Bitter exchanges and incriminating evidence rock Trump's impeachment trial
Posted January 22, 2020 1:12 a.m. EST
CNN — President Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial, if its first real day is any guide, will be a dramatic, divisive and fact-bending showdown in his own confrontational image and its aftershocks will rumble for decades to come.
None of the bitter exchanges in the well of the chamber on Tuesday are likely to change the reality that there's no two-thirds majority in the Republican-led chamber to convict the President and throw him out of office.
And any dim hopes that the trial could stir a moment of national catharsis and a path out of the most bitter political crisis in decades are already dead after a rancorous day. The debate stretched long past midnight into Wednesday morning.
Senators sat for hours, deprived of their phones and social media, listening to a stunning case: Democrats outlined evidence that Trump had solicited political favors from a foreign nation -- Ukraine -- using nearly $400 million in taxpayer aid and then mounted a massive cover-up to hide his actions.
Republican senators, forced to sit mostly in silence during the presentation, can no longer ignore the incriminating evidence against the President. Even still, stark political factors -- including Trump's stronghold on the GOP base -- mean there will be no surprises about how most of them plan to vote.
But the lead House impeachment manager, Rep. Adam Schiff, warned his fellow lawmakers that they could pay a price for suppressing the real story of what had happened between Trump and Ukraine.
"The truth will come out -- the question is, will it come out in time?" the California Democrat asked, making a simple case that Trump's actions abused a public trust and endangered the character of the republic.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone, meanwhile, adopted the strategies of Trump's House defenders, who chose not to dispute the evidence but alleged a wider conspiracy that the President's enemies had always been bent on overthrowing him.
"The only conclusion will be that the President has done absolutely nothing wrong, and that these articles of impeachment do not begin to approach the standard required by the Constitution," Cipollone said.
Surreal scene dissolves into rancor
It was still a surreal moment, at 1 p.m. ET, to see Chief Justice John Roberts take the gavel as senators met to decide whether Trump should be the first President in US history convicted on articles of impeachment to be removed from office.
The two rival teams, Schiff and his fellow impeachment managers and Trump's legal brain trust, sat arrayed at tables set up in front of the chamber, as members dug in for a long day at their desks, broken only by the odd trip to get some candy or a dinner break well into Wednesday night.
But for all the historic echoes, the day soon became like any other in the Trump era when mind-bending debates erupted over the nature of basic facts and ill will between the parties clogged Congress' most basic duty -- holding a President to account.
The central question on Tuesday was whether the trial can be seen to be fair.
In one unexpected twist, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, apparently seeking to shield vulnerable swing state senators under pressure to back a fair trial, relented on a schedule that had envisaged testimony in two marathon 12-hour days from each side. Instead, House impeachment managers and Trump's legal team will each have three days to make their 24 hours of trial arguments, beginning Wednesday.
The Kentucky Republican rarely moves without certainty about his vote count. So his concession raised questions over whether Democrats were making headway in pressuring a handful of GOP senators they hope to convince to back their demands for more witnesses.
One of that group, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said it was "likely" that she would vote to call new witnesses later in the trial.
Two GOP aides told CNN that the changes by McConnell were meant to assuage concerns of moderate Republicans -- who the majority leader needs to win next November in order to keep hold of the chamber. The alterations were scribbled in ink on a paper copy of the resolution -- a sign of the speed in which they had come together.
Still, Collins has disappointed Democrats before, and four Republicans would need to defect for Democrats to achieve their goal of admitting new evidence and witnesses.
Democrats want to call former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, among other former officials. Trump's team says the Senate should not subpoena witnesses who Democrats chose not to pursue through court challenges before the President was formally impeached.
Going into the day, Democrats were using words such as "cover-up," "impunity," "rushed" and "predetermined," reflecting their desire to paint the trial as a sham in the wider court of American public opinion. Before the elections in November, they want to leave voters with a clear impression that Republicans are cooking up a fix to save a corrupt President.
For once, the star of the show was oddly absent. Trump was halfway up a Swiss mountain, lobbing the odd tweet after giving a speech boasting about the economy at the World Economic Forum.
But his omnipresent shadow lingered over the Senate all day anyway.
A string of Democratic defeats
The first real day of the trial saw House impeachment managers and Trump's legal team slog through hours of debate over attempts by Democrats to expand the scope of the trial, all doomed to be tabled along party lines by 53 votes to 47.
It didn't take long for the themes and personalities that will dominate the next 10 days or so to seize the center stage as the US Senate accustomed itself to the surreal reality of only the third presidential impeachment trial in US history.
Schiff showed off the forensic skills of a master advocate, weaving incriminatory facts into a wider narrative of the constitutional imperative to convict an unchained President.
Every now and then he would reach outside the room to address "the American people" -- looking directly at a camera fixed in the Senate gallery -- a piece of stagecraft that speakers in the chamber's well rarely perform.
Schiff warned that if Trump were allowed to get away with pressuring foreign leaders for dirt on his rivals, in this case former Vice President Joe Biden, the Senate would change American politics forever.
"You want to say that's OK, then you've got to say that every future president can come into office and they can do the same thing," he said. "Are we prepared to say that? Well, that's why we're here."
Despite his assured performance, the question remains whether the House Intelligence Committee chairman, roughed up by months of political battle with Trump, has a chance to succeed in the near-impossible job of getting GOP members to change their minds.
Trump's legal team performed in a way that their boss -- no doubt watching on television across the Atlantic -- would have enjoyed. Attorney Jay Sekulow, a smooth TV veteran, was combustible, theatrical and often loose with the facts in a manner that would not cut it in a real court.
Cipollone made up for his milder manner with the vehemence of his argument, accusing Democrats of plotting to commit the same offense for which the President was impeached.
"They're not here to steal one election. They're here to steal two elections, " Cipollone said. "It's long past time we start this, so we can end this ridiculous charade and go have an election."
Trump's team also made a series of incorrect claims; for instance, complaining that Republicans had been barred from a secure space in the House where impeachment investigators had questioned witnesses, as part of an argument that Trump's inquisitors had denied him due process.
Presiding over it all was Roberts, who looked oddly out of place across the road from the marble-pillared splendor of the Supreme Court.
The chief justice made few interventions -- and came across as a ceremonial presence rather than a judge running a trial -- dispensing vote counts and banging his gavel on the instructions of a Senate clerk.
"Without objection, so ordered. Do I bang the gavel, right?" Roberts asked at one point, struggling with the arcane lingo of his new role.