Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., abruptly changed his proposed rules for President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial , backing off the condensed two-day schedule to add a third for opening arguments after protests from senators, including Republicans.
Critics say he caved to the Democrats’ demands — and it could signal a weakness that liberal lawmakers seek to exploit.
Senators were reportedly stunned by McConnell’s sudden shift, and aides offered no immediate answers.
The trial quickly burst into a partisan fight at the Capitol as the president’s lawyers opened arguments Tuesday in support of McConnell’s original plan. Democrats objected loudly to McConnell’s initially proposed rules, and some Republicans made their concerns known in private.
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Without comment, the Republican leader quietly submitted an amended proposal for the record, after meeting behind closed doors with senators as the trial opened. He added the extra day and allowed House evidence to be included in the record.
“It’s time to start with this trial,” said White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, the president’s lead lawyer as the proceedings opened in public.
“It’s a fair process,” he said. “There is absolutely no case.”
Chief Justice John Roberts gaveled open the session, senators having taken an oath last week to do “impartial justice” as jurors.
Democrats had complained that the original rules package from Trump’s ally, the Senate GOP leader, could force midnight sessions that would keep most Americans in the dark.
“This is not a process for a fair trial, this is the process for a rigged trial” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee leading the prosecution, told reporters. Schiff had refused to allow his Republican colleagues to call witnesses on the president’s behalf during the Democrat-led House impeachment inquiry.
McConnell opened the chamber promising a “fair, even handed” process — and warned that the Senate would stay in session until his proposed rules package was adopted.
“The president’s lawyers will finally receive a level playing field,” the Kentucky Republican said, contrasting it with the House impeachment inquiry.
The first test was coming as senators prepared to begin debate and vote on McConnell’s proposed rules.
The rare impeachment trial, unfolding in an election year, is testing whether Trump’s actions toward Ukraine warrant removal at the same time that voters are forming their own verdict his White House.
Trump himself, in Davos, Switzerland, for an economic conference, denounced the proceedings as “a total hoax,” and said, “I’m sure it’s going to work out fine.”
The nation is deeply divided just weeks before the first Democratic primary contests. Four senators who are also presidential candidates will be off the campaign trail, seated as jurors, during the impeachment trial.
“My focus is going to be on impeachment,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist running for the Democratic nomination, told reporters.
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GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, whose votes are being closely watched, said he was satisfied with the proposal , even as he hopes to hear from former national security adviser John Bolton who had a front-row seat to Trump’s actions.
On the night before the trial, Trump’s lawyers argued for swift rejection of the “flimsy” charges in a trial that never should have happened.
“All of this is a dangerous perversion of the Constitution that the Senate should swiftly and roundly condemn,” the president’s lawyers wrote in their first full filing Monday. “The articles should be rejected and the president should immediately be acquitted.”
Trump’s legal team doesn’t dispute Trump’s actions — that he called the Ukraine president and asked for a “favor” during a July 25 phone call.
In fact, the lawyers included the rough transcript of Trump’s conversation as part of its 110-page trial brief submitted ahead of the proceedings.
Instead, the lawyers for the president, led by White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and a TV-famous legal team including Alan Dershowitz, say the two charges against the president don’t amount to impeachable offenses and Trump committed no crime.
Legal scholars have long insisted the framers of the Constitution provided impeachment as a remedy for “other high crimes and misdemeanors,” a particularly broad definition that doesn’t mean simply specific criminal acts.
The first several days of the trial are expected to be tangled in procedural motions playing out on the Senate floor and behind closed doors. Senators must refrain from speaking during the trial proceedings.
Roberts administered the oath to one remaining senator, James Inhofe, who was attending a family medical issue in Oklahoma last week when the other senators vowed the oath and signed the oath book.
Also Tuesday, the House Democratic managers overseeing the impeachment case asked Cipollone, the president’s lead lawyer at the trial, to disclose any “first-hand knowledge” he has of the charges against Trump. They said evidence gathered so far indicates that Cipollone is a “material witness” to the allegations at hand.
House Democrats impeached the Republican president last month on two charges: abuse of power by withholding U.S. military aid to Ukraine as he pressed the country to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden, and obstruction of Congress by refusing to cooperate with their investigation.
The Constitution gives the Democrat-controlled House the sole power to impeach a president and the Republican-controlled Senate the final verdict by convening as the impeachment court for a trial.
The president late Monday named eight House Republicans, some of his fiercest defenders, to a special team tasked with rallying support beyond the Senate chamber in the court of public opinion.
No president has ever been removed from office by the Senate. With its 53-47 Republican majority, the Senate is not expected to mount the two-thirds voted needed for conviction.
The Associated Press contributed to this article