WASHINGTON ― The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump kicked off with a partisan brawl over the admission of new evidence and witness testimony during the proceedings, a sharp contrast to the unanimous 100-0 vote that set the rules for the trial of then-President Bill Clinton two decades ago.
After Democrats on Tuesday moved to subpoena key White House documents, including records about the administration’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine, every Senate Republican voted to kill the effort.
“A trial without evidence is not a trial. It’s a cover-up,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a floor speech before voting began on the issues.
The procedural drama began after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unveiled a resolution Monday evening laying out the rules of the trial that would have given each side 24 hours over just two days to present their arguments and would not guarantee any witness testimonies.
In a rare concession, however, McConnell made last-minute changes that track more closely with the Clinton trial by allowing more time for opening arguments after Democrats and several Republican senators objected to the original guidelines. The new rules allow both sides 24 hours spread over three days ― not two ― to present their evidence. The House evidence will also automatically be admitted into the Senate record unless there’s an objection from Trump’s lawyers.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told reporters that Republicans had reached “consensus” on changing the rules during a caucus lunch on Tuesday.
Schumer told reporters that Republican senators “felt the heat” from Democrats and pushed for the last-minute changes. “It shows that they can make other changes, and that we can get documents and witnesses,” Schumer said. “In other words, this idea that Mitch McConnell, whatever he does, everyone of them will go along with, it doesn’t seem to be happening.”
Democrats blasted the overall rules package, accusing McConnell of orchestrating a quick trial that would keep the American people from seeing key evidence, with proceedings potentially running late into the night.
Under the rules, senators will be able to call for witnesses only after opening arguments from both sides, but ensuring they actually testify will require at least 51 votes. If the Senate doesn’t allow witnesses, the trial could be over by the end of next week.
“There is no guarantee that Leader McConnell will allow these votes to take place later in the trial, so now, before any resolution passes, we must do it,” Schumer said Tuesday.
McConnell defended the rules he crafted, saying in a floor speech Tuesday morning, “Finally some fairness” in the impeachment process.
Several Republican senators have also indicated they are likely to support calling witnesses later in the trial, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah. Democrats will need to convince at least four GOP senators to vote with them to subpoena their desired witnesses.
“I will be in favor of witnesses, I presume, after hearing the opening arguments,” Romney said Tuesday.
Romney said he was not bothered by the prospect of the trial proceeding deep into the night, comparing the situation to his role running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
The games were “on a time delay and people got to see” them, Romney said.
Trump is charged with abuse of power for his dealings with Ukraine and his efforts to block congressional investigations. Given GOP control of the Senate, the chamber’s ultimate votes on the two articles of impeachment are widely expected to fall far short of the required two-thirds margin required for removal from office.