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McConnell lays out rules for Trump's Senate trial, allowing for vote on witnesses, documents

Opening arguments begin Wednesday on a compressed timeline, which Democrats protested along with the decision not to automatically admit House evidence.
Image: Senate Begins Pre-Trial Impeachment Proceedings
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell arrives at the Capitol on Jan. 16, 2020.Alex Wong / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will allot each side a total of 24 hours to present their arguments in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, but the time must be confined to two working days, according to the initial text of his organizing resolution, which NBC News obtained Monday.

The proposal also suggested that none of the evidence collected as part of the House's impeachment inquiry would be admitted automatically. Instead, according to the text, the Senate would vote later on whether to admit any documents.

But the proposal was later revised to allow three days of arguments. It also allowed the evidence to be admitted automatically unless there's an objection, rather than requiring a pro-active vote to admit it.

Arguments will begin Wednesday at 1 p.m., according to the rules McConnell laid out, setting up several long days for Senate jurors. Democrats had protested that the rules would push arguments to late hours and make it harder to introduce evidence, although the rules do allow a vote on whether witnesses will be called to testify.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had said initial McConnell's rules "depart dramatically" from the precedent set during President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial in 1999 "in ways that are designed to prevent the Senate and the American people from learning the full truth about President Trump's actions that warranted his impeachment."

"The McConnell rules don't even allow the simple, basic step of admitting the House record into evidence at the trial," he said, adding that he would be offering amendments "to address the many flaws in this deeply unfair proposal."

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The four-page organizing resolution, which the Senate is expected to adopt Tuesday, lays out the initial parameters of the trial. The first two pages indicated that evidence collected by the House won't be automatically admitted for the trial. Instead, it says the Senate would have to hold a vote later, sometime after the initial stage of the trial, for materials to be admitted. That provision was ultimately revised.

Under the resolution, House impeachment managers prosecuting the case against Trump would deliver their arguments first, with the challenge of compressing weeks of testimony and hundreds of pages of evidence into 24 hours over the course of two Senate days.

Once the prosecution's time is up, Trump's defense team will take over. In a brief prepared for submission to the Senate on Monday, the president's legal team made the case that he did "absolutely nothing wrong," is the victim of a partisan plot to take him down and should be swiftly acquitted.

After both sides present, senators will then have the opportunity to ask questions in writing for a period of 16 hours. Once that concludes, the Senate will consider "the question of whether it shall be in order to consider and debate under the impeachment rules any motion to subpoena witnesses or documents."

The Senate would then vote on whether to move forward with witnesses or documents. Democrats need the support of four Senate Republicans, who control the chamber, to make it to that stage.

The resolution makes it clear that if witnesses and documents are approved, the witnesses must first be deposed "and the Senate shall decide after deposition which witnesses shall testify."

"No testimony shall be admissible in the Senate unless the parties have had an opportunity to depose such witnesses," it adds.

Depositions typically occur behind closed doors, as was done with witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry last year.

The resolution makes no mention of a motion to dismiss the case, although it leaves the door open for motions to be made by Wednesday morning.

The introduction of the resolution comes just hours before the trial is set to begin in earnest Tuesday and after Senate Democrats and the House's impeachment managers expressed frustration about being kept in the dark about procedural details, although several Republican senators had offered clues.

Trump weighed in on the trial Monday morning before McConnell's proposal was made public, suggesting on Twitter that it's not fair to him that Democrats didn't call certain witnesses during the House's impeachment inquiry whom they now want to question during the Senate trial.

House impeachment investigators had asked that Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton testify about what he knew about the president's dealings with Ukraine at the heart of their inquiry. Bolton, who was not subpoenaed, said he would testify before the House only if he was subpoenaed and a judge ordered him to appear. However, he indicated this month that he was willing to appear as a witness in the Senate trial if subpoenaed.

The other witnesses whom Senate Democrats have said they'd like to call for testimony were subpoenaed during the House inquiry, but they chose not to comply at the direction of the White House.

Trump also slammed Schumer and other Democrats for now asking for a fair trial even after he said Democrats had made sure he got "ZERO fairness in the House."

Speaking to reporters on a conference call Sunday night, a Democratic aide working on the Senate trial called the prospect of 12 hours a day of presentations, excluding breaks, a "complete sham."

"The House managers have absolutely no idea what the structure of trial is going to be, and the notion that the House managers are going into a trial that begins on Tuesday without knowing what the structure is is completely unfathomable," the aide said.

The aide added that the House managers "strongly object" to the format and argued that if the rumored schedule is true, it is Senate Republicans "trying to hide the president's misconduct in the dead of night rather than putting it in the light of day."

The House impeached Trump last month on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

During Clinton's trial, the House's Republican managers had three days to deliver their opening arguments, using about four to six hours each day. Clinton's White House defense team also used three days to deliver its arguments, taking two to four hours each day.

Last week, ahead of the full House vote to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., named seven House Democrats as the impeachment managers who would serve as prosecutors in Trump's trial.

The team — Reps. Adam Schiff of California, who will be the lead manager; Jerry Nadler and Hakeem Jeffries of New York; Jason Crow of Colorado; Zoe Lofgren of California; Val Demings of Florida; and Sylvia Garcia of Texas — worked through the weekend preparing for the trial.

The Democratic aide said managers met Sunday to discuss their strategy, review their arguments and refine their individual presentations, saying all seven will have speaking roles during the trial.

Managers met again Monday morning on Capitol Hill and did a walkthrough in the Senate later in the day. Trump's defense team also did a final walkthrough on the Senate floor Monday.