WASHINGTON — A partisan brawl broke out at President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial Tuesday as Democrats accused the Senate Republican leader of trying to compress the proceedings and lawmakers voted along party lines to delay a decision on witnesses.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., laid out a resolution that sets the rules for the trial, extending the time for opening arguments from two days to three and allowing questions by lawmakers before a vote is taken on the issue of whether to call witnesses.
McConnell’s resolution passed 53-47 a little before 2 a.m. EST. After that, the Senate adjourned and the trial was set to resume at 1 p.m. EST on Wednesday.
Even though McConnell tweaked the resolution to appease Republicans uneasy with the fast-paced schedule, Democrats were outraged with the delay on witnesses and documents the president blocked the House from receiving.
Still, Democrats said the rules were rigged by McConnell to shield Trump.
And House impeachment manager Adam Schiff, D-Calif., implored the Republican-controlled Senate to allow additional evidence to render a just verdict.
“You have taken an oath to do impartial justice,” Schiff told the Senate. “That oath binds you. That oath requires a fair trial.”
Democrats offered a flurry of amendments to subpoena documents from the White House, the State Department and other federal agencies and to hear testimony from witnesses such as former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
The Senate voted along strict party lines, 53-47, to table them.
Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, both Nevada Democrats, backed the amendments.
Under the rules laid out in the resolution, the Senate will again take up the issue of witnesses once the House impeachment managers and the president’s defense team complete their opening arguments.
A vote to dismiss the charges could also be taken up, though several Republican lawmakers said it was unlikely to pass.
Motions by lawmakers must be filed by Wednesday.
The trial was gaveled into session by Chief Justice John Roberts as Democrats and Republicans were already at odds over the McConnell resolution, filed Monday evening.
“It sets up a structure that is fair, evenhanded and tracks closely with past precedents,” McConnell said.
During the heated arguments Tuesday, Roberts admonished both the House impeachment managers and the president’s lawyers for speaking in a manner not conducive “to civil discourse.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the resolution would go down as “one of the darker moments in Senate history.”
“The truth is Leader McConnell is plotting the most rushed, least thorough and most unfair impeachment trial in modern history, and it begins today,” Schumer said.
Trump’s defense team spoke in support of the resolution. His lawyers have argued that he committed no wrongdoing and that the House Democratic impeachment attempt is a “dangerous perversion of the Constitution.”
White House counsel Pat Cipollone told the Senate that the resolution was a fair way to proceed, and he urged expediency after Democrats delayed bringing the impeachment articles to the Senate for 33 days.
“The president has done absolutely nothing wrong,” Cipollone told the chamber. “There is absolutely no case.”
Schiff, in his opening statement to the Senate, said Trump solicited the help of a foreign government to help him cheat to win re-election, and then obstructed Congress in its constitutional oversight.
Redoing House’s job
The House in December voted along mostly party lines to approve articles of impeachment charging abuse of office and obstruction of Congress. No Republicans supported the articles, though some Democrats joined Republicans in voting no.
“This misconduct set out in those articles is the most serious ever charged against a president,” Schiff said.
Democrats are seeking correspondence from Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, along with documents about the Trump administration order to withhold nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine.
House managers urged senators to seek the documents. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., told them even President Richard Nixon provided materials when the Judiciary Committee investigated the Watergate break-in.
But Trump counsel Patrick Philbin said House Democrats failed to do their jobs when they conducted an investigation and voted to impeach the president without the evidence to make their case to the Senate.
“It’s not the role of the Senate to do the House’s job for them,” Philbin said.
If the House didn’t conduct an investigation to receive the evidence needed, then it doesn’t have a case, he said.
Democrats need to peel off several Republican senators to achieve a simple majority needed to call witnesses, like Mulvaney and Bolton and two other administration officials with knowledge of the president’s request for an investigation and the withholding of military aid.
Earlier, several Republicans balked at the initial trial schedule proposed by McConnell, who amended it just hours before the trial began Tuesday to keep his GOP conference united at the start. And several have remained open about the need to call witnesses later.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said it is “likely I would support a motion to subpoena witnesses” after the opening arguments and questions by senators of the House managers and the president’s legal team.
Collins noted that she did the same thing in 1999, when the Senate heard the House case to impeach President Bill Clinton.
Other GOP senators who said they would consider witness testimony include Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Alexander said he was satisfied with McConnell’s decision to hold off on a vote on witnesses until later in the trial, saying it followed precedent, regardless of arguments from the House.
“Just because the House proceedings were a circus doesn’t mean the Senate’s trial needs to be,” Alexander said.
Even with GOP support for witnesses, the White House appears confident that Republicans will overwhelmingly back the president and reject the House Democratic case for impeachment.
It would take a two-thirds majority, or 67 votes, to remove the president from office.
This is the third time in the nation’s history the Senate has held an impeachment trial for a president. Andrew Johnson was acquitted in 1868, and Clinton was acquitted in 1999.