WASHINGTON - Democrats on Tuesday accused the top Senate Republican of rigging U.S. President Donald Trump's impeachment trial with proposed rules that would prevent witnesses from testifying and bar evidence gathered by investigators.
Trump's trial on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress charges begins in earnest in the Republican-controlled Senate on Tuesday in a rare use of the constitutional mechanism for ousting a president. The Democratic-led House of Representatives approved the charges last month on a party-line vote.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has vowed to coordinate the televised trial with the White House, proposed on Monday rules that would execute a potentially quick trial without new testimony or evidence.
He unveiled a resolution that would give House Democratic prosecutors and Trump lawyers 48 hours, evenly split, to present their arguments over four days. Opening arguments are expected to begin this week and could well run into each night.
Under the resolution, lawyers for Trump could move early in the proceedings to ask senators to dismiss all charges, a senior Republican leadership aide said, a motion that would likely fall short of the support needed to succeed.
"That is not a fair trial. In fact, it is no trial at all," the seven House Democrats who will set out the case against Trump said in a statement on Tuesday.
"A White House-driven and rigged process, with a truncated schedule designed to go late into the night and further conceal the President's misconduct, is not what the American people expect or deserve," they wrote.
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told CNN that Democrats would seek amendments.
McConnell has repeatedly said the rules for the trial would mirror those the Senate used in the 1999 impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton, and Republican senators have not ruled out the possibility of further witness testimony and evidence.
Votes could take place as early as Tuesday on the rules, including deciding whether the Senate should at a later date consider subpoenas for witnesses, such as Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a statement, said the Republicans' plan would force the trial into the "dark of night" and accused McConnell of choosing "a cover-up for the president, rather than honor his oath to the Constitution."
"Every Senator who supports this sham process must be held accountable to the American people," added Pelosi, who formally kicked off the House impeachment investigation in September.
Republican Senator John Cornyn said on Twitter that the House's investigation had been "tainted and half-baked" and that Democrats were to blame for any issues in the Senate trial.
The Senate proceedings are due to start at around 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT) and the trial is expected to continue six days a week, Monday through Saturday, until at least the end of January.
At the heart of the impeachment trial is Trump's request to Ukraine in July to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a top Democratic contender to face Trump in the 2020 election, and his son Hunter.
Democrats accuse Trump of pressuring a vulnerable ally to interfere in U.S. elections at the expense of American national security and say he needs to be removed from office because he is a danger to American democracy and national security.
Trump and his legal team, which includes White House counsel Pat Cipollone, say there was no pressure and that the Democrats' case is based on hearsay. They say the president did nothing wrong and that Democrats are simply trying to stop him from being re-elected.
In a separate letter on Tuesday, the seven House Democratic "managers" prosecuting the case demanded that Cipollone disclose any first-hand knowledge he has of evidence he will present in the Senate's impeachment trial, calling him a material witness.
Trump support firm
Trump has sought to rally his base with the impeachment issue, fund-raising off it and at raucous election rallies painting 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. 13-14, 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.
The impeachment drama has consumed much of Trump's attention even as the United States faces a series of international challenges, including tensions with Iran that nearly boiled over into open war and an on-again, off-again trade war with China.
Trump is attending the annual gathering of world business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday to project an air of business as usual and tout the strength of the U.S. economy.
Asked whether Trump was planning to watch the impeachment trial from Davos, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said, "He has a full day here in Davos, but will be briefed by staff periodically."
Acquittal almost certain
The trial of a U.S. president could be a moment freighted with drama, huge political risk and the potential unraveling of a presidency. But financial markets have shrugged it off, and the revelations 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.
This is only the third impeachment trial in U.S. history. 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."
With a two-thirds majority needed in the 100-member Senate to remove Trump from office, he is almost certain to be acquitted by fellow Republicans in the chamber. But the impact of the trial on his re-election bid is far from clear. Twelve Democrats are vying for their party's nomination to face Trump in November, including Biden.
A pivotal event in the impeachment case is a July 25 call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens, as well as a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 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 into the Bidens. Trump's legal team says there is no evidence he conditioned the aid on getting that 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.