WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled ground rules Monday for President Donald Trump's impeachment trial to attempt to speed the proceeding along and refuse to admit the evidence against the president unearthed by the House without a separate vote.
McConnell showed his hand hours after Trump's legal team called on the Senate to "swiftly reject" the impeachment charges and acquit him, arguing that Democrats would "permanently weaken the presidency" if they succeeded in removing him from office over what the team characterized as policy and political differences.
In a 110-page brief submitted to the Senate the day before Trump's trial begins in earnest, the president's lawyers advanced their first sustained legal argument since the House opened its inquiry in the fall, contending that the two charges approved largely along party lines were constitutionally flawed and set a dangerous precedent.
Trump's lawyers dismissed the validity of both articles of impeachment lodged against him — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — because they do not state any specific violation of the law, advancing a constrained and widely rejected interpretation of the power to impeach a president. While the lawyers did not contest the basic facts of the case, they maintained that Democrats' accusations in effect seek to punish Trump for foreign policy decisions and efforts to preserve executive prerogatives.
"They do not remotely approach the constitutional threshold for removing a president from office," the brief said. "The diluted standard asserted here would permanently weaken the presidency and forever alter the balance among the branches of government in a manner that offends the constitutional design established by the founders."
McConnell's trial rules, which also limited each side's arguments to 24 hours over two days, gave the White House a helping hand at the outset and drew swift anger from Democrats. The rules left open the possibility that the Senate could not only decline to hear new evidence not uncovered in the House impeachment inquiry, but could also sidestep considering the House case against Trump altogether — although such a vote is considered unlikely.
"Under this resolution, Senator McConnell is saying he doesn't want to hear any of the existing evidence, and he doesn't want to hear any new evidence," said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer "It's a coverup, and the American people will see it for exactly what it is." He promised to propose changes during what promises to be a rancorous Senate debate over the rules Tuesday.
In their own detailed legal brief submitted Saturday, the House impeachment managers outlined their case that Trump corruptly solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election for his own benefit by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations into his political rivals while withholding nearly $400 million in security aid the country desperately needed, as well as a coveted White House meeting for its president.
"President Trump did not engage in this corrupt conduct to uphold the presidency or protect the right to vote," the seven House Democratic impeachment managers said Monday in a second filing that rebutted many of the president's assertions. "He did it to cheat in the next election and bury the evidence when he got caught."
"Mr. Trump's answer to the charges offers an unconvincing and implausible defense against the factual allegations in Article I," the managers wrote. "The 'simple facts' that it recites confirm President Trump's guilt, not his innocence."
The legal brief filed by Trump's lawyers did not deny that Trump asked Ukraine to announce the investigations into Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, nor that he withheld military aid that Congress had approved for Kiev. But his lawyers said that the president never tied the investigations to a White House meeting or the security assistance. And in any case, they argued that the president has the right to conduct relations with other countries as he sees fit and that he had valid reasons to raise those issues with Ukraine because he wanted to root out corruption there and get other countries to share the burden of providing military aid.
The lawyers dismissed the notion that doing so was an abuse of power, as outlined in the first article of impeachment, calling that a "novel theory" and a "newly invented" offense that would allow Congress to second-guess presidents for legitimate policy choices.
"House Democrats' concocted theory that the president can be impeached for taking permissible actions if he does them for what they believe to be the wrong reasons would also expand the impeachment power beyond constitutional bounds," the brief said. "It is the president who defines foreign policy," it added, and said that Trump had "legitimate concerns" in raising the issues involving Democrats with the Ukrainians.
The lawyers argued that the second article, accusing Trump of obstructing Congress by blocking testimony and refusing to turn over documents during the House impeachment inquiry, was "frivolous and dangerous."