The US Senate has plunged into Donald Trump’s impeachment trial with Republicans abruptly abandoning plans to cram opening arguments into two days but rejecting Democratic demands for more witnesses to expose the president’s “trifecta” of offences.
A marathon session of nearly 13 hours started on Tuesday with a setback for Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and the president’s legal team, exposing a crack in the party ranks and growing political unease over the historic impeachment proceedings unfolding in an election year.
But it ended near 2am on Wednesday with Republicans easily approving the new trial rules largely on their terms.
“It’s about time we bring this power trip in for a landing,” said White House counsel Pat Cipollone, the president’s lead lawyer, lashing out at the House Democrats prosecuting the case.
“It’s a farce,” he said about the impeachment proceeding, “and it should end.”
Chief Justice John Roberts opened the session with House prosecutors on one side, Mr Trump’s team on the other as senators sat silently at their desks, under oath to do “impartial justice”.
As the day stretched deep into the night, lawyerly arguments gave way to more pointedly political ones. Tempers flared and senators paced the chamber as Democrats pursued a vote on hearing new evidence.
After one particularly bitter exchange, Judge Roberts intervened, taking the rare step of admonishing both the Democratic House managers and the White House counsel to “remember where they are”.
Over and over, Republicans turned back Democratic amendments to subpoena documents from the White House, State Department, Defence Department and budget office.
By the same 53-47 party-line, they turned away key witnesses to Mr Trump’s actions including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton, the former national security adviser critical of the Ukraine policy.
Earlier, Mr McConnell had stunned senators and delayed the start of proceedings with his decision to back off some of his proposed rules. Republicans were said to be concerned over the political optics of “dark of night” sessions.
Instead, 24 hours of opening arguments for each side will be spread over three days, for a moment swelling Democrats’ momentum as they push to break the standoff over calling new witnesses.
Mr Cipollone scoffed that the House charges against Mr Trump were “ridiculous”, insisting the president “has done absolutely nothing wrong”.
The White House legal team did not dispute the president’s actions, when he called Ukraine and asked for a “favour”, which was to investigate Democrat Joe Biden as the US was withholding military aid the ally desperately needed as it faced off with Russia on its border.
But the lawyers insisted the president did nothing wrong. “Absolutely no case,” Mr Cipollone said.
Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee leading the prosecution, 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”.
He said: “It is the trifecta of constitutional misconduct justifying impeachment.”
The impeachment trial, unfolding in election year, is testing whether Mr Trump’s actions towards Ukraine warrant removal at the same time that voters are forming their own verdict on his White House.
All four senators who are presidential candidates are off the campaign trail, seated as jurors. “My focus is going to be on impeachment,” independent Bernie Sanders told reporters.