McConnell Says Republicans Have Votes to Set Trump Trial Terms
(Bloomberg) -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he has the votes to set the terms of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial without the cooperation of Democrats, which would allow him to reject their calls for an agreement on new witness testimony before it gets underway.
“We have the votes once the impeachment trial has begun” to begin hearing from the House impeachment managers and the president’s defense and to defer a decision on witnesses until after that phase is completed, McConnell said Tuesday after a lunch meeting with GOP senators.
The impeachment trial rules can be set by a simple majority of the 100-member chamber and Republicans hold 53 votes. McConnell said he hopes Speaker Nancy Pelosi will act this week to transmit the two articles of impeachment against Trump that were adopted by the House in December, which would trigger the start of the trial process.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer signaled that the time may be nearing to send the impeachment articles. He said Pelosi has “accomplished a great deal already” in holding on to the resolution because it thwarted any chance McConnell would move to immediately dismiss the charges and allowed a “cascade of evidence” to emerge.
But McConnell’s hold on his GOP majority hasn’t been shaken by any new revelations, including former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton’s offer to testify and recent leaks of emails showing the president’s direct involvement in holding up military aid to Ukraine after he pressed that country’s president to investigate potential 2020 rival Joe Biden and his son.
Despite demands from Democrats for a commitment to hear from Bolton and other administration officials and view other evidence, McConnell on Tuesday again insisted that the Senate use the same process as Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial.
Following the Clinton precedent gives McConnell maximum leverage because it would delay decisions on Democrats’ demands for testimony from administration figures including Bolton and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney until after Trump’s lawyers and House impeachment managers make their arguments and answer senators’ questions. That could buy him about two weeks to ensure Republicans stay united behind a strategy of blocking or limiting witnesses before he moves the Senate to a verdict.
The Clinton trial got underway exactly 21 years ago Tuesday. While there was a bipartisan consensus then on basic process -- including the amount of time for making opening arguments -- Republicans now are preparing to set the trial rules on a strictly party-line vote once the articles are presented and the senators are all sworn in as jurors.
“It would be better if 100 of us could do it, but the other option would be at that moment where 51 could act, that 51 would,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Senate GOP leadership team.
No talks have yet taken place between McConnell and Schumer to hammer out any kind of compromise, and none appears likely at this point.
Pelosi still hasn’t given any indication of when she plans to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate, a step that would trigger the start of the trial. Her allies argue that the Senate turning down Bolton’s offer to testify under subpoena would show that Republicans are trying to bury incriminating evidence against Trump.
“McConnell is making very plain he’s not interested in the country learning the full extent” of Trump’s misconduct, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said Tuesday. “And apparently there are any number of senators willing to go along with that head-in-the-sand strategy.”
Schumer vowed to force early votes during the trial to call witnesses and documents blocked so far by Trump.
“There will be votes on the four witnesses we asked for,” the New York Democrat told reporters. “We are telling our Republican colleagues, you can run but you can’t hide.”
But GOP senators have been unmoved. McConnell’s lieutenants already are embracing his argument that it isn’t the Senate’s role to correct what he considers a “shoddy” impeachment by finding new evidence.
“I’m not sure it’s the Senate’s job to complete the House record,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican leader. “Our job is to pass judgment on the articles they sent us.”
Two Republicans who have on occasion broken with Trump and have criticized McConnell’s statements about the trial -- Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins -- say they back his plan to follow the precedent of Clinton’s impeachment trial.
“I think we need to do what they did the last time they did this unfortunate process, and that was to go through a first phase and then they reassessed after that,” Murkowski said.
If just four Republicans want to hear from Bolton or anyone else, they can force an extension of the trial, but at this point no Republicans have said they would vote with Democrats to subpoena witnesses or documents. Only Mitt Romney of Utah said he wants to hear from Bolton, but he stopped short of backing a subpoena to get it.
A partisan trial blocking fresh evidence holds risks for the handful of Republican senators facing tough races this fall -- such as Collins -- particularly if Bolton later divulges bombshell evidence or if other damaging documents withheld by Trump leak out after Republicans all voted in lockstep to protect the president’s secrets.
Some of those vulnerable Republicans, however, are expressing no such concerns. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who faces voters in November, said Monday he sees no need to add to the evidence assembled by the House despite Bolton’s offer to testify. Similar sentiments were expressed by other senators, including National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young of Indiana and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Young told reporters Monday it would create “a bad precedent if the Senate would try to improve upon defective articles of impeachment“ when asked about calling Bolton. “It’s not even something I’m considering.”
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