The first day of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial may have stretched late into the night, but that did not mean there was any doubt how the session would end: in vote after vote, Democrats were defeated in their effort to subpoena documents and witnesses the White House has repeatedly refused to congressional investigators.
Even though the party-line votes were foregone conclusions — no moderate Republican, including those who had signalled they were open to hearing from new witnesses, backed the amendments — Democrats appeared to trying to do something other than just accessing emails, memos and text messages. They were building a political case that the president’s party was complicit in a cover-up.
“So here’s where we are: the Senate GOP won’t subpoena documents from the White House — and won’t subpoena documents from the State Department,” tweeted Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic presidential candidate who is one of the 100 senators sitting as jurors. “If they truly believe in a fair impeachment trial, why are they hiding evidence?”
It is not a new argument; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly accused the president of covering up his actions during last month’s impeachment investigation. But on Tuesday, it quickly become a refrain among House managers, Democratic senators, presidential candidates and the Democratic National Committee.
“I don’t know how they can deny all witnesses; let’s see what they do after a few days of this,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, another Democratic presidential candidate who was sitting in judgment, adding she detected guilty looks on the faces of some of her Republican counterparts. “You can’t have a trial with zero witnesses and zero documents. That’s not how this works.”
The strategy may have been long in gestation, but it was helped by Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate who handed Democrats red meat on Monday night by proposing impeachment trial rules that would have forced 24 hours of argument into just two days.
Chuck Schumer, Mr McConnell’s Democratic counterpart, cried foul, accusing the Republicans of a “egregious departure” from precedent.
“The McConnell rules seem to be designed by President Trump for President Trump,” Mr Schumer told the Senate just before the trial formally began. “It asks the Senate to rush through as fast as possible and makes getting evidence as hard as possible . . . In short, the McConnell resolution will result in a rushed trial with little evidence in the dark of the night — literally in the dark of night.”
Even some of the Republican moderates, particularly Maine’s Susan Collins, were squeamish about Mr McConnell’s brazenness. A spokesperson for Ms Collins, who is up for re-election in November, acknowledged she had “raised concerns” about his attempt to cram 24 hours of debate into two days of Senate sessions.
Mr McConnell beat a tactical retreat, scrawling a handwritten change into the rule proposal that would allow opening arguments by each side to stretch over three days instead, ostensibly ruling out impeachment proceedings that extended until 1am.
But for the rest of the day, Republicans did not waver, with all 53 voting against amendments by Mr Schumer to subpoena White House documents, State Department documents and Office of Management and Budget documents.
The repeated rejections only emboldened Democratic efforts to portray their Republican colleagues as part of a Trump-backed strategy to withhold evidence from the American people.
“What we are seeing, and for hours now . . .[is] an effort to obstruct the Senate’s ability to actually know what happened,” said Senator Kamala Harris, late in the night.