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Impeachment Trial Begins With Procedural Debate Divided By Party Lines

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hundred-and-nineteen days after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry into President Trump and 34 days after the House voted to impeach him, the Senate trial has begun in earnest.

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MICHAEL STENGER: Hear ye. Hear ye. Hear ye. All persons are commanded to keep silent, on pain of imprisonment, while the Senate of the United States is sitting for the trial of the articles of impeachment.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

First order of business - establishing the rules for the trial. That process consumed the day, and it demonstrated the partisan split between Democrats and Republicans.

NPR's Tim Mak is on Capitol Hill and joins us now. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey, there.

SHAPIRO: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted a condensed trial and, surprisingly, he extended it. What happened?

MAK: So McConnell's impeachment trial proposal involves giving each side 24 hours over three days to make their case. And the senator described his plan this way.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: This is the fair road map for our trial.

MAK: His original plan, which he released to the public last evening, was even more cramped - 24 hours over two days. But some Republican members expressed concerns about how tight that schedule would be. That would include 12 hours every day starting at 1 p.m. That would mean the trial would extend late into the night. So...

SHAPIRO: And all 100 senators are required to be there. Right?

MAK: Absolutely - and not allowed to speak during that time. So with these concerns, Senator McConnell was forced to abruptly amend this to the point that they had to write a change in the paper copy of the legislative text. And that surprised lawmakers and reporters alike. Republican Senator Susan Collins - she's a key vote in this trial - said she had been among the ones pushing for this change. And it gives us a little bit of a hint to the kind of sway that Collins has over this process. Now, remember she's one of the few senators who are open to hearing from witnesses later on during this trial.

SHAPIRO: So just a few Republicans can sway the outcome here. How have Republicans generally been reacting to the proposed parameters of this trial?

MAK: Well, they've generally had wide Republican support for this initial stage. In fact, there hasn't been any Republicans who have come out against it or expressed concerns about it. So we expect the general parameters of this first stage to pass today. And the president's defense team, who McConnell has publicly said he would be working closely with - that team indicated that they were supportive of this format. Pat Cipollone said he expects the senators will find the opening statements sufficient.

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PAT CIPOLLONE: We are in favor of this. We believe that once you hear those initial presentations, the only conclusion will be that the president has done absolutely nothing wrong.

MAK: Under McConnell's proposal, the issue of whether to subpoena witnesses or documents, that will be postponed to a later stage in the trial. Senator Mitt Romney - he's another one of these senators open to hearing from witnesses later on in the trial - approves the way that Senator McConnell has set this up.

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MITT ROMNEY: I'd like to hear from John Bolton, perhaps among others; probably witnesses from both sides - the prosecution and the defense. But we don't need that vote upfront.

SHAPIRO: Now, Democrats have been trying to force even bigger changes to the format. Doesn't seem like they have the votes to do that. What have we been hearing from them today?

MAK: Right. Well, the lead impeachment manager, Adam Schiff, has said that every impeachment trial before this has heard from witnesses and that not hearing from witnesses would be tantamount to being complicit in a cover-up by the president.

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ADAM SCHIFF: If Senator McConnell makes this the first impeachment trial in history without witnesses or documents, it will not prove the president innocent; it will merely prove the Senate guilty of working with the president to obstruct the truth from coming out.

MAK: Well, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has proposed changes to the format of the trial.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: This will go down - this resolution - as one of the darker moments in the Senate history, perhaps one of even the darkest.

MAK: Now, Schumer doesn't appear to have the votes from a - Republicans that he needs to pass this right now. So it makes passage of these changes unlikely for now.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tim Mak on Capitol Hill. Thank you.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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