Democrats are reportedly plotting to block Senate Republicans from carrying out a quickie impeachment acquittal of President Trump without allowing any witnesses.
And the president himself wants to turn the Senate trial into a made-for-TV free-for-all that humiliate his Democratic opponents.
Sound complicated? Welcome to impeachment in the age of Trump.
The chess match started this week when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggesting that the Senate might not hold an actual trial — you know, with witnesses and all that,
“It could go down the path of calling witnesses and basically having another trial,” said McConnell, apparently floating the talking point that Democrats have already had their trial in the House of Representatives. “Or it could decide — and again 51 members could make that decision — that they’ve heard enough.”
McConnell has 53 Republican senators but he might not be able to count on all of them to basically short circuit the Constitutional requirement for an impeachment trial. He needs a simple majority.
Democrats are demanding talks now to set the ground rules before the impeachment train leaves the House of Representatives.
“We should have witnesses, and I think that the way we hear from the witnesses will be determined by negotiations,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said.
One option Democrats are considering holding up the articles of impeachment in the House of Representatives until they win agreement on rules for a Senate trial, the Hill reported.
That would presumably give them leverage with McConnell, who is known for maintaining a firm grip on his GOP caucus.
Democratic senators including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) met Wednesday night to talk strategy.
The downside of any not sending the articles right away could be that it would raise the political heat on moderate Democrats in the House, especially if it means delaying through the holidays.
Complicating things big time is Trump himself.
The president has signaled that he does not agree with McConnell’s more risk-averse plan. He wants a full-blown impeachment show, with the GOP using every tool to embarrass his Democratic critics.
That would include forcing Trump nemeses like Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and the intelligence whistleblower and maybe even Rep. Adam Schiff too.
In recent weeks, Trump has devised a wish list of witnesses for the Senate trial, relishing the opportunity for his lawyers to finally cross-examine his accusers and argue the case that his actions toward Ukraine, including the July 25 call when he asked for a favor, were “perfect.”
Trump and his allies have been building up the likely Senate trial, an effort to delegitimize the Democratic-controlled House’s impeachment process by contrast. In the Senate, the Trump team has argued, the president would get the opportunity to challenge witnesses and call some of his own, such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the still-anonymous intelligence community whistleblower, or even Joe Biden and Hunter Biden.
He sees that as a chance to embarrass Democrats, including the former vice president and 2020 Democratic rival, and use the friendlier ground to portray himself as the victim of a partisan crusade.
“It is pretty clear the president wants a trial,” says Hogan Gidley, the principal deputy White House press secretary. “The president is eager to get his story out.”
On Capitol Hill, the emerging GOP consensus is that doing Trump’s defense his way would jeopardize a predictable outcome, test GOP’s fragile loyalties to him and open a Pandora’s Box of unanticipated consequences.
“People are beginning to realize that could be a pretty messy and unproductive process,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said Wednesday. “If you start opening up to witnesses, you start opening up to all witnesses. And so I think the president’s got to really decide, to what extent does he want to start going down that road versus just making a strong case.”
Democrats would be expected to retaliate by trying to call the president’s senior-most advisers, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
Under Senate rules, McConnell’s ability to control the proceedings are limited. The Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, presides over the trial and any senator may be able to put a motion on witnesses up for a vote. That means defections by just a few GOP senators could thwart McConnell’s plans.
With the Republicans slim majority, it’s not at all clear they want to start down the path of a full-blown trial. Should they try to call the whistleblower or the Bidens to testify, they may not find enough votes of support from their ranks. At the same time, they would have to consider whether to accept or fend off witness requests from Democrats.
McConnell also worries that a prolonged impeachment trial would not benefit the handful of GOP senators setting out in the new year on potentially tough reelection bids. Swing state Sens. Susan Collins in Maine, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Joni Ernst in Iowa and Martha McSally in Arizona are among those whose actions will be closely watched. They would much rather be talking about the economy or the pending U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement than engaging in a prolonged, unpredictable impeachment trial.
But Republicans also acknowledge they are unlikely to find the 51 votes needed to dismiss the charges against the president outright. Some vulnerable lawmakers and Trump skeptics, such as Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah who has said he is troubled by Trump’s actions, will insist on some semblance of trial.