Trump Impeachment Trial Kicks Off With Procedural Brawl
22 January, 2020
Democratic House impeachment manager Adam Schiff prepares to speak on the impeachment rules proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the US Capitol in Washington, DC on January 21. EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO

It’s been a long road to the Senate (though Republicans may disagree), but the first day of Trump’s long-awaited impeachment trial had finally kicked off, with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts announcing that “The Senate shall convene as a court of impeachment.”

But Democrats, who have spent the last half year investigating and pressing the Trump administration over its alleged misdoings, have run squarely into the issues that were foreseen even at the start of the process – Republican loyalty and intransigence. 

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The trial, not quite started, used its first day for consideration and voting on the rules of the impeachment trial itself – #impeachmenttrialrules became a trending hashtag on Twitter. These rules, which Republicans claim are based on the rules used during the impeachment trial of Democratic president Bill Clinton, would limit debate to 24 hours spread over three days, and not allow the House impeachment managers to call witnesses or introduce new evidence until after that debate. 

As Democrats pointed out, this sort of act would likely not allow the House managers to properly prosecute the case – though that could be precisely what the Republicans are hoping for. House impeachment manager Adam Schiff called this ploy “a fact-free sham trial in the dead of night.” And in fact the first day of rules deliberations stretched to around 1 a.m. Eastern time – approximately 12 hours of debate.

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All eleven amendments, introduced by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the ranking Democrat in the Senate, to the proposed rules – also known as the McConnell resolution, after the Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell – were voted down only direct party line votes: 53-47.

This result, while not surprising, may have still been disheartening to the Democrats hoping that at least a few moderate Republicans would cross the line. And they’ve set an expectation for a trial that Trump hopes will be over as quickly as possible – he’s said that he wants this trial to be wrapped up in two weeks.

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If Republicans have their way, and all 53 Republican senators continue to toe the party line, they may fulfill Trump’s wish – regardless of what the Democrats have to say about it.

But Democrats aren’t completely out of ideas themselves, and the preparedness of the Democrats as compared to the White House counsel was evident on Day 1. Democratic House managers deftly laid out their case against Trump, with slideshows, expertly timed clips from the House proceedings, and moral admonishments for the Senate to “remember their oaths”. 

The Republican counsel, consisting of White House lawyers Pat Cipollone, Jay Sekulow, and Patrick Philbin, on the other hand, spoke largely extemporaneously, in a style reminiscent of Trump himself – bombastic, outraged, and filled with mistruths and outright lies.

The White House lawyers largely stuck to the arguments used in the House impeachment investigations, blasting it as unfair, biased, and secretive. They repeatedly claimed that the Democrats had not given the President a chance to defend himself during the House trial – an accusation that is both untrue (presidential counsel was not allowed in the classified hearings to held by the House intelligence committee, as they lacked clearance, though Republicans on that committee were fully free to attend classified depositions – and the President did not send counsel to attend hearings by the House Judiciary Committee, despite having the ability to do so) and irrelevant, as the style of the House proceedings bear little weight on the Senate trial.

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Republicans even admitted – albeit indirectly – to one of the indictment charges, though of course they didn’t frame it that way. Philbin, Deputy White House counsel, admitted that, in response to numerous subpoenas, the White House did not assert executive privilege – a term referring to the legal ability of the President to keep certain materials private. 

Instead, he took the rather unusual tack of declaring the subpoenas themselves invalid – a defense that the Democrats, no doubt, will be intensely interested in.

The night in the Senate ended with a bit of an anti-climax, with senators on both sides of the aisle showing clear signs of fatigue and disinterest in the long-running, largely procedural discussion, though Democrats have confirmed that they will not let up their efforts going forward.

Trump, reportedly watching developments from Davos, Switzerland, where he is attending the World Economic Forum, tweeted just once during the proceedings – a fully capitalized cry to ‘READ THE TRANSCRIPTS!’

The impeachment trial, now that the McConnell resolution has passed, will commence largely on Trump’s terms – without evidence, witnesses, and a truncated schedule – though the House record of impeachment has been automatically entered into evidence. But it remains to be seen if his desire for a two-week resolution will pan out, because it doesn’t seem like the Democrats will be giving up without a fight.

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/By Romeo Kokriatski