By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate rejected a Democratic bid on Tuesday to force the White House to produce documents and evidence in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, an early sign the trial could proceed along lines favorable to Trump.
As the third impeachment trial in U.S. history began in earnest, senators voted 53-47 along party lines to block a motion from Democratic leader Chuck Schumer to subpoena White House documents related to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Schumer immediately introduced a second motion demanding a subpoena of State Department records and documents related to the matter. The Senate will debate the motion for up to two hours.
Democrats have called on the Senate to remove Trump from office for pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, and then impeding the inquiry into the matter.
Trump, who was impeached last month by the Democratic-led House of Representatives on charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress, denies any wrongdoing and describes his impeachment as a partisan hoax to derail his 2020 re-election.
During early debate, Trump’s chief legal defender attacked the case as baseless and a top Democratic lawmaker said there was “overwhelming” evidence of wrongdoing.
With the television cameras rolling, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts convened the proceedings and the two sides began squabbling over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed rules for the trial.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is leading Trump’s defense, 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 as he argued in favor of McConnell’s proposal to decide on whether to allow further witnesses or documents later in the trial.
“There is absolutely no case,” he said.
DEMOCRATS SEEK TESTIMONY
Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who helped spearhead the House impeachment inquiry, summarized the charges against Trump and said the president had committed “constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment.”
Schiff said that although 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.
Democrats want a number of current and former Trump administration officials, including Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, to testify.
“For all of the name-calling and fingerpointing from the president’s counsel, we did not hear a single argument on the merits about why there should not be the documents and witnesses we requested in this trial,” Schumer said.
McConnell unveiled a plan on Monday for what would be a potentially quick trial without new testimony or evidence. It would have given Democratic prosecutors and Trump’s lawyers 48 hours, evenly split, to present their arguments over four days.
That plan was changed to give each side three days to give up to 24 hours of opening arguments. The rules also will allow the House’s record of the impeachment probe admitted as evidence in the trial, as Democrats had demanded.
“We discussed it at lunch. It was pretty much a (Republican) conference consensus that made a lot more sense,” Republican Senator Ron Johnson said.
Democrats had accused McConnell of trying to rig a trial with proposed rules they said would prevent witnesses from testifying and bar evidence gathered by investigators.
McConnell has repeatedly said the rules would mirror those the Senate used in the 1999 impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. Republican senators have not ruled out the possibility of further witness testimony and 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.
Trump and his legal team say there was no pressure and that the Democrats’ case is based on hearsay. Cipollone has described the Ukraine investigation as an illegal attempt to remove a democratically elected president and avert his re-election.
“They’re not here to steal one election, they’re here to steal two elections,” Cipollone said on Tuesday.
Cipollone also repeated a charge that Republicans were excluded from the secure facility where the initial depositions for the House impeachment hearings took place. In fact, Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee were not only present but questioned witnesses.
The Senate trial is expected to continue six days a week, Monday through Saturday, until at least the end of January.
Trump has sought to rally his base with the impeachment issue, fundraising off it. At raucous election rallies, he has painted himself as the victim of a witch hunt.
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.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll conducted Jan. 13 and 14, 39% of U.S. adults approved of Trump’s job performance, while 56% disapproved. It also found 45% of respondents said Trump should be removed from office, while 31% said the impeachment charges should be dismissed.
MARKETS SHRUG OFF TRIAL
The trial of a U.S. president could be freighted with drama, huge political risk and the potential unraveling of a presidency. But financial markets have shrugged it off, and the disclosures in the months-long impeachment investigation thus far have done little to boost anti-Trump sentiment among undecided voters or shift away moderate Republican voters.
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 misdemeanors.”
A pivotal event in the impeachment case is a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens and a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election.
Hunter Biden had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was vice president. Trump has accused the Bidens of corruption without offering evidence. They have denied wrongdoing.
Democrats said Trump abused his power by initially withholding $391 million in Ukraine security aid intended to fight Russia-backed separatists, and a coveted White House meeting for Zelenskiy, to pressure Ukraine to announce the investigations of the Bidens. Trump’s legal team says there is no evidence that the aid was a condition for receiving help.
The obstruction of Congress charge relates to Trump directing administration officials and agencies not to comply with House subpoenas for testimony and documents related to impeachment.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, David Morgan, Jan Wolfe, Susan Cornwell, Susan Heavey, Karen Freifeld, Lisa Lambert and Tim Ahmann in Washington; Writing by Paul Simao and John Whitesides; Editing by Howard Goller, Grant McCool and Peter Cooney)