WASHINGTON - The Republican-controlled US Senate blocked Democratic attempts on Tuesday to obtain evidence and call a witness in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, an early sign the proceeding could advance on lines favourable to Trump.
As the third presidential impeachment trial in US history began in earnest, Trump’s chief legal defender described the case as a baseless effort to overturn the 2016 election and a top Democratic lawmaker said there was “overwhelming” evidence of wrongdoing.
After US Chief Justice John Roberts convened the proceedings, the two sides quickly began squabbling over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed rules for a trial to determine if Trump should be removed from office.
Trump, who was impeached last month by the Democratic-led House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, is accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, and then impeding the inquiry into the matter.
The president denies any wrongdoing and describes his impeachment as a partisan hoax to derail his 2020 re-election effort.
Senators voted along party lines, 53-47, to block four separate motions from Democratic leader Chuck Schumer to subpoena records and documents from the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Office of Management and Budget related to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Senators also rejected by the same tally a request for a subpoena seeking the testimony of acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is leading Trump’s defence, attacked the foundation of the charges against the Republican president and said Democrats had not come close to meeting the U.S. Constitution’s standard for impeachment.
“The only conclusion will be that the president has done absolutely nothing wrong,” Cipollone said, arguing in favour of McConnell’s proposal to wait until later in the trial to decide whether to allow further witnesses or documents.
“There is absolutely no case,” he said.
SEEKING WITNESS TESTIMONY
Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who helped spearhead the House impeachment inquiry, said the president had committed “constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment.”
While the evidence against Trump was “already overwhelming,” further witness testimony was necessary to show the full scope of the misconduct by the president and those around him, he said.
Republican senators have not ruled out the possibility of further testimony and evidence at some point after opening arguments and senators’ questions.
“This may be our only chance, tonight, to make this a fair trial. And it’s just increasingly clear that the White House has no answers for why these documents and these witnesses shouldn’t be produced,” U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut told reporters.
McConnell proposed giving Democratic prosecutors and Trump’s lawyers 24 hours each over three days for opening arguments, easing off an earlier plan to keep them to two days and also allowing the House’s record of the probe to be admitted as evidence.
Under McConnell’s plan, lawyers for Trump could move early in the proceedings to ask senators to dismiss all charges, according to a senior Republican leadership aide, a motion that would likely fall short of the support needed to succeed.
Even if such a motion fails, Trump is almost certain to be acquitted by the 100-member chamber, where a two-thirds majority is needed to remove him from office.
But the impact of the trial on his re-election bid in November is far from clear.
TRUMP SUPPORT FIRM
Democrats accuse Trump of pressuring Ukraine, a vulnerable ally, to interfere in U.S. elections at the expense of American national security and say he is a danger to American democracy.
“They’re not here to steal one election, they’re here to steal two elections,” Cipollone said.
The White House defense team also repeated some false charges. Cipollone said Republicans were excluded from the secure facility where the initial depositions for the House impeachment hearings took place, when Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee were not only present but questioned witnesses.
Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said the White House was not allowed to have a lawyer present during the impeachment hearings, when in fact it declined to participate.
The Senate trial is expected to continue six days a week, Monday through Saturday, until at least the end of January.
Televised congressional testimony from a parade of current and former officials who spoke of a coordinated effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens has done little to change support for and against Trump’s impeachment. Reuters/Ipsos polling since the inquiry began shows Democrats and Republicans responding largely along party lines.
No president has ever been removed through impeachment, a mechanism the nation’s founders - worried about a monarch on American soil - devised to oust a president for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.” One, Richard Nixon, resigned in the face of a looming impeachment.