Trump’s Impeachment Trial Gives Upper Hand to McConnell, GOP

Billy House
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Trump’s Impeachment Trial Gives Upper Hand to McConnell, GOP

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats set the rules for their impeachment of Donald Trump, but once House Speaker Nancy Pelosi kicks the process over to the Senate for a trial the advantage and leverage will be with the president and Republicans.

Three years of political and legal drama, investigations and stand-offs will reach a more intensive stage this week when Pelosi names the House managers, who’ll serve as the prosecutors in the Senate proceedings, and transmits the two articles of impeachment.

Republicans will quickly move to adopt a resolution codifying Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s rules for the trial, which will set off the next phase of a battle over whether to call witnesses, including former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton, and consider new evidence. With a tight grip on the GOP majority, the Kentucky Republican will have a major say in how that plays out.

Pelosi plans to meet with House Democrats on Tuesday to determine the timing for sending the impeachment articles to the Senate. She insisted Sunday the three-week delay in the process she engineered succeeded in putting political pressure on McConnell and Senate Republicans.

“They take an oath to take -- have a fair trial, and we think that would be with witnesses and documentation,” Pelosi said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Now the ball is in their court to either do that, or pay a price for not doing it.”

Thin Precedent

It will be only the third impeachment trial of a president in U.S. history, making it an event with thin precedent and -- coming roughly 10 months before the 2020 election -- unique political implications. Trump would be the first chief executive set to be on the ballot for re-election following what is all but certain to be an acquittal.

The election year also may play into the effort by Democrats to call witnesses.

They need only four GOP senators to join them in a vote on getting testimony and have been focusing winning over Republicans who are either facing tough re-election fights this year or have shown willingness to act independently in the past, including Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Utah’s Mitt Romney.

Collins, one of the most vulnerable Republican senators facing re-election this year, said on Friday she’s been working with some of her fellow Republicans on an agreement for either the House managers or Trump’s defense team to call witnesses “if they choose to do so.”

Witness Fight

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have said Democrats want to hear from witnesses who Trump blocked from testifying during the House impeachment inquiry into his dealings with Ukraine, including Bolton and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. However, there are risks for Democrats.

“Hearing from John Bolton is fine, because I’m guessing at this point, it’d be hard to tell if he’s a prosecution or defense witness,” Senator Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican, said.

And although McConnell has tried to tamp down any move to call witnesses, Trump has repeatedly suggested he wanted testimony from House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff and former Vice President Joe Biden, dragging a potential 2020 challenger into the drama.

It’s not yet clear whether there would be 51 Republican votes to end the trial without witnesses or documents. And, as McConnell noted, if there are witnesses, they might not all be ones Democrats want to hear from; Trump can also call witnesses if he desires. and if the Senate agrees.

Trump turned to Twitter on Sunday to denounce the impeachment process once again. “Why should I have the stigma of Impeachment attached to my name when I did NOTHING wrong?” he tweeted.

Trump also threw his support behind a move to actually reject the impeachment process without a trial, saying that absent such a dismissal, “it gives the partisan Democrat Witch Hunt credibility that it otherwise does not have.”

Braun said resolving the dispute over witnesses might depend on Democrats agreeing that Trump’s defense team would also be allowed to seek testimony that wasn’t heard during the House impeachment proceedings.

“I think it’s a non-starter if it’s not reciprocal,” Braun said.

‘Pandora’s Box’

Representative Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican, said both sides might be better served by skipping witnesses, who could divert the process in unexpected directions.

“Both sides realize what a Pandora’s box it is for everyone,” he said.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump ally, said Republicans should hold firm and reject Democratic attempts to extend the trial, predicting that it would be ended “in a matter of days, not weeks.”

“The Senate should end this trial as quickly as possible. That’s what I intend to do,” the South Carolina Republican said Saturday on Fox News.

Pelosi said that if McConnell and Republicans try to short-circuit the trial they “will be accountable to the American people for that.”

“This president is impeached for life, regardless of any gamesmanship on the part of Mitch McConnell,” Pelosi said on ABC.

Presidential Candidates

There is a another pitfall for Democrats. A successful vote to extend the trial for witnesses could potentially kick the impeachment past the Feb. 3 Iowa Caucus. There now are four Democratic senators among the candidates seeking their party’s presidential nomination after Senator Cory Booker ended his bid on Monday. They include Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who with Biden are among the leading candidates. They would be pinned down in Washington during the trial, keeping them off the campaign trail.

Once Pelosi names the House impeachment managers and transmits the articles to the Senate, it could still take days to get the trial fully up and running, though it would likely bring other Senate business to a halt. Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho said they’d first have to summon the president for his defense, a formal process that he said can take days.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone and attorney Jay Sekulow set are to head up the president’s defense team. There’s a question about whether some House Republicans who staunchly advocated for Trump during the impeachment inquiry, such as Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, will be added to the team.

Republicans had 13 managers for the Clinton trial, but Pelosi is expected to name a smaller House team.

Schiff and House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nader will likely be among those on the prosecution team, according to a Michigan lawmaker who serves on the House Democratic leadership team.

“Talented group, obviously with Adam Schiff and Nadler -- one would expect them,” Representative Dan Kildee said on CNN Monday.

The House approved the two articles of impeachment against Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Dec. 18 after dramatic and partisan-charged investigations and hearings into his dealings with Ukraine.

Pelosi delayed sending the articles to the Senate as she and Schumer sought to negotiate the terms of the trial, including the question of witnesses. Democrats have repeatedly raised doubts about whether the Senate trial will will be a fair review of the facts.

But McConnell scoffed at the notion that Democrats had any leverage, insisted that the Senate would follow the template for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999, and he’s said he has enough Republican votes to impose it.

Following the Clinton precedent would defer any vote on hearing witnesses or reviewing new evidence until after the House managers and Trump’s lawyers make their cases, and senators submit their own questions.

The trial is likely to follow precedent in another way. Clinton, like Andrew Johnson in 1868, was acquitted by the Senate.

(Updates with Booker ending presidential campaign, remarks on House managers beginning in 24th paragraph)

--With assistance from Josh Wingrove and Jordan Fabian.

To contact the reporter on this story: Billy House in Washington at bhouse5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Ros Krasny

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