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McConnell abruptly eases Trump impeachment limits as Senate trial begins

Trial quickly burst into partisan fight as president’s lawyers opened arguments on Tuesday in support of majority leader's plan

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, January 16, 2020. AP Photo/Julio Cortez
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, January 16, 2020. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday abruptly eased his restrictive proposed rules for US President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

Mr McConnell backed off his proposal for the trial to be held over two days, adding a third for opening arguments after protests from senators, including Republicans.

The trial quickly became a partisan fight as Mr Trump's lawyers opened arguments in support of Mr McConnell’s plan.

Democrats objected loudly to his initially proposed rules, and some Republicans made their concerns known in private at a party lunch.

Without comment, Mr McConnell quietly submitted an amended proposal after meeting behind closed doors with his senators as the trial opened.

The handwritten changes would add the extra day and allow House evidence to be included in the record. There is still deep disagreement about calling extra witnesses.

“It’s time to start with this trial,” said White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, the president’s lead lawyer, as the public proceedings opened.

“It’s a fair process. There is absolutely no case.”

Chief Justice John Roberts opened the session after senators took an oath last week to provide “impartial justice” as jurors.

House prosecutors were on one side, Mr Trump’s team was on the other, as senators sat silent at their desks.

Senators were stunned by Mr McConnell’s shift, and aides offered no immediate answers.

But a spokeswoman for Republican Senator Susan Collins said that she and others had raised concerns.

The Maine senator considered the changes to be significant improvements, said spokeswoman Annie Clark.

The White House wanted a session crammed into a shorter period to speed up the trial and shift more of the proceedings into late night, a source said.

“Read the transcripts,” Mr Trump tweeted as he returned to his hotel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The transcript was of a phone call in which he asked new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for “a favour".

The Democrats say the transcript is solid evidence against Mr Trump, although he repeatedly describes it as “perfect.”

Democrats had warned that the rules from Mr McConnell, Mr Trump’s ally, could force midnight sessions that would keep most Americans in the dark and create a sham proceeding.

“This is not a process for a fair trial, this is the process for a rigged trial,” said Adam Schiff, chairman of the house intelligence committee leading the prosecution. He called it a “cover-up”.

Mr Schiff opened his arguments before the Senate playing a video of Mr Trump calling for more witnesses to testify.

He noted the sudden change in proposed rules, made moments before he spoke.

“The facts will come out in the end,” Mr Schiff said. “The question is, will it come out in time?”

Mr McConnell said: “The president’s lawyers will finally receive a level playing field” in contrast to the House impeachment inquiry.

Weeks before the first Democratic primary contests, four senators who are presidential candidates were seated as jurors.

“My focus is going to be on impeachment,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent running for Democratic nomination.

Mr Sanders said his supporters would keep working “to defeat the most dangerous president in American history".

The Democrats say the prospect of late-night proceedings, without allowing new witnesses or the House records of the trial, would leave the public without crucial information about Mr Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine and the White House’s obstruction of the investigation.

“There’s no trial in this country where you wouldn’t admit relative witnesses,” said Jerry Nadler, chairman of the judiciary committee who is also leading the House team.

Mr Trump’s legal team does not dispute that president called Mr Zelenskiy and asked for a “favour” during the July 25 phone call.

In fact, they included the rough transcript of his conversation as part of their 110-page trial brief submitted before proceedings.

Led by Mr Cipollone, the team say the two charges against the president do not amount to impeachable offences and Mr Trump committed no crime.

Legal scholars have long insisted the writers of the Constitution provided impeachment as a remedy for “other high crimes and misdemeanours”, a broad definition that does not mean simply specific criminal acts.

Democrats point to a report from the General Accountability Office that found the White House breached federal law by delaying funds to Ukraine that had been approved by Congress.

House Democrats, responding on Tuesday to arguments by Mr Trump’s legal team, said his legal filing confirmed that “his misconduct is indefensible.”

“President Trump’s lengthy brief to the Senate is heavy on rhetoric and procedural grievances, but entirely lacks a legitimate defence of his misconduct,” they wrote.

He would “rather discuss anything other than what he actually did".

Chief Justice Roberts administered the oath to James Inhofe, who was in Oklahoma dealing with a family problem last week when the other senators vowed and signed the oath book.

Also on Tuesday, the House Democrats overseeing the case asked Mr Cipollone to disclose any “first-hand knowledge” he had of the charges against Mr Trump.

They said evidence gathered so far indicated that Mr Cipollone was a “material witness” to the allegations.

The House impeached the Republican president last month on charges of abuse of power by withholding US military aid to Ukraine, with which he pressured the country to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden.

The also impeached him on obstruction of Congress by refusing to co-operate with their investigation.

No president has ever been removed from office by the Senate. With its 53-47 Republican majority, it is not expected to provide the two-thirds voted needed for Mr Trump's conviction.

Even if it did, the White House team says it would be an ”’unconstitutional conviction″ because the articles of impeachment were too broad.

Updated: January 22, 2020 02:06 AM

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