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Democrats blast impeachment trial rules, demand evidence from Trump lawyer

In a letter on Tuesday, the seven House Democratic 'managers' prosecuting the case demanded that the White House counsel disclose any first-hand knowledge of evidence that will be presented in the trial.

FILE: US President Donald Trump. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON - Democrats on Tuesday accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of trying to rig US President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and demanded the president’s top lawyer be made a possible witness in the case.

Hours before the start of Trump’s trial in the Republican-controlled Senate on charges he abused power and obstructed Congress, Democrats said the rules proposed by McConnell would prevent witnesses from testifying and bar evidence gathered by investigators.

McConnell unveiled a plan on Monday that would execute a potentially quick trial without new testimony or evidence, and give House Democratic prosecutors and Trump lawyers 48 hours, evenly split, to present their arguments over four days.

In a letter on Tuesday, the seven House Democratic “managers” prosecuting the case demanded White House counsel Pat Cipollone disclose any first-hand knowledge he has of evidence he will present in the trial, calling him a material witness.

Cipollone was widely criticised for writing an 8 October letter in which he said Trump could not permit the administration to participate in the House probe of the president’s pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a top Democratic contender to face Trump in the 2020 election, and Biden’s son Hunter.

Opening arguments are expected to begin this week and may well run late each night. With a two-thirds majority needed in the 100-member Senate to remove Trump from office, he is almost certain to be acquitted by fellow Republicans in the chamber.

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

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.

“This is not the process for a fair trial. This is the process for a rigged trial,” Representative Adam Schiff said in a news conference alongside other Democrats who will prosecute the case against Trump.

“I do think that by structuring the trial this way it furthers our case that what’s going on here really is a cover-up of evidence to the American people,” he said.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he would offer amendments to fix what he called flaws in McConnell’s proposals.

“It almost seems as though the resolution was written in the White House, not in the Senate,” Schumer said in a separate news conference, referring to McConnell’s plan.

McConnell has repeatedly said the rules for the trial would mirror those the Senate used in the 1999 impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton, and Republican senators have not ruled out the possibility of further witness testimony and evidence.

Votes in the Senate could take place as early as Tuesday on the rules, including deciding whether the Senate should at a later date consider subpoenas for witnesses, such as Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton.

Democrats accuse Trump of pressuring Ukraine, a vulnerable ally, to interfere in US elections at the expense of American national security and say he needs to be removed from office because he is a danger to American democracy and national security.

Trump and his legal team say there was no pressure and that the Democrats’ case is based on hearsay. They say the president did nothing wrong and that Democrats are simply trying to stop him from being re-elected.

Cipollone has described the Ukraine investigation as an illegal attempt to remove a democratically elected president.

After Cipollone’s letter, not a single document was produced by the White House, the State Department and other government agencies in response to 71 requests or subpoenas for records, according to the House report on the impeachment inquiry. The administration also sought to block current and former officials from testifying.

TRUMP SUPPORT FIRM

The Senate proceedings are due to start at around 1pm EST (1800 GMT) and the 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, fund-raising off it and at raucous election rallies painting 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.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll conducted 13-14 January, 39% of US adults approved of Trump’s job performance, while 56% disapproved. It also found 45% of respondents said Trump should be removed from office, while 31% said the impeachment charges should be dismissed.

The impeachment drama has consumed much of Trump’s attention even as the United States faces a series of international challenges, including tensions with Iran that nearly boiled over into open war and an on-again, off-again trade war with China.

Trump is attending the annual gathering of world business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday to project an air of business as usual and tout the strength of the US economy.

Asked whether Trump was planning to watch the impeachment trial from Davos, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said, “He has a full day here in Davos, but will be briefed by staff periodically.”

ACQUITTAL ALMOST CERTAIN

The trial of a US president could be a moment freighted with drama, huge political risk and the potential unravelling of a presidency. But financial markets have shrugged it off, and the revelations in the months-long impeachment investigation thus far have done little to boost anti-Trump sentiment among undecided voters or shift away moderate Republican voters.

This is only the third impeachment trial in US history. 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 misdemeanours.”

A pivotal event in the impeachment case is a 25 July call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens, as well as a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 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 into the Bidens. Trump’s legal team says there is no evidence he conditioned the aid on getting that 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.