The Republican-controlled US Senate voted on party lines to approve the rules for President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, rejecting Democratic efforts to obtain evidence and ensure witnesses are heard.
As the third presidential impeachment trial in US history began in earnest, Mr Trump’s chief legal defender described the case as a baseless effort to overturn the 2016 election and a top Democrat said there was “overwhelming” evidence of wrongdoing.
After US Chief Justice John Roberts convened the proceedings, the two sides quickly began squabbling over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed rules for a trial to determine if Mr Trump should be removed from office.
Mr Trump, who was impeached last month by the Democratic-led House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, is accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, and then impeding the inquiry into the matter.
The president denies any wrongdoing and describes his impeachment as a partisan hoax to derail his 2020 re-election effort.
Senators voted along party lines, 53-47, to block four separate motions from Democratic leader Chuck Schumer to subpoena records and documents from the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Office of Management and Budget related to Mr Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Senators also rejected by the same tally a request for a subpoena seeking the testimony of acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
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White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is leading Mr Trump’s defence, attacked the foundation of the charges against the Republican president and said Democrats had not come close to meeting the US Constitution’s standard for impeachment.
“The only conclusion will be that the president has done absolutely nothing wrong,” Mr Cipollone said, arguing in favour of Mr McConnell’s proposal to wait until later in the trial to decide whether to allow further witnesses or documents.
“There is absolutely no case,” he said.
Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who helped spearhead the House impeachment inquiry, said the president had committed” constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment.”
While the evidence against Mr Trump was “already overwhelming,” further witness testimony was necessary to show the full scope of the misconduct by the president and those around him, he said.
Republican senators have not ruled out the possibility of further testimony and evidence at some point after opening arguments and senators’ questions.
But Democrats said they forced repeated votes on evidence and witnesses, which extended late into the night, to get Republicans on the record immediately.
“This may be our only chance, tonight, to make this a fair trial. And it’s just increasingly clear that the White House has no answers for why these documents and these witnesses shouldn’t be produced,” US Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut told reporters.
Mr McConnell proposed giving Democratic prosecutors and Mr Trump’s lawyers 24 hours each over three days for opening arguments, easing off an earlier plan to keep them to two days and also allowing the House’s record of the probe to be admitted as evidence..
Under Mr McConnell’s plan, lawyers for Mr 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, Mr 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.
Democrats accuse Mr Trump of pressuring Ukraine to interfere in US elections at the expense of US national security and say he is a danger to American democracy.
Mr Trump and his legal team say there was no pressure and that the Democrats’ case is based on hearsay.
Mr Cipollone 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,” Mr Cipollone said.
The Senate trial is expected to continue six days a week, Monday through Saturday, until at least the end of January.
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 suggests Democrats and Republicans responding largely along party lines.
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 misdemeanours.”
One, Richard Nixon, resigned in the face of a looming impeachment.