WASHINGTON — And away we go.
The Senate gaveled in for its first real day of President Trump’s impeachment trial on Tuesday, setting up a series of votes to lock in rules designed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to rush through the trial as fast as possible.
McConnell, who has been closely coordinating with the White House, plans to force the Senate through a rapid-fire impeachment trial designed to minimize the political risk for both GOP senators and Trump himself.
“Today we will consider and pass an organizing resolution that will structure the first phase of the trial. This initial step will offer an early signal to our country. Can the Senate still serve our founding purpose? Can we still put fairness, evenhandedness and historical precedent ahead of the partisan passions of the day? Today’s vote will contain some answers,” McConnell said Tuesday.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned that the proposed rule package would short-circuit democracy.
“The McConnell rules seem to be designed by President Trump, for President Trump. It asks the Senate to rush through as fast as possible and makes getting evidence as hard as possible,” Schumer warned as the trial began. “The McConnell resolution will result in a rushed trial with little evidence in the dark of night.”
McConnell began the Senate trial by introducing his rules package, one he’d refused to share publicly for weeks before dropping it late Monday night. Democrats plan to offer a series of amendments to open up the trial’s proceedings — but they’re all destined to fail, as Republicans have made clear they plan to stand together and vote as a bloc to back McConnell’s machinations.
Democrats need to flip four Republican senators to force any check on a GOP power play on the trial, and while a handful of moderates could force votes on witnesses down the line there is no chance they’ll break with McConnell on Tuesday.
That sets up a series of long days for the Senate, with testimony from Wednesday through Saturday expected to stretch past midnight. At that point, the whole trial might wrap up.
McConnell insisted repeatedly that this trial follows past precedent, and closely follows President Clinton’s impeachment trial. But that’s bunk. Unlike during the Clinton trial, the GOP-backed rules don’t automatically allow the huge trove of evidence gathered by House investigators to be included in the trial.
McConnell is also trying to rush through the trial as fast as possible by packing in the 48 hours of opening arguments for the House managers and the president’s legal team into just four days. That means 12-hour days of testimony that will push past midnight each night and could wrap up in a week or less.
And while the Senate’s rules package allows for an eventual vote on witnesses after opening testimony, like during the Clinton impeachment, the GOP-backed rule adds additional hurdles to calling for witnesses — a requirement that makes it even less likely that key Trump administration officials and other fact witnesses will appear. That hurdle includes a requirement that any witnesses get privately deposed before a second vote on whether that deposition gets released publicly.
“It does not proscribe a process for a fair trial, and the American people desperately want to believe that the Senate will give both the president and the House of Representatives a fair trial,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), one of the House’s impeachment managers, warned Tuesday morning.
Trump stands accused of using the power of his office to pressure a foreign ally to investigate his political rivals. Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine, a close ally currently fighting off an invasion from Russian-backed forces, and House Democrats gathered compelling evidence from multiple witnesses that he did so in order to push Ukraine’s government to announce an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
The House passed two articles of impeachment: Abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The first addresses what Trump did; the second focuses on his unprecedented effort to block the House from accessing all relevant witnesses and documents.
But it looks like Trump won’t face much real scrutiny in the GOP-controlled Senate.
“If the president commits high crimes and misdemeanors and Congress refuses to act… then this president and future presidents can commit impeachable crimes with impunity,” Schumer warned as he concluded his floor speech before the trial began. “The eyes of the nation, the eyes of history, the eyes of the founding fathers are upon us. History will be our final judge. Will senators rise to the occasion?”
It doesn’t look like they will.
Cover: U.S. president Donald Trump attend a bilateral meeting during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, on January 21, 2020. (Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)