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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include last-minute changes to the Senate trial rules from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to get through Trump's Senate trial as quickly as he can, but that plan hit a last-minute snafu.
And that unusual setback for McConnell suggests things might get more interesting than plenty of people have been expecting.
In a last-minute retreat under pressure from moderate GOP Senators, McConnell quietly agreed to allow an extra day for opening arguments for each side, backing down from a tighter schedule that would have forced Democrats to make their case against Trump until well after midnight over just two days. What’s more, evidence amassed against Trump by the House will be introduced automatically, rather than requiring a separate vote.
The unexpected changes raise a new question mark over McConnell’s ability to deliver a Senate proceeding perfectly aligned with Trump’s preferences, as McConnell has publicly pledged to do. The revisions, while modest, marked a rare defeat for a majority leader known for his vote-counting prowess.
Yet even McConnell’s revised rules break his repeated pledge to mirror the impeachment trial of former president Bill Clinton. Some important details remain crucially different, which has left Democrats furious.
“The Clinton comparison was a lie,” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement, shortly before McConnell revised the rules. “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.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and other GOP moderates also objected to some of the rules during the GOP luncheons on Tuesday, almost immediately before the trial began, which pushed McConnell to pull back.
“Senator Collins and others raised concerns about the 24 hours of opening statements in 2 days and the admission of the House transcript in the record,” Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark said in an email. “Her position has been that the trial should follow the Clinton model as much as possible. She thinks these changes are a significant improvement.”
Tuesday’s backpedaling showed there’s still room for surprises on the bigger issues in the trial. For example, a revolt among a handful of moderate Senate Republicans would make it easier for Democrats to call fresh witnesses who could deliver bombshell new testimony. But it still doesn’t mean the Senate will actually kick Trump out of office. Democrats only need four Republicans to change the trial rules, but about five times that many to end Trump’s presidency.
Here’s what the revised rules mean for Trump’s impeachment trial.
The rules give the same total amount of time for opening arguments as the Clinton trial: 24 hours. But now they introduce a new three-day limit per side to use their full time.
That’s more time than the original plan, which allowed just two days per side. Since opening arguments kick off after 1 p.m. Wednesday, the sessions could still easily stretch past 10 p.m., once bathroom breaks and dinner are included.
Daily trial sessions are scheduled to continue six days a week, including Saturday.
After House Democrats present the case for impeaching Trump starting Wednesday, Trump’s legal team will get their turn starting Saturday. Then, sometime next week, Senators will get up to 16 hours to ask questions, before deciding whether to call any new witnesses — a hot-button issue.
The case to impeach Trump will be laid out by a select team of seven members of the House of representatives, dubbed “impeachment managers,” including House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff.
For his defense team, Trump has chosen high-profile lawyers who regularly appear on Fox News, including the guy who led the impeachment charge against Clinton: Former Independent Counsel Ken Starr. He’ll be joined by Harvard professor and controversial television pundit Alan Dershowitz.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, will preside over the trial, although he can be overruled by a majority of Senators.
On Monday night, McConnell also threw a bombshell into the debate that’s already raging over whether to bring new witnesses in to testify at the Senate trial.
His plan calls for any new witnesses to appear in a private deposition before they testify publicly. That might allow Republican senators to keep the sworn testimony of new witnesses from being broadcast on national television during the course of the proceedings.
Such new witnesses might include former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who’s suggested he was present during key moments in Trump’s Ukraine saga that haven’t been testified about yet. Bolton said he would testify if he receives a subpoena, but a majority of the GOP-controlled Senate will need to approve one, and that outcome remains far from certain.
Another explosive potential witness is Lev Parnas, the ex-associate of Rudy Giuliani who claims he personally pressured Ukraine on behalf of Giuliani and Trump to launch an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden. Parnas has already turned over a large pile of documents to House investigators, which backs up parts of his story.
Return of the House GOP
On Monday night, the White House also announced that a thundering herd of House Republicans, who have vociferously argued in Trump’s favor, will also advise his impeachment team in the Senate.
The “initial list” features eight of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers from the House, including GOP firebrand Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, and the top-ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Doug Collins.
It’s not yet entirely clear what role they’ll have over the coming weeks in the Senate, where their presence may not be entirely welcomed by Republican Senators who tend to view their own chamber as more buttoned-up and straight-laced than the hurly-burly House of Representatives.
But the White House definitely wants these fiery defenders involved.
“The President looks forward to their continued participation and is confident that the Members will help expeditiously end this brazen political vendetta on behalf of the American people,” the White House said in a statement.
Cover image: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., listens as he speaks with reporters as the House prepares to send the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump to the Senate, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)