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Senate blocks Democratic bids for evidence, witnesses in Trump impeachment trial

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate rejected Democratic efforts on Tuesday to obtain evidence and call witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, an early sign the proceeding could advance along lines favorable to Trump.

As the third impeachment trial in U.S. history began in earnest, senators voted along party lines, 53-47, to block three separate motions from Democratic leader Chuck Schumer to subpoena records and documents from the White House, the State Department and the Office of Management and Budget related to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

Senators also rejected by the same tally a request for a subpoena seeking the testimony of acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

Democrats have called on the Senate to remove Trump from office for pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, and then impeding the inquiry into the matter.

Trump, who was impeached last month by the Democratic-led House of Representatives on charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress, denies any wrongdoing and describes his impeachment as a partisan hoax to derail his 2020 re-election effort.

During early debate, Trump’s chief legal defender attacked the case as baseless and a top Democratic lawmaker said there was “overwhelming” evidence of wrongdoing.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks to the Senate chamber at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.  AP

With the television cameras rolling, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts convened the proceedings and the two sides began squabbling over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed rules for the trial.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is leading Trump’s defense, attacked the foundation of the charges against the Republican president and said Democrats had not come close to meeting the U.S. Constitution’s standard for impeachment.

“The only conclusion will be that the president has done absolutely nothing wrong,” Cipollone said as he argued in favor of McConnell’s proposal to decide on whether to allow further witnesses or documents later in the trial.

“There is absolutely no case,” he said.

Seeking witness testimony

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who helped spearhead the House impeachment inquiry, summarized the charges against Trump and said the president had committed “constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment.”

Schiff said that although the evidence against Trump was “already overwhelming,” further witness testimony was necessary to show the full scope of the misconduct by the president and those around him.

Republican senators have not ruled out the possibility of further testimony and evidence at some point in the trial after days of opening arguments and senators’ questions.

But Democrats said they forced Tuesday’s repeated votes on evidence and witnesses to get Republicans on the record on the issue.

“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,” U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told reporters.

McConnell unveiled a plan on Tuesday to give Democratic prosecutors and Trump’s lawyers 24 hours each over three days for opening arguments, easing off an earlier plan to keep them to two days and also allowing the House’s record of the probe to be admitted as evidence.

Under McConnell’s plan, lawyers for Trump could move early in the proceedings to ask senators to dismiss all charges, according to a senior Republican leadership aide, a motion that would likely fall short of the support needed to succeed.

Even if such a motion fails, Trump is almost certain to be acquitted by the 100-member chamber, where a two-thirds majority is needed to remove him from office.

But the impact of the trial on his re-election bid in November is far from clear.

Trump support firm

Democrats accuse Trump of pressuring Ukraine, a vulnerable ally, to interfere in U.S. elections at the expense of American national security and say he is a danger to American democracy.

Trump and his legal team say there was no pressure and that the Democrats’ case is based on hearsay. Cipollone described the Ukraine investigation as an illegal attempt to remove a democratically elected president and avert his re-election.

“They’re not here to steal one election, they’re here to steal two elections,” Cipollone said.

The White House defense team also repeated some false charges. Cipollone said Republicans were excluded from the secure facility where the initial depositions for the House impeachment hearings took place, when Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee were not only present but questioned witnesses.

Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said the White House was not allowed to have a lawyer present during the impeachment hearings, when in fact it declined to participate.

The Senate trial is expected to continue six days a week, Monday through Saturday, until at least the end of January.

Trump has sought to rally his base with the impeachment issue, and has raised money off it. At raucous election rallies, he has painted 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.

Markets shrug off trial

Financial markets have shrugged off the impeachment trial, and the disclosures in the months-long impeachment investigation have done little to boost anti-Trump sentiment among undecided voters or shift away moderate Republican voters.

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.”

A pivotal event in the impeachment case is a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens and a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. 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 of the Bidens. Trump’s legal team says there is no evidence that the aid was a condition for receiving 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.

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