Republicans beat back Democrat bid to call witnesses at Trump trial

Arul Louis-

Republicans beat back 11 amendments by Democrats to bring in witnesses and new evidence and change the rules for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump during a marathon sitting that stretched into Wednesday and finally adopted the ground rules.

At the trial that began on Tuesday afternoon under the presidency of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, the acrimonious partisanship was on full display as the Senate tried to set the stage for the trial Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

The Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell demonstrated his hold over his flock as the amendments were swiftly voted down along party lines, with all the 53 Republicans voting against the amendments and for the rules he proposed, while the votes of the 45 Democrats and the two independents were the reverse.

Trump was 6,500 kilometres away in Davos hobnobbing with the world’s elite at the World Economic Forum when in Washington he became only the third of the 45 presidents in the nation’s 243-year history to go on trial before the Senate after an impeachment by the House of Representatives.

There he repeated his denunciation of the impeachment as a “joke” and a “hoax”, and turned attention to the economic successes of his presidency that he said made the American dream “bigger better and stronger.”

The Senators, who are the jurors in the trial, sat through the eleven-and-a-half-hour session with a dinner break, virtually chained to their desks deprived of their mobile phones, tablets and computers and ordered to stay silent like jurors in a courtroom.

After the prosecutors and the Trump defence team complete the 24 hours of arguments for each side spread over three days each, the Senators have 16 hours to question them – but they can’t do it directly and have to route them through the Chief Justice.

They will vote at the end of the trial to either convict or acquit Trump. A two-thirds vote is required to convict and remove him from office – which makes his conviction unlikely and reduces the trial and the three months of the secret and public impeachment hearings and investigations to a catharsis for the Democrats smarting from the party’s defeat by Trump in 2016.

They also see the impeachment and the trial as an opportunity to publicly shame Trump and turn voters against him in the November election.

Trump and the Republicans want a quick trial that would end before the February 3 State of the Union address he is scheduled to deliver.

The trial is already taking a toll on the three serious contenders for the Democratic Party presidential nomination – Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, who are trapped in the trial while rivals campaign in Iowa, the first state where the party members will select their candidate on February 3.

McConnell and Trump’s lawyers clashed with the Democratic prosecutors from the House of Representatives throughout the sitting that went on for about eleven-and-a-half hours, bringing a reprimand from Roberts at one point.

After one of the prosecutors, House Judicial Committee chair Jerry Nadler accused the Republicans of helping Trump cover up his wrongdoings, Trump’s lawyer Pat Cippilone retorted that he should be embarrassed by the way he spoke to Senators.

Roberts told them sternly that they should avoid “language that is not conducive to civil discourse” in the “world’s deliberative body.”

The Democrats had wanted the Senate resolution laying down the rules to say that witnesses should be called and new evidence requisitioned.

The series of defeated amendments listed some of the witnesses like former National Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump’s acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney as well as documents.

They may still get to call witnesses as the procedures leave room for it – if a majority of Senators agree – after the initial arguments and questioning are over.

Some Republican Senators have shown an inclination to agreeing to calling witnesses and under pressure from them, McConnell agreed to allow three days instead of two days for each side to mount their arguments and to allow evidence from the House proceedings to be admitted at the trial.

Trump wants former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who are at the root of the charges against Trump to testify.

House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, who is acting as the lead prosecutor, acknowledged that Hunter Biden may get called in a Republican attempt to smear his father and to try to forestall it moved the last of the failed amendments that would have empowered Roberts to veto such a request.

The charges against Trump stem from a request he made during a phone call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelentsky to investigate the Bidens’ activities in that country.

Democrats allege that Trump abused his power by making the request and delaying nearly half-a-million dollars in military aid to Ukraine to pressure Zelentsky and it amounted to inviting foreign interference in US elections because Joe Biden is a leading candidate for the Democratic Party nomination to run against Trump in the November election.

Zelentsky has said that he did not face any pressure and Trump and the Republicans say that there has been no probe and the aid has been released after ascertaining that the new government was against corruption.

Hunter Biden with no energy business experience was made director of an Ukrainian gas company with monthly payments of $83,000 and the former vice president had the prosecutor looking into that company removed alleging he was corrupt.

The Senate had acquitted the two presidents it had tried after the House impeachment, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998.

The trial of Trump is a payback by the Democrats for the humiliation of Clinton and there were frequent references to it during the arguments over the trial rules.

The Republicans often cited the precedents from the Clinton trial on procedural matters, especially against the calling of witnesses.

Senate Democratic Party leader Chuck Schumer said the rules proposed by McConnell to bar witnesses and new evidence “will result in a rushed trial with little evidence in the dark of night.”

McConnell pointed out that the Republicans were not allowed to call their witnesses during the impeachment proceedings in the House.

The prosecutors used the arguments on the procedures and witnesses to rehash their allegations about Trump endangering the Constitution and the nation made during the impeachment process and in public forums.

Cipollone questioned the motives of the Democrats in launching the impeachment.

He said, “A partisan impeachment is like stealing an election….They want to remove Trump from the ballot, but they don’t have the guts to tell you that.”