President Donald Trump said Wednesday he's open to new witnesses at his impeachment trial, a major demand by Democratic prosecutors, but he immediately backtracked, suggesting it could never happen despite what he said was his willingness.
Separately, Trump's lawyers let a deadline pass without filing a motion to outright dismiss the articles of impeachment, ensuring that the trial will continue.
Trump, who was in Davos, Switzerland, for an economic conference, seemed at one point to break with Republican opposition to Democratic motions to immediately call witnesses and subpoena documents. He said he'd like to see aides, including former national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, testify as witnesses.
In fact, his administration is citing executive privilege as a reason they cannot be forced to testify, and he said Wednesday there are “national security” reasons for them to be kept out of the trial.
“The Senate is going to have to answer that," he said.
Republicans have resisted the idea of additional witnesses, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said there could be votes on the subject late in the trial. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate.
As for outright dismissal, Trump has taken both sides. He has said the charges are groundless and should be thrown out, but he also has said he wants a full trial to vindicate him.
Tuesday's daylong session started with a setback for McConnell and the president's legal team — agreement to give prosecutors more days to make their case — but it ended near 2 a.m. Wednesday with Republicans easily approving the rest of the trial rules largely on their terms.
With the rules settled, the trial is now on a fast track. At issue is whether Trump should be removed from office for abuse of power stemming from his pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden and Biden's son Hunter as Trump was withholding aid to the country, and for obstructing Congress' ensuing probe.
Chief Justice John Roberts gaveled open the session, with House prosecutors on one side, Trump's team on the other, in the well of the Senate, as senators sat silently at their desks, under oath to do “impartial justice.” No cellphones or other electronics were allowed.
As the day stretched deep into the night, lawyerly arguments gave way to more pointed political ones. Tempers flared and senators paced the chamber. Democrats pursued what may be their only chance to force senators to vote on hearing new testimony.
After one particularly bitter post-midnight exchange, Roberts intervened, admonishing both the Democratic House managers prosecuting the case and the White House counsel to “remember where they are.”
“I think it is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and the president's counsel in equal terms to remember that they are addressing the world's greatest deliberative body," the usually reserved Roberts said. He told them that description of the Senate stemmed from a 1905 trial when a senator objected to the word “pettifogging,” because members should "avoid speaking in a manner and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse.”
Over and over, Republicans turned back Democratic amendments to subpoena documents from the White House, State Department, Defense Department and budget office. By the same 53-47 party-line, they turned away witnesses with front-row seats to Trump's actions including acting White House chief of staff Mulvaney and Bolton, the former national security adviser critical of the Ukraine policy.
Only on one amendment, to allow more time to file motions, did a single Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, join Democrats. But it, too, was rejected, 52-48.
Motions from the Trump legal team were due Wednesday morning, but the attorneys didn't file any, said Jay Sekulow, one of the president's lawyers. That means there will be no motion to dismiss the case as some Republicans had discussed. The House also didn't file any of its own motions, and House managers were expected to begin their opening arguments when the floor opened around 1 p.m., according to a Senate Democratic aide.
On Tuesday, the proceedings quickly took on the cadence of a trial.
“It's not our job to make it easy for you," Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee leading the prosecution, told the Senate. “Our job is to make it hard to deprive the American people of a fair trial.”
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, the president's lead lawyer, called the trial “a farce.” He scoffed that the House charges against Trump were “ridiculous.”
The White House legal team did not dispute Trump's actions, when he called Ukraine and asked for a “favor,” which was to investigate Biden as he withheld military aid the ally desperately needed as it faced off with hostile Russia on its border. But the lawyers insisted the president did nothing wrong.
“Absolutely no case,” Cipollone said.
Schiff, the California Democrat, said America's Founders added the remedy of impeachment in the Constitution with “precisely this type of conduct in mind — conduct that abuses the power of office for a personal benefit, that undermines our national security, and that invites foreign interference in the democratic process of an election."
Said Schiff: "It is the trifecta of constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment.''
Sekulow, the other lead lawyer on Trump's team, retorted, “I'll give you a trifecta,” outlining complaints over the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry process.
In Davos, Trump repeated his attacks on Democratic House managers serving as prosecutors in the trial, saying that he'd like to "sit right in the front row and stare at their corrupt faces" on the Senate floor during the trial but that his attorneys might have a problem with it.
And he said he wants to deliver the State of the Union as scheduled on Feb. 4 even if the trial is ongoing, calling the address “very important to what I am doing” in setting his administration’s agenda.
The impeachment trial is set against the backdrop of the 2020 election. All four senators who are Democratic presidential candidates were off the campaign trail, seated as jurors.
No president has ever been removed from office. With its 53-47 Republican majority, the Senate is not expected to mount the two-thirds vote needed for conviction.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Eric Tucker, Alan Fram, Laurie Kellman, Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly, Padmananda Rama, Jamey Keaten, Darlene Superville Switzerland and David Pitt contributed to this report.