A Senate impeachment trial is expected. How it will work is very uncertain

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler gavels the committee to a close Thursday.
(Andrew Harrer / Getty Images)

As the House prepares to vote this week to impeach President Trump, leaders of the Senate began sparring Sunday over which witnesses each party might call in a trial, with both sides aware that opening a spigot of testimony could result in damaging counterattacks.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate minority leader, laid out his opening gambit in a letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the majority leader, urging that several senior Trump aides be summoned to testify before the Senate, including Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, and former national security advisor John Bolton.

Earlier Sunday, several key Senate Republicans publicly diverged over how to conduct the impeachment trial, which is expected to begin in January, with some calling for allegations against Trump to be summarily quashed and others advocating a lengthier process that would include summoning witnesses for fresh testimony.


Schumer’s letter said a Senate trial must “pass the fairness test with the American people.”

At the same time, however, Democrats want to avoid having a trial that’s intended to focus on Trump’s conduct devolve into a venue for airing Trump’s attacks against former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential Trump rival in 2020, and his son, Hunter.

Key Democrats in the House of Representatives, meanwhile, insisted that Trump’s all-but-certain acquittal in the Senate would not brand as a failure the House proceedings against the president. The House is expected to vote Wednesday to impeach Trump, with the resolution likely to pass on an almost entirely party-line vote.

The House Judiciary Committee last week approved two articles of impeachment against Trump, for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. A full House vote to adopt those articles would make Trump only the third U.S. president to be impeached.

In a round of appearances on Sunday’s news-talk shows, senior Republicans dealt with continuing fallout over McConnell’s assertion last week that there was “no chance” that Trump would be removed from office.

McConnell said in a Fox News interview that he was coordinating with — and taking cues from — the president’s lawyers on ground rules for the Senate showdown. Democrats protested that his statement disqualified him from being an impartial juror in an impeachment trial.


Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s most vociferous defenders, declared Sunday that he had already made up his mind, so there was no need for a drawn-out trial on whether Trump improperly pressured Ukraine’s president to dig up dirt on the former vice president.

“I’m not trying to hide the fact that I have disdain for the accusations in the process, so I don’t need any witnesses,” the South Carolina Republican said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Other Republicans, though, suggested the underlying facts needed airing, even while suggesting Trump would prevail.

“I think it would be extremely inappropriate to put a bullet in this thing immediately when it comes over,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Toomey signaled an emerging strategy for some GOP senators of broadly accepting Democratic assertions about the president’s actions while disagreeing on their gravity.

“There might be a lot of agreements” on facts, he said, but “I think there’s a big disagreement about what rises to a level of impeachment.”


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Trump opposes that line of argument because it concedes that at least some of his actions toward Ukraine were inappropriate. He continues to insist that his conduct was “perfect” and wants an extended trial in which his lawyers could demand testimony from Hunter Biden and other Democrats he has accused of misdeeds. He continued that strategy Sunday in a blizzard of tweets.

Some Republican senators have signed on to the idea of an extensive trial with the apparent aim of impugning the fairness of the House impeachment proceedings and attempting to tar the Bidens. Others, like Toomey, have said they aren’t prepared to say yet whether the Senate trial should include any live testimony.

On Sunday, that division among Republican senators remained apparent.

“If the president wants to call Hunter Biden, or wants to call the whistleblower, the Senate should allow [him] to do so,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said on ABC’s “This Week.” A whistleblower’s complaint in August raised serious concerns about a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, setting the impeachment process in motion.

During House hearings, public testimony by a dozen witnesses, including diplomats and current and former administration officials, portrayed an irregular foreign-policy back channel steered by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, with the alleged knowledge of several of Trump’s most high-level aides.

But the White House has blocked demands for documents and testimony from current and former senior administration figures including Mulvaney, Bolton and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.

Many Democrats, in both the House and Senate, have said that if Trump’s team had had any witnesses whose testimony would help clear him, they would have been allowed to appear already.


Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said on “Face the Nation” that witnesses should be called in the Senate trial, but “it appears to me there are no witnesses the president would want to call to exonerate himself.”

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, interviewed on “Meet the Press,” decried what he called Republicans’ refusal to consider the facts of the case.

“It’s why I’m so disappointed in my colleagues,” he said, “this ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ attitude that they don’t want to look at anything … that might disagree with their worldview of Republicanism and this president.”

Prospects for a near-party-line vote in the House appeared unchanged, although with the twist that one anti-impeachment Democrat, Rep. Jefferson Van Drew of New Jersey, is now reportedly preparing to switch his party affiliation — a step Trump tweeted Sunday would be “very smart.”

Van Drew, a conservative Democrat in his first term, faced polls in his southern New Jersey district that showed he would probably lose a Democratic primary if he voted against impeachment. He hopes Trump’s backing will enable him to win the Republican nomination for a second term.

Only one other Democrat, Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, is considered a likely vote against impeachment, although a couple of others who represent districts Trump carried in 2016 are still undeclared.


Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party to become an independent after he announced his support for impeachment, is the only non-Democrat expected to vote for impeachment.

Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a Republican who is retiring and had initially seemed open to the idea that Trump’s actions were cause for concern, signaled he would probably stay in the Republican fold.

“You can vote against impeachment but still disagree with some of the policies and some of the behavior,” the former CIA officer said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

With an end to the House proceedings in sight, the two principal committee chairmen handling the issue — Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) — said the prospect of Trump winning acquittal in the Senate did nothing to diminish the effort.

“It isn’t a failure — at least it’s not a failure in the sense of our constitutional duty,” Schiff, the head of the Intelligence Committee, said on “This Week.” On the same program, Nadler, who heads the Judiciary Committee, said Trump’s pattern of behavior amounted to a continuing menace.

“He poses a continuing threat to our national security and to the integrity of our elections, to our democratic system itself,” Nadler said. “We cannot permit that to continue.”