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Trump impeachment trial: Republicans block witnesses and evidence while insisting president is 'a man of his word'

Chris Baynes
AP

The Republican-controlled US Senate has voted along party lines to approve the rules of Donald Trump‘s impeachment trial, rejecting Democratic efforts to obtain evidence and ensure witnesses are heard.

The third presidential impeachment trial in American history began with a marathon session of nearly 13 hours on Tuesday, as rancorous debate about the terms of proceedings stretched out until nearly 2am in Washington (7am UK time).

Senators voted 53-47 to block four separate motions from Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer to subpoena documents related to Mr Trump’s dealings with Ukraine from the White House, the State Department, the Defence Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

Democrat requests to hear the testimony of the president’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former national security adviser John Bolton, White House aide Robert Blair, and government budget official Michael Duffey were rejected by the same tally, prompting accusations that Republicans were voting for a “cover-up”.

The trial’s opening session began with Republicans abandoning plans to cram opening arguments into two late-night sessions, exposing a crack in GOP ranks amid growing unease over historic impeachment proceedings unfolding in an election year.

Republicans senators were said to be concerned about how “dark of night” sessions might be perceived by the public.

Under Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s hastily revised set of procedures, there will be 48 hours of opening arguments – 24 hours for each side – over six days. The rules will also now allow the Democrat-controlled House of Representative’s record of the probe to be admitted as evidence.

But the rejection of Democrat subpoenas cleared the way for the trial to proceed largely on Republican terms, with no sign the president’s party will turn on him over allegations he pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and then impeded an inquiry into his own conduct.

The House impeached Mr Trump last month on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The president denies any wrongdoing, but Democratic representative Adam Schiff – who helped lead the inquiry – said the evidence was “overwhelming”.

White House lawyer Pat Cipollone, who is leading the president’s defence, claimed the trial was a baseless effort to overturn the 2016 election result and insisted the 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,” he told the Senate, later adding: “President Trump is a man of his word.”

Republicans do not deny Mr Trump called his Ukranian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky and asked for a “favour” – meaning an investigation into unsubstantiated corruption claims about Mr Biden - while at the same time withholding military aid its ally desperately needed as it faced Russian hostilities on its border.

But Mr Cipollone scoffed that the House charges against Mr Trump were “ridiculous” and the president had done “absolutely nothing wrong”.

Mr Schiff, a California Democrat, opened for the prosecution by saying America’s founders had added the remedy of impeachment in the Constitution with “precisely this type of conduct in mind – conduct that abuses the power of office for a personal benefit, that undermines our national security, and that invites foreign interference in the democratic process of an election”.

“It is the trifecta of constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment,” he added.

Legal arguments turned into more pointedly political ones as the trial’s opening session stretched into the night. Tempers flared and senators paced the chamber as Democrats pursued what may have been be their only chance to force senators to vote on hearing new testimony.

In one particularly bitter exchange, House judiciary committee chairman Jerrold Nadler told Republicans they were “treacherous” for blocking witnesses appearing at the trial, prompting Mr Trump’s defence team to call for him to apologise.

Chief justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court judge presiding over the chamber, admonished both sides and asked them to “remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body”.

Republicans could allow further testimony and evidence into the trial at a later point following opening arguments and initial questions, but Democrats said they forced the votes on Tuesday to get senators 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," Democrat senator Chris Murphy told reporters.

Trial arguments will begin when proceeding resume at 1pm (6pm GMT) on Wednesday.

The trial's opening day took place with the president more than 4,000 miles away at the Davos summit in Switzerland, but Mr Trump made his feelings clear from overseas.

"READ THE TRANSCRIPTS!" he tweeted in reference to a record of his call with Mr Zelensky. The Democrats cite that transcript as solid evidence against Mr Trump, but he has repeatedly described it as "perfect" and claimed it exonerates him.

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