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A debate is under way in the Senate over the ground rules the majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, has proposed for President Trump’s trial.CreditCredit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times
The Senate’s historic trial of President Trump begins in earnest with a bitter fight.
The Senate convened shortly after 1 p.m. on Tuesday to start in earnest the impeachment trial of Mr. Trump, who faces charges that he abused the power of his office and obstructed Congress. Senators were warned that they had to remain quiet, a skill that they rarely exercise in the Senate chamber, or face imprisonment.
The first order of business was a debate over the format of the trial, a draft of which Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, released on Monday. Democrats spent the morning lashing out against Mr. McConnell’s plan, accusing him and other Republicans of trying to cover up Mr. Trump’s actions.
Unlike most other debates in the Senate, the elected senators did not do the actual debating. Instead, the seven House impeachment managers, who are serving as prosecutors in the case, and Mr. Trump’s legal defense team argued over the rules that will govern the proceedings.
The first Senate vote during the impeachment trials falls along party lines.
The Senate voted 53 to 47 to table the first proposed amendment to Mr. McConnell’s rules proposal. The top Democrat in the chamber, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, had proposed an amendment to subpoena Mr. Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to provide documents and records related to the Trump administration’s pressure campaign on Ukraine.
The administration refused last year to hand over the documents to the Democratic-led House during its impeachment inquiry. Democrats have argued that the documents are critical to the Senate for conducting a fair trial.
After the vote, the impeachment managers and Mr. Trump’s defense team began debating Mr. Schumer’s second proposed amendment to the rules, which called for the subpoena of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for State Department documents related to Ukraine, including communications about withholding military aid, a decision at the center of the two impeachment charges against the president.
Mr. McConnell made last-minute changes to the rules after criticism from Democrats and key Republicans.
Less than a day after releasing his rules proposal and drawing outrage from Democrats, Mr. McConnell submitted to the Senate a modified version with two significant changes. The most notable was a provision to automatically enter evidence collected during the House impeachment inquiry into the trial record. The earlier version of Mr. McConnell’s proposal would have put the decision of whether to admit the House evidence to a Senate vot
Mr. McConnell also gave the House impeachment managers and Mr. Trump’s defense team an additional day to argue their cases under the proposed rules the Senate began considering Tuesday afternoon. The initial proposal gave each side up to 24 hours over two days — a time frame Democrats criticized because it could push key testimony into early morning hours, when most Americans would be sleeping.
Each side still gets a total of 24 hours to present, but spreading it across three days will give both legal teams more time to lay out their cases and end the days earlier.
Mr. McConnell made the changes after key Republican senators, including Susan Collins of Maine, argued that the rules for Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial should not deviate significantly from the rules used during the only modern precedent, the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999.
Ms. Collins, a moderate Republican who is likely to face a tough re-election bid later this year, has significant sway with Mr. McConnell, as her votes could change the outcome of the trial.
Democrats cheered the changes to the trial rules but pushed for witnesses and admission of new evidence
Even as Democrats lodged an unexpected victory Tuesday with the changes Mr. McConnell made to his proposed rules for the trial, they are still hoping to persuade some Republicans to join them in making other changes to the proceedings that Mr. McConnell opposes.
“The real test will be if they pressure Senator McConnell to allow witnesses and documents,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement during a brief break in the trial.
Mr. McConnell’s plan would have the Senate vote first on whether they want to consider new evidence at all, even as more details from key witnesses emerged in recent weeks and John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, said he would testify if subpoenaed. Mr. Bolton, for instance, has firsthand accounts of some of the White House’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to benefit Mr. Trump.
A majority of senators would have to agree to consider new evidence, and then they would vote on admitting specific witnesses or documents individually.
As his trial progressed, Mr. Trump boasted about the American economy in Switzerland.
While the Senate trial commenced with hours of debate over the format of Mr. Trump’s trial, the president met with world leaders at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he trumpeted the strong American economy, heaping praise upon himself.
But when Democrats called for the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, to turn over documents related to the Ukraine matter, the White House hit back with a sharp statement on Mr. Trump’s behalf.
“The Democrats are an utter joke — they have no case, and this latest political stunt proves it,” said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman. “The idea that the counsel to the president has to turn over protected documents and confidential information is ludicrous, and to imply he can’t represent the president of the United States in an impeachment proceeding is completely absurd.”
Earlier on Tuesday, when Mr. Trump was asked a question about the impeachment trial, taking place thousands of miles away, he said, “That whole thing is a hoax.”
Mr. Trump is expected to be back in Washington Wednesday evening.
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