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Senate sets impeachment rules in trial's marathon first day

During a break in the Senate impeachment trial Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer responds to a question from the news media just off the Senate floor in the US Capitol.

[WASHINGTON] The US Senate set the rules for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, setting a more relaxed timeline but sticking with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan to put off the question of calling additional witnesses.

The rules resolution, which passed 53-47, made concessions to some Republicans who pushed for House prosecutors and Mr Trump's defence to have three days to present their arguments, rather than the two days Mr McConnell originally proposed. The final rules hew more closely to the precedent from the 1999 trial of President Bill Clinton, as Mr McConnell pledged he would do.

The trial's first working day shows that even after some dissent behind closed doors, Republicans so far are supporting Mr McConnell on public votes. Over the course of more than 12 hours, all 53 Republican senators voted to shelve 11 amendments from Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to subpoena new documents and testimony.

This sets up a trial that could conclude as soon as next week if no new witnesses are called. With Mr Trump all but certain to be acquitted in the majority-Republican chamber, Democrats used their first day on the Senate stage to build a case against the president intended to resonate with voters, if not with the senators serving as jurors.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, leading the team of seven impeachment managers, argued in favour of Mr Schumer's subpoenas, asking senators if they did, in fact, want to hear from the administration officials with first hand knowledge of Mr Trump's actions regarding Ukraine.

Mr Schiff and his fellow House Democrats also began laying out the evidence for the abuse-of-power and obstruction-of-Congress charges with prepared slides and video clips of witnesses speaking in last year's House hearings.

Mr Trump's defence team, led by White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, said the House should have asked courts to enforce subpoenas for the witnesses they're now seeking, even though it was the Trump administration that prohibited officials from participating.

The arguments got heated as Tuesday stretched into Wednesday. Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the trial, asked the House managers and Trump's legal team to "remember where they are," after each side suggested that the other wasn't telling the truth.

"It is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and president's counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world's greatest deliberative body," Mr Roberts said shortly before 1 am in Washington. "One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse."

Wielding a 53-47 Senate majority, it will be up to Republicans to maintain their partisan unity behind Mr McConnell, who publicly vowed to coordinate strategy with the White House.

The challenge for Democrats will be to convince at least four Republicans to join them on procedural votes, including the next fight over calling new witnesses.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who is considered a key vote on this issue, defended her vote against Mr Schumer's initial amendment by saying she supports deferring the question on additional testimony until after senators have the chance to ask questions of the House managers and Trump's defence team.

The first day of the trial featured Mr Schiff and his House colleagues jumping straight into the legal case against the president. Mr Schiff said the House's impeachment articles are "the most serious charges against a president," and he urged senators to conduct a fair trial that uncovers the truth about Mr Trump's actions.

Mr Cipollone and Mr Trump's defense team echoed the president's public claims that the charges against him are "ridiculous" and the impeachment process is unconstitutional. Mr Cipollone asserted that most Americans are turned off by such long hours of repetitive arguments.

Colorado Democrat Jason Crow, one of the House managers, countered that people actually do care about the charges facing the president, even if they aren't following every development of the Senate trial.

"I don't think the American people care very much whether people in Washington are sitting around debating all the time," Mr Crow said. "What they are concerned about is whether their government is working for them, whether there's corruption in their government, and that's what this debate is about."

The main complaint Democrats have with Mr McConnell's resolution is that it would delay the question of whether to call additional witnesses until after each side presents its case and senators have the chance to ask questions. Mr Schumer spent the day pushing for an immediate decision on seeking more evidence and said the last-minute changes to Mr McConnell's resolution show the pressure is working.

"The public is realising how unfair leader Mr McConnell's resolution is, and they are telling Republican senators to change it," Mr Schumer said. "The real test will be witnesses and documents. Will our Republican senators pressure McConnell so we will have witnesses and documents produced."

Trump's eventual acquittal appears virtually assured, with a super-majority of 67 votes needed to convict him and not a single GOP senator suggesting Trump deserves to be removed from office. The trial's real wild card is its political impact in a year when control of the White House and both chambers of Congress are in play.

The presidential impeachment trial, only the third in US history, comes amid polling that shows most Americans support bringing in new witnesses and other evidence.

More than three in four Americans say Trump administration officials, and the president himself, should be invited to testify before the Senate, according to a poll from Monmouth University released Tuesday. Two other recent polls showed similar results. The Monmouth survey also found that 57% of Americans say the House managers should be able to introduce new evidence to support the two articles of impeachment.

The White House and impeachment managers released filings on Monday in which both sides argued that constitutional separation of powers is at stake in the trial.

The president's 171-page filing contends that the House failed to prove that the president explicitly linked aid for Ukraine to an investigation Trump sought into former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking to challenge Mr Trump in the November election. The president's lawyers argued that the Senate should swiftly reject the impeachment articles.

House impeachment managers had a few strategic moves of their own. In a letter Tuesday, they said Mr Cipollone, who is Mr Trump's lead defence lawyer, is himself a "fact witness" who must turn over evidence and whose trial involvement raises ethical questions.

"You must disclose all facts and information as to which you have first-hand knowledge that will be at issue in connection with evidence you present or arguments you make in your role as the president's legal advocate so that the Senate and chief justice can be apprised of any potential ethical issues, conflicts, or biases," they wrote to Mr Cipollone.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley dismissed the move as "completely absurd."

Mr McConnell's proposal doesn't specifically include a motion to dismiss the charges against Trump, after the majority leader said there wasn't enough Senate support to pass it. However, the resolution allows for that option, and the White House has said it is reserving its right to use it.

The trial will resume Wednesday with additional procedural votes and, potentially, the start of the 24 hours that House impeachment managers will have to present their case. That time can be divided over three days and could include a Saturday session.

The House argument will be followed by the same amount of time allotted to Mr Trump's defence team. Senators will then have 16 hours to ask questions.

That could be followed by an actual vote to hear additional testimony.

Mr McConnell initially pressed his rank and file to coalesce behind a plan to have no witnesses, but he bowed to the demands of four Republican senators who insisted that there at least be a vote on whether to call witnesses. Those senators are Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Ms Collins, Ms Murkowski and Mr Romney have each indicated they could be inclined to vote with Democrats on specific witnesses, but they haven't committed to doing so.