WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Tuesday morning, Chief Justice John Roberts donned his black robe and oversaw two arguments at the Supreme Court before heading across the street to the U.S. Capitol where he presided over the trial in the Senate chamber.
Roberts, the chief justice for the past 14 years, is tasked with a new public role as the presiding officer over the Senate trial. Supreme Court proceedings aren’t televised as they are in the Senate.
It is only the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history, coming just weeks before the first primaries of the 2020 election season.
House Democrats impeached the president last month on two charges: abuse of power by withholding U.S. military aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation and obstruction of Congress by refusing to comply with their investigation.
The president’s legal team has argued that Trump did “absolutely nothing wrong” and urged the Senate to swiftly reject the “flawed” case against him.
On the eve of the impeachment trial, Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed a compressed calendar for opening statements but adjusted the proposed rules Tuesday to add a third day for opening arguments.
Voting on the Republican leader’s resolution was scheduled for Tuesday evening. The rules package also delays a vote bringing in witnesses until later in the process — which mirrors the process for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.
The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, called the GOP leader’s proposed rules package a “national disgrace.”
“It’s time to start with this trial,” said White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, the president’s lead lawyer in brief remarks as the proceedings opened in public.
“It’s a fair process,” he said. “There is absolutely no case.”
Chief Justice John Roberts gaveled open the session, senators having taken an oath last week to do “impartial justice” as jurors. House prosecutors were on one side, Trump’s team on the other, in the well of the Senate.
“This is not a process for a fair trial; this is the process for a rigged trial” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Ca., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee leading the prosecution, told reporters.
Schiff opened his arguments before the Senate playing a video of Trump calling for more witnesses to testify. Schiff noted the sudden change in proposed rules, made moments before he spoke.
“The facts will come out in the end,” Schiff said. “The question is, will it come out in time?”
McConnell said, “The president’s lawyers will finally receive a level playing field,” contrasting it with the House impeachment inquiry.
The rare impeachment trial, unfolding in an election year, is testing whether Trump’s actions toward Ukraine warrant removal at the same time that voters are forming their own verdict on his White House.
Just weeks before the first Democratic primary contests, four senators who are also presidential candidates were off the campaign trail, seated as jurors.
“My focus is going to be on impeachment,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent running for the Democratic nomination, told reporters. He said his supporters would keep working “to defeat the most dangerous president in American history.”
Trump’s legal team doesn’t dispute the content of Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian leader. In fact, the lawyers included the rough transcript of Trump’s conversation as part of its 110-page trial brief submitted ahead of the proceedings.
Instead the lawyers for the president, led Cipollone and a TV-famous legal team including Alan Dershowitz, said the two charges against the president don’t amount to impeachable offenses, and Trump committed no crime.
As the actual case begins, the legal filings to the Senate have laid out the arguments that will be made by the House Democrats and by Trump’s defense team.
Democrats say Trump abused the power of his office by asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July 25 phone call to announce an investigation of whether Joe Biden intervened to stop a Ukrainian investigation related to his son, Hunter. At the time, Trump was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to the country. Democrats say this was a solicitation to interfere in U.S. politics.
Trump’s lawyers, meanwhile, contend there’s no evidence beyond hearsay that the president conditioned the release of aid on Ukraine agreeing to an investigation. The money was released without any investigations being undertaken — and, they say, Zelenskiy didn’t even know it had been suspended until shortly before it was released.
The legal team says that Trump had legitimate concerns about corruption in Ukraine and that it was appropriate for him to bring up Biden on the call since his son Hunter sat on the board of a gas company, Burisma, that was suspected of corruption.
In any event, Trump’s lawyers said pauses on foreign aid are neither unusual nor inappropriate, and it’s a decision that rests squarely with the commander of chief. Presidents have the right to exert their authority without their political opponents second-guessing their motive or intent, they argue.
On the other impeachment count, the Democrats allege that Trump obstructed Congress during the impeachment investigation, directing witnesses not to testify or turn over documents.
The Trump legal team says there’s nothing novel about the administration’s defiance.
The lawyers said close and senior advisers to the president have long been understood to be immune from congressional testimony. On Monday, they pointed to opinions from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Opinion that supported that stance.
A broader argument that was on display as the trial began concerns whether either of the charges against Trump constitute an impeachable offense under the U.S. Constitution. Democrats say Trump’s conduct is precisely what the country’s Founding Fathers had in mind when they created the mechanism to impeach and remove a president from power.
The Constitution sets a standard of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” for impeachment, and according to Democrats, it’s a flexible enough threshold to “reach the full range of potential Presidential misconduct.”
Whether the allegations need not amount to crimes is a very significant point of contention. Trump’s lawyers argue that an impeachable “offense requires especially egregious conduct that threatens the constitutional order and, specifically, that it requires a violation of established law.”
Nothing the president is accused of, they say, comes close to meeting that standard. And removing Trump from office under these facts would dilute the standards of impeachment, permanently weaken the power of the presidency and allow a “hostile House to attack almost any presidential action by challenging a President’s subjective motives.”
One member of the president’s legal team, Alan Dershowitz, said in Sunday talk shows that an impeachable offense must amount to “criminal-like conduct.” Some legal scholars have disputed that stance, and Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, called it an “absurdist position.”
Ultimately, it’s up to the Senate to decide. A two-thirds vote on either charge is required to convict the president and remove him from office. No president has ever been removed from office by the Senate.