After Partial Retreat, GOP Impeachment Rules Sail Through Senate

White House counsel Pat Cipollone delivers opening remarks in the Senate chamber on Tuesday, the first day of the impeachment trial charging President Donald Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) – After an unexpected display of dissension in their midst, Senate Republicans closed ranks around their leader’s roadmap for President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial Tuesday, adopting a resolution making the introduction of new evidence unlikely by a party-line vote.

For a few hours, the widely predicted outcome seemed inevitable: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put forth a resolution that cast doubt on whether the trial would even feature evidence gathered by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and set the stage for hearings to stretch past midnight.

But Senate Republicans quickly retreated from both demands before putting their unanimous stamp on other restrictive trial procedures, which McConnell touted as a model of fairness.

“Can we put fairness, evenhandedness ahead of the partisan passion of today?” McConnell asked in his opening remarks. “The resolution puts forward the support of the majority of the Senate because it sets up a structure that is fair, evenhanded and tracks closely with past precedents established unanimously.”

Scoffing at that assertion, Democrats argued throughout the 13-hour day that the McConnell resolution does not envision a trial at all, let alone a fair one.

“It’s a mockery of a trial,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager for the Democrats, declared. 

“This is not an appeal from a trial,” the California congressman continued, addressing the senators. “You are not appellate court judges.”

Impeachment managers, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., front center, followed by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., right, and others, walk to a press conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Schiff then turned to Chief Justice Roberts behind him before quipping: “Well, one of you is.”

The newly-adopted rules force a vote on whether any witnesses will be called at trial or new evidence would be gathered.

Calling it telling that Trump’s allies want members of his administration to testify, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered a sly allusion to the journalistic classic of the Nixon era: “All the President’s Men.”

“If the president’s case is so weak and none of the president’s men can defend him under oath, shame on him and those that allow it to happen,” the New York Democrat intoned from the floor as the trial began Tuesday.

In a makeshift press conference outside the Senate chamber, Schumer told reporters that McConnell’s changes provided some hope that Democrats will have room to operate.

“In other words, this idea that Mitch McConnell, whatever he does, every one of them will go along with doesn’t seem to be happening on two important issues,” said Schumer, who began his opening remarks by citing the Senate’s unprecedented restrictions on press access.

Indiana Republican Mike Braun told reporters amendments to McConnell’s original resolution happened during a lunch break since most lawmakers didn’t have time to review the resolution in full. 

Once they did though, Braun said they thought it was prudent that submitting evidence from the House proceedings would be a good thing. The initial discussions took place when McConnell was absent, but the message was relayed by another senator. 

“I think we arrived at a good, commonsense decision … All of us are going to be interested in hearing the case made. I think the big dynamic difference now is we have not heard the defense. We’re going to get that part; we’ll see if we glean anything new from it and we will arrive at all those big questions after phase one,” Braun said.

Even though the U.S. Constitution vests the Senate with the “sole power to try all impeachments,” Republicans hammered away on a single point Tuesday: it is the House that is the place to conduct evidence-gathering, not the Senate. 

Trump’s attorney Pat Cipollone likened the Democrats’ demand to a prosecutor unprepared for trial.

“Let me tell you something: If I showed up in any court in this country and I said, ‘Judge, my case is overwhelming, but I’m not ready to go yet. I need more evidence before I can make my case,’” Cipollone argued. “I would get thrown out in two seconds, and that’s exactly what should happen here.”

Turning the analogy on its head, Schiff offered a separate comparison of a judge conspiring with a criminal defendant on a plan to sideline any witnesses or evidence. “The judge would be taken out in handcuffs,” Schiff said.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone speaks in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. (Senate Television via AP)

Earlier in the day, House impeachment managers sent Cipollone a letter calling him a material witness to both articles against Trump: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

“In light of your extensive knowledge of these key events, your personal representation of President Trump threatens to undermine the integrity of the pending trial,” the 5-page letter, signed by all seven impeachment managers, states.

Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican believed to be a key swing vote for Democrats, breezed right past reporters who were tightly gathered in one of the few areas where their access was not restricted during the trial.

She declined to answer questions about whether she would vote in favor of the resolution. Under the Senate’s press access rules, reporters could not follow her to a location where they could ask follow-up queries. 

Hours later the Senate voted 53-47 to table an amendment by Schumer prompting Chief Justice Roberts to subpoena documents involving Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky and other Ukraine-related documents tied to meetings ranging from Jan. 1, 2019, until now. 

Collins released a statement broadcasting her plans for the future: she will vote to table any amendment that seeks records until after arguments are presented from both sides.

Another amendment from Schumer was also defeated 53-47. That amendment would have subpoenaed a year of documents tied to Ukraine from the State Department. Among them would have been records related to preparations for Trump’s call with Zelensky, discussions about the $391 million aid freeze to Ukraine and other documents which show efforts from key State Department officials pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations. 

A third amendment proposing a subpoena for documents from the Office of Management and Budget including records about agency meetings with Ukrainian government spanning 2019 to present was also voted down along party lines on Tuesday night.  

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy said it was important to offer amendments even if Republicans continued to vote them down because it put lawmakers on the record declining additional evidence. 

After a final vote on the resolution tonight, representatives may not have another chance to shape the trial, he said. 

“It’s just increasingly clear that the White House has no answers for why these documents and these witnesses shouldn’t be produced,” Murphy said. “I don’t think they are helping their case tonight. I don’t think they can come up with any plausible reason why we should bury this evidence and so I think we should continue to make this case for as long as it takes tonight.” 

As the evening pressed on, a series of amendments – including some that would subpoena testimony from Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, OMB officials Michael Duffey and Robert Blair and records from the Department of Defense – were also defeated. 

From the reporters’ perch in the Senate press gallery, Collins could be seen intensely taking notes during the afternoon’s proceedings. Collins is seated at trial next to Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another in the group of four Republican lawmakers Democrats have been urging to break ranks on the issue of witness testimony.

Both Collins and Murkowski, who took furtive notes of her own Tuesday, kept their eyes squarely on Schiff during the California Democrat’s address.

As the body debated McConnell’s resolution, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina appeared restless in his chair, frequently fidgeting and darting his gaze from the adjacent visitor’s gallery to points inside the room.

Graham took infrequent notes only during the first half of Tuesday’s hearing. McConnell appeared generally attentive in the proceedings but often slouched in his chair.

Also seen spectating from inside the chamber Tuesday was Megan Barbero, the deputy general counsel for the House of Representatives who argued that former White House counsel Don McGahn should be forced to testify.

Former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake was in the visitors’ gallery on Tuesday observing the proceedings. Texas Representative Louie Gohmert, the first GOP House member to slip in to watch the trial, perched on a bench along the wall of the Senate chamber. 

Other Republicans, such as Senators Martha McSally, D-Ariz., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, did not appear to take notes on Thursday. 

Some lawmakers strayed from the strict rules governing the process, including the ban on talking and reading of non-impeachment materials. Senators Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Tim Scott, R-S.C., were seen sharing a brief laugh or two and Senator Bernie Sanders was spotted momentarily reading the back of a box of lozenges. 

Mints and lozenges were a go-to snack for hungry senators, who are not allowed to leave the chamber unless recess is declared, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was spotted sneaking nuts from his suit pocket. 

Should he or other lawmakers sneaking snacks wish to wash things down, congressional pages are only permitted to bring Senators one of two beverages: water or milk. 

Apple Watches, which function essentially like cell phones, are also banned devices on the floor but Texas Senator John Cornyn scrolled on his watch for minutes at a time.

Representatives Mark Meadows and Lee Zeldin joined Gohmert to take in the proceedings on Tuesday as part of the eight-member Trump defense team comprised of House Republicans.

Meadows told reporters as he was leaving the Senate chamber that he was at the White House earlier in the day working on trial preparation and getting ready for motions that could be filed. He said other members of the White House team, including Representatives Jim Jordan and John Ratcliffe, would take in the proceedings later in the week.

During a break in arguments Tuesday, House impeachment managers skewered President Trump’s legal brief for relying upon a blanket claim of immunity to the two charges, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

“His across-the-board refusal to provide Congress with information and his assertion that his own lawyers are the sole judges of presidential privilege undermines the constitutional authority of the people’s representatives and shifts power to an imperial president,” the 34-page brief from House impeachment managers states.

Those impeachment managers are Schiff, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, and Representatives Zoe Lofgren, Hakeem Jeffries, Val Demings, Jason Crow and Sylvia Garcia.

Schiff warned that passing McConnell’s resolution intact will greatly harm democracy.

“We will never learn how deep the corruption of this administration goes and what threats to our national security and elections remain hidden,” Schiff said.

As day turned to night and night into the wee hours of the morning, Schiff struck a sharp tone with White House counsel.

“This is only a trial about the impeachment of the President of the United States,” Schiff said. “You have a trial over someone stealing mail? You are going to get live witnesses … but impeachment of the President? No you don’t need the credibility of those witnesses.”

As he presided over Senators showing signs of serious fatigue after the day’s long slog, Chief Justice John Roberts admonished Republicans and Democrats who took to more frequently lobbing pointed remarks at one another or about the White House.

Reminding them that they are presenting arguments before “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Roberts beseeched the Senate to be respectful and hold themselves to a higher standard.

There are at least 10 administration officials the president has directed not to testify. They include ambassador John Bolton; Energy Secretary Rick Perry; deputy counsel to the president for national security affairs John Eisenberg; Eisenberg’s deputy, Michael Ellis; White House adviser on energy Preston Wells Griffith; former U.S. deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman; acting director at the Office of Management and Budget Russell Vought; Brian McCormack, former senior aide to Energy Secretary Perry; and State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl.

Schiff, during an impassioned speech from the floor exceeding 15 minutes, said the White House would go a long way toward proving its case in the Senate by calling some of the witnesses directed to ignore congressional subpoenas.

In addition to Bolton, impeachment managers want testimony from Michael Duffey, the senior Office of Management and Budget official who requested the hold on military assistance to Ukraine just 90 minutes after Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky according to emails first obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

Acting OMB head Mick Mulvaney and his aide Robert Blair should also testify, the managers said.

Reflecting on the opening statements from Trump’s team, Schumer told reporters Republicans did nothing to rebut Democrats’ calls to bring new witnesses and documents into the trial on Tuesday.

“I thought their case was extremely weak,” Schumer said. “You know, name-calling, pounding the table, doesn’t suffice for making arguments on the merits, and I have faith that the American people can see that.”

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