WASHINGTON - U.S. House Democrats are starting three days of arguments Wednesday to make the case that President Donald Trump abused the presidency to try to help himself politically and should be removed from office.
During 13 hours of debate extending in to early Wednesday, the House managers prosecuting the case against the country's 45th president lost vote after vote to the majority Republicans in the Senate to subpoena documents and witnesses about Trump's efforts to get Ukraine to investigate one of his chief 2020 Democratic presidential rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.
But in the early afternoon, the Democrats will have the floor to themselves in the first of three eight-hour sessions where they plan to lay out details of how Trump tried last year to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to launch probes of Biden, his son Hunter Biden's work for a Ukrainian natural gas company and a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine tried to undermine Trump's 2016 campaign.
By Saturday, Trump's lawyers will start presenting their defense over three days. Trump faces two articles of impeachment, that he abused the presidency and obstructed congressional efforts to investigate his Ukraine-related actions.
The seven Democrats laying out the case against Trump extensively previewed their case in the preliminary skirmishes they lost over the rules governing the impeachment trial, just the third such event in nearly 2 1/2 centuries of U.S. history. The lawmakers pointed to Trump's phone call last July asking for Zelenskiy to "do us a favor," to open the Biden investigations at the same time he was temporarily withholding $391 million in military aid Kyiv wanted to help fight pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The Democrats contended that Trump had no interest in a broad effort to fight corruption in Ukraine as some Republicans have claimed, just that Zelenskiy announce the investigation of the Bidens. After a 55-day delay, Trump released the military assistance in September without Zelenskiy launching the Biden probes, which Republicans say is proof Trump did not engage in a reciprocal quid pro quo deal - the politically tinged investigations in exchange for the defense aid.
Trump's lawyers say he was carrying out legitimate foreign relations with the eastern European country, did nothing wrong and should be quickly acquitted. They claimed the House of Representatives rushed to impeach Trump in a flawed process in which the president was not treated fairly.
Even as the trial moves to the center of the allegations against Trump, he remains all but certain to be exonerated. A two-thirds vote in the 100-member Senate would be needed to convict Trump, a Republican, and remove him from office, but Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the chamber and no Republican has called for his ouster.
In the marathon Tuesday debate, Republicans used their control of the Senate to reject all Democratic efforts to subpoena White House, State Department and Defense Department documents related to Trump's Ukraine actions and such key witnesses as former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Republicans won all of the votes along party line tallies of 53-47, except for one that went 52-48 in their favor.
Before the Wednesday session, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said the Republican votes against subpoenas for documents and witnesses shows Republican lawmakers "don't want a fair trial. It was a dark day and a dark night for the Senate."
He contended that the House managers prosecuting Trump had made a "very clear and convincing case" about his guilt, while Trump's White House lawyers were "unprepared, confused and totally unconvincing."
Under the trial rules laid out by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, votes on subpoenaing documents and witnesses could occur again after the two sides present their cases and senators have a chance to ask questions of the House managers and Trump lawyers. Democrats would need four Republican senators to go against McConnell's wishes and vote with them to call the Trump administration officials for sworn testimony.
Trump has almost daily ridiculed the Democratic impeachment effort targeting him and did again from Davos, Switzerland, where he attended the World Economic Forum.
"Their case was so 'overwhelming' in the House that they need & demand Witnesses in the Senate!" Trump said on Twitter.
Asked about the Democrats' quest for Ukraine documents, Trump boasted, "Honestly, we have all the material. They don't have the material."
He told the Fox Business Network his Democratic accusers "are crazy. They have gone totally nuts." He called the lead House impeachment manager, Congressman Adam Schiff, "a fraud" and "a corrupt politician."
When asked about whether witness testimony should be part of the trial, Trump gave conflicting answers, saying it is up to the Senate to decide. He expressed a preference for Bolton and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry to testify, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but said their appearances would represent a "national security problem."
An initial set of trial rules proposed by McConnell would have limited the opening presentations by both the House impeachment managers and Trump's lawyers to 24 hours each spread over no more than two days. But the majority leader, facing opposition to the lengthy sessions from within his own Republican caucus, agreed to the 24 hours of arguments being spread over three days.
The original set of rules also left open the question of whether the Senate would admit into evidence the materials submitted by the House of Representatives from its various committee investigations. Those materials were accepted, with the stipulation that each side has the ability to make motions during the trial to try to remove certain pieces of information.
Trump's chief lawyer, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, called McConnell's trial rules "a fair way to proceed," and one that will result in the president's acquittal on both articles of impeachment because he has "done absolutely nothing wrong."
Schiff, the lead House manager and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that not voting on witnesses or subpoenaing documents at the trial's outset would make a "mockery" of the proceeding.
With no witnesses or new White House documents, Schiff said, "It's not a fair trial, or even a trial at all. Why should this trial be different than any other trial?"
McConnell, who is working with Trump's lawyers on trial strategy in an effort to acquit him quickly, rebuffed claims his trial parameters are not fair, saying, "Here in the Senate, the president's lawyers will finally receive a level playing field with the House Democrats, and will finally be able to present the president's case."
Two other U.S. presidents - Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 - were impeached by the House but acquitted in Senate trials, and remained in office.
U.S. President Richard Nixon faced almost certain impeachment in 1974 in the Watergate scandal, but resigned before the House acted.