WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats won two key changes to the rules of President Donald Trump's impeachment trial as proceedings kicked off Tuesday afternoon.
The changes will permit each side to stretch out the 24 total hours they've been allotted for making arguments over three days, instead of two, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had initially proposed. The changes will also automatically admit into evidence the entire record of the House impeachment probe into Trump last fall.
The surprise last-minute changes were revealed Tuesday afternoon during a formal reading on the Senate floor of the resolution governing the rules of the trial. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer later confirmed the changes to CNBC.
"After massive pressure from Senate Democrats and the public, Senator McConnell has made two changes to his organizing resolution for the Senate impeachment trial," Schumer aide Justin Goodman said in an email.
"1. The House record will now automatically be admitted into evidence (under McConnell's' original resolution, the Senate would have to vote to add it in) 2. Each side now has three days to make their opening statements (McConnell's original resolution said it had to be done over two days)," Goodman wrote.
A spokesman for McConnell did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how the change came about. But one clue to McConnell's thinking may lie in the fact that there are distinct benefits for Trump and the GOP in how Tuesday's events unfolded.
McConnell is known for his exceptionally shrewd use of Senate rules to help him accomplish political objectives, and his last-minute changes to the trial rules seem to have been no exception.
While the decision might have initially looked like a concession to the Democrats, it also served McConnell's aims.
By waiting as long as he did to announce the changes, McConnell ensured that his Democratic counterparts spent the day before the trial focused primarily on objecting to the specifics of those two rules.
"McConnell seems to want a trial with no existing evidence and no new evidence," Schumer said at a Tuesday morning news conference. He also accused McConnell of mandating the tight timeline in order to keep the public from seeing the trial live on TV.
Yet by essentially keeping Schumer busy fighting for evidence and more time, McConnell ensured that less attention and political firepower would be paid to a third contentious issue in the trial rules: Whether or not the Senate will hear from live witnesses.
A Democratic win in the debate over live witnesses would likely have far more serious implications for the president than whether opening arguments were limited to two days or three.
In a surprise move earlier this month, former Trump national security advisor John Bolton formally announced that he would be willing to testify in a Senate trial if he were subpoenaed to do so. Bolton was at the center of the White House national security apparatus during key moments at issue in the impeachment articles, and should he actually testify under oath, Bolton's account would likely be damaging to the president.
Trump is charged with abusing his power by withholding foreign aid to Ukraine in order to force the country to launch high-profile investigations into Trump's political opponents. He is also charged with obstructing Congress by prohibiting top aides from testifying before the House last year. He has denied any wrongdoing.
McConnell has so far said that senators will be asked to vote on the witness question later in the trial, after they've heard arguments from each side. But Democrats say that amounts to voting on witnesses after the trial is essentially over.
The final rules also leave open the option of holding a vote to dismiss the charges against Trump outright, via a motion on the Senate floor. While only a simple 51-vote majority would be required to pass that motion, a handful of the 53 Republicans in the chamber have suggested they would not vote to dismiss the charges.
Still, it is highly unlikely that two-thirds of the Senate will vote to convict and remove a Republican president. Trump is only the third president in American history to be impeached, and so far no Senate Republicans have said they will vote to convict him.
Opening arguments in the trial are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, and continue well into next week.