The impeachment trial that will decide whether President Donald Trump is removed from office kicked into full gear on Wednesday

By Sean Neumann
January 23, 2020 06:09 PM

The impeachment trial that will decide whether President Donald Trump is removed from office kicked into full gear on Wednesday after lawmakers spent much of Tuesday (into early Wednesday) debating over the rules for the historic prosecution over his role in the Ukraine scandal.

Opening arguments began Wednesday afternoon and continued Thursday. Democratic impeachment managers, seven members of the House of Representatives, have 24 hours over three days to make their case. Trump’s defense team will make their response afterward over the same allotted time period.

Senators and Trump’s lawyers had argued Tuesday over whether the Senate should allow additional witnesses and evidence to be presented in the trial, with Democrats seeking testimonies from top Trump administration officials who refused to cooperate during the House’s months-long impeachment investigation.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted to block a Democratic request to subpoena White House documents related to the Trump administration’s communications with Ukraine to pressure the country to investigate Trump’s political rivals. The administration refused to supply the documents during the House investigation that led to Trump’s impeachment in December.

White House lawyers defended Trump and argued that Democrats’ requests to hear more evidence was because they didn’t have enough to convict the president, but Democrats fired back as both sides traded passionate defenses over how they felt the trial should go.

“The House calls John Bolton. The House calls Mick Mulvaney. Let’s get this trial started, shall we?” said Rep. Adam Schiff, in response to White House attorney Patrick Philbin’s claim that Democrats were unprepared for the trial.

RELATED: Donald Trump Impeached by House of Representatives Over Ukraine Scandal

Impeachment managers from the House of Representatives delivering the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump

Since the president was impeached in mid-December, Democratic and Republican lawmakers have sparred over the impeachment trial’s format, including whether the Senate should allow more testimony and evidence to be presented there, beyond what was already documented in the House investigation.

Concern over whether the Senate would hold a fair trial was elevated last month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News that he planned to work in “total coordination” with the White House throughout the trial.

RELATED: Republican Senator Says She’s ‘Disturbed’ By Mitch McConnell’s Coordination with Trump on Impeachment Trial

On Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers — and some Republicans — pushed back against the initial rules McConnell proposed for the trial.

McConnell had initially proposed that evidence gathered during the House investigation would not automatically be entered as evidence in the Senate trial, breaking with precedent. Instead it would need to be approved by the Senate. McConnell changed this rule Tuesday afternoon after pushback from Democrats and some Republicans, including Maine Sen. Susan Collins.

Further, the timeline for opening arguments for the impeachment trial was changed to take place over three eight-hour days, should each side choose to use that full time. (They could use less.) Initially, McConnell proposed that opening arguments would take place over two 12-hour days, which led Democrats to complain portions of their opening arguments would be happening past midnight, when most Americans are asleep.

“Leader McConnell’s process is deliberately designed to hide the truth from the Senate and from the American people, because he knows that the President’s wrongdoing is indefensible and demands removal,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement on Tuesday. “No jury would be asked to operate on McConnell’s absurdly compressed schedule, and it is obvious that no Senator who votes for it is intending to truly weigh the damning evidence of the President’s attacks on our Constitution.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer added in a news conference Tuesday that McConnell’s rules proposal “asks the Senate to sprint through the trial as fast as possible and makes getting evidence as hard as possible.”

Why Was Trump Impeached and How Will the Trial Play Out?

On Dec. 18, Trump became the third president in American history to ever be impeached. The House voted to impeach him on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress over his role in the Ukraine Scandal.

The House investigation found that Trump had withheld about $400 million in military aid to the Ukraine while pressuring the country’s president into launching an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s potential challenger in the 2020 election.

Trump is now on trial in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority vote (or 67 senators) is needed to convict and remove him from office on either of his impeachment articles.

No president has ever been removed from office over impeachment and — because the Republicans hold the majority of seats in the Senate — it’s widely expected that Trump will be acquitted. How quickly and cleanly the trial plays out is another matter, however.

After more than a month of back-and-forth over what Democrats have predicted would be a “sham trial,” here’s how it’s expected to proceed.

President Donald Trump
Carolyn Kaster/Shutterstock

Opening Arguments Began on Wednesday

Both the prosecution and defense will have three days to voice their arguments in Trump’s case. The House’s impeachment managers started arguing their case on Wednesday afternoon and continued Thursday.

By long-established rules, the senators and the side (impeachment managers or the defense) are required to sit silently during the other side’s arguments.

Wednesday saw the House’s Democratic impeachment managers trace the details of what they called the president’s abuse of power and obstruction in the Ukraine scandal.

“If not remedied by his conviction in the Senate, and removal from office, President Trump’s abuse of his office and obstruction of Congress will permanently alter the balance of power among the branches of government,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, one of the impeachment managers. “The president has shown that he believes that he’s above the law and scornful of constraint.”

Trump’s team, in turn, has attacked the process of this particular impeachment as unconstitutional and Trump allies have suggested that whatever the president did was within his scope of powers as a leader.

Democratic lawmakers believe that because of the probability that Republicans won’t allow additional witnesses to testify in Trump’s trial, their opening arguments are critical in laying out their case against President Trump.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, addressing the Senate on Tuesday. “The opening statements are the trial.”

Senators Have 16 Hours to Ask Questions — in Writing

Following multiple days of arguments, senators from both sides will have an opportunity to pose questions in writing to the prosecution or defense teams, which will be read by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial.

The prosecution and defense teams will have an opportunity to answer those questions on the Senate floor.

Vote to Allow Additional Witnesses and Evidence

After multiple days of opening arguments and the period for  written questions has ended, senators will vote on whether to call additional witnesses and allow for further evidence to be submitted.

The debate over whether to allow witnesses in Trump’s impeachment case has been one of the main disagreements between Republicans and Democrats and, should any witnesses be called, it could lengthen the trial by many days — even weeks. Witnesses would need to be subpoenaed and then deposed.

Democrats are looking to question witnesses they weren’t able to call on during the House investigation because the Trump administration refused to cooperate.

Multiple potential witnesses tied to the case have said they’re willing to testify if called upon — including Trump’s lawyer Rudi Giuliani and his associate Lev Parnas, who claimed in an MSNBC interview that both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were aware of efforts to pressure the Ukraine into investigating Biden.

Republicans are looking to avoid a drawn out trial and McConnell said he modeled the trial process off of President Bill Clinton‘s impeachment trial in 1999, which took less than a week to acquit Clinton.

But Democrats — and even some Republicans — argue this case is different and there’s more evidence to be heard.

“Going with the Clinton impeachment process is satisfactory to me because that process did provide, down the road, for an opportunity to hear from witnesses,” Republican Sen. Mitt Romney recently told The New York Times. “And I would like to hear from John Bolton.”

Closing Arguments and a Final Vote on Whether to Remove Trump

After additional witnesses are called, senators will deliberate before heading into a final vote. There needs to be a two-thirds majority vote in favor of convicting President Trump in order to remove him from office.

No president in U.S. history has ever been convicted on impeachment charges and the fact that Republicans hold a 53-seat majority in the Senate makes it all likely Trump will be acquitted.

His supporters in Congress have said they are reluctant to proceed with an impeachment process they believe is a revenge scheme by Democrats for their surprise loss in the 2016 election.

Despite the evidence uncovered in the House investigation, Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong with Ukraine and that impeachment is a “hoax.”