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House and Senate leaders tussle over Trump impeachment trial

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to his office after delivering remarks on the Senate Floor.
(Shawn Thew/ EPA/Shutterstock)

A day after the Democratic-led House impeached President Trump, House and Senate leaders argued Thursday over how his Senate trial will be conducted, with the two articles of impeachment likely to remain in limbo until at least early January as a result of the spat.

The Republican-led Senate is almost certain to acquit Trump of the two charges, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, once it receives them. But the House delay in transmitting them means his trial, and presumed vindication, could be pushed back.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) did not forward the articles of impeachment to the Senate before Congress left for the year on Thursday, saying she wants assurances the Senate will conduct a fair and full trial.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) met Thursday afternoon to discuss ground rules, such as how long the trial should last and whether witnesses will be called. They did not reach an agreement, however.

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Earlier in the day, McConnell made political hay about the House delay, saying Democrats are “too afraid ... to transmit their shoddy work product to the Senate.”

The trial will probably limit the Senate’s legislative work for weeks. It also could influence the Supreme Court calendar because the Constitution requires the chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr., to preside over the Senate trial.

Withholding the articles appeared intended to pressure Republicans to accept at least some Democratic demands to start the process. Democrats want the Senate to call as witnesses several current and former Trump aides who refused to testify in the House, but McConnell has rebuffed those pleas.

Trump wants the Senate to acquit him of the two impeachment charges. The first involves his efforts to use U.S. foreign policy in Ukraine to boost his reelection chances. The second involves his refusal to release documents or allow witnesses to testify to the House about the alleged scheme.

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The latest twist in the impeachment drama represents a clear political irony.

Republicans bitterly complained about lack of “process” during the House inquiry. Now Democrats have picked up the charge as the impeachment moves to the Senate, saying Republicans haven’t committed to a fair, impartial trial.

Democrats also shifted course by deliberately waiting to transmit the articles needed to start the Senate trial despite weeks of arguing that Trump’s alleged misconduct was so severe that they had to act swiftly to impeach him.

“They’re playing games.... They’re not allowed to do that,” Trump told reporters Thursday.

McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday that Pelosi’s refusal to forward the articles showed that the three-month House impeachment inquiry was flawed and unfair, and that Democrats are afraid to give Trump his day in court.

It takes a simple Senate majority to set the impeachment trial rules, and Democrats could try to sway moderate Republicans who may be concerned enough about the president’s conduct to help them keep the rules from benefiting Trump too much.

On Wednesday night, Pelosi questioned why Democrats should participate in a Senate trial without knowing the ground rules given McConnell’s claim last week that he is “taking my cues” from the White House in shaping the trial.

Pelosi said she would not name the House “managers,” Democratic lawmakers who will present evidence to the Senate, until it’s clear how the trial will be conducted.

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“So far we haven’t seen anything that looks fair to us,” she said. “But right now, the president is impeached.”

Once Pelosi names them, the full House must vote to approve the managers, and the articles of impeachment cannot be transmitted to the Senate until it does so.

The managers resolution could be approved by voice vote during a procedural meeting over the holidays. But that would require Republican consent. Every Republican voted no on the articles of impeachment.

On Thursday, Pelosi said House managers were not chosen for President Clinton’s trial in 1999 until after Senate trial rules were set. Knowing the rules would help her determine how many managers are needed and who should be picked, she told reporters.

“Frankly I don’t care what the Republicans say,” Pelosi said.

McConnell countered that senators set rules for the length of Clinton’s trial before it began, but waited to decide whether to hear from witnesses after hearing opening statements from each side. Clinton’s trial lasted five weeks, videotaped testimony from three witnesses was shown, and the Senate acquitted him on both counts.

“We remain at an impasse because my friend the Democratic Leader continues to demand a new and different set of rules for President Trump,” McConnell said.

Pelosi and Schumer huddled Thursday morning in the speaker’s office. Schumer and McConnell met several hours later.

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Schumer had previously asked McConnell to reconsider the Democrat’s proposal this week to call four witnesses for the trial, including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security advisor John Bolton.

Justin Goodman, a Schumer spokesman, said Democrats believe the witnesses and documents withheld from the House “are essential to a fair Senate trial.”

Schumer had proposed starting the week of Jan. 6 and allowing up to 126 hours of statements, testimony and deliberations — meaning a trial of at least three weeks.

McConnell largely shot down that request this week and has suggested he wants a short trial without witnesses.

“Is the president’s case so weak that none of the president’s men can defend him under oath?” Schumer said on the Senate floor Thursday. “If the House case is so weak, why is leader McConnell so afraid of witnesses and documents?”

Senate Republicans questioned what Pelosi is trying to achieve by waiting.

“Either she thinks she has leverage, which she does not have, or she’s undermining her own message about the seriousness of this proceeding,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “This idea that they would somehow decide to withhold the articles of impeachment pending some accommodation by the Senate is ridiculous. And it’s not going to happen. So I don’t know what kind of games they are playing.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who conducted depositions for Democrats during Clinton’s impeachment trial, chided lawmakers for making their positions known ahead of the trial.

“People aren’t helping the Senate’s reputation by saying, ‘Well we’ve already made up our mind and we’re coordinating with the defendant,’” he said, referring to McConnell’s vow to work with Trump’s lawyers. “Everybody settle down a little bit.”

Given the heated passions of impeachment, he said, it’s high time for lawmakers to go home for the holidays.

“I’ve been saying quietly to a lot of senators in both parties, ‘Go home, take a deep breath, and let’s come back and do it the way we should,’” Leahy said.

Staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington contributed to this report.


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