer’s amendments for documents and witnesses. Schiff summed up the House managers’ position, after Trump issued a blanket refusal to provide documents or allow Trump officials to testify. “I believe the most important decision in this case is the one you will make today — the question you must answer today: Will the president and the American people get a fair trial?” Schiff said. “If the House [managers] cannot call witnesses or introduce documented evidence, it is not a fair trial. It is not really a trial at all,” Schiff said. “It is a mockery of a trial.” But Patrick Philbin, a deputy White House counsel, disagreed. “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 added, “What they are asking this body to do now is to do their job for them.”
A change of plans
McConnell made a move to keep his caucus united — by changing his trial rules after Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) complained. The rules initially gave the House managers and president’s defenders each just two days for 24 hours of argument — meaning sessions lasting past midnight — and required a Senate vote to admit House evidence to the record. Collins’ office said: “She and others raised concerns about the 24 hours of opening statements in 2 days and the admission of the House transcript [in] the record. Her position has been that the trial should follow the Clinton model as much as possible.” When the clerk read the handwritten changes in the rules, the Senate learned each side will get a more manageable three days to present their cases and the Senate will automatically admit House evidence — if no one objects.
Teams trade shots
Cipollone and Sekulow put Schiff in their crosshairs. “It’s very difficult to sit there and listen to Mr. Schiff tell the tale that he just told,” Cipollone said. He then hit a sore spot for Schiff by bringing up the Democrat’s overreach when he offered a parody of the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s president. Schiff, he reminded everyone, “manufactured a fraudulent version of that call.” Schiff’s parody of the call at a September hearing — which he called the “essence” of the exchange — made it sound “like a classic organized crime shakedown.” Schiff corrected Cipollone for mistakenly saying Republicans were not allowed in the impeachment inquiry’s depositions. Schiff noted Cipollone’s shots at him. “When you hear them attack the House managers,” Schiff said, “what you’re really hearing is: ‘We don’t want to talk about the president’s guilt.’ ”
Schumer: We have amendments
At about 9:30 p.m., eight hours after the session began, McConnell asked Schumer if they could speed up amendment votes. Schumer rebuffed him. McConnell deviated from the Clinton trial rules he said he would follow, without consulting Democrats. Schumer said he wants to change those, too. Schumer then suggested finishing amendments Wednesday — lengthening the trial. “There is no reason we have to do them all tonight and inconvenience the senate and the chief justice,” Schumer said, “but we will not back off on getting votes on all of these amendments.”
The trial ahead
If, as expected, McConnell’s majority defeats all of Schumer’s attempts to change his trial rules, the House managers could begin at 1 p.m. Wednesday the 24 hours they will have making their opening statement over the next three days. Then the Trump defense will begin its own 24 hours to argue for acquittal or even dismissal over the next three days. Following those arguments, senators will have 16 hours over two days to ask questions of the House managers and Trump defense team. Then the Senate will debate whether to call witnesses.