McConnell treads gingerly on impeachment as Trump demands flash

Steven T. Dennis and Laura Litvan

President Donald Trump’s showman instincts will be running up against Mitch McConnell’s cautious management of the Senate as the two men with the most important relationship in Washington negotiate the terms of a high-stakes, election-year impeachment trial.

Trump is accustomed to acting as his own chief strategist and spokesman. But the Senate is McConnell’s domain. As he plots out Trump’s impeachment trial, the majority leader is using his leverage to nudge a president – who typically bends the Republican Party to his will – toward bringing the process to a swift conclusion.

An impeachment trial is all but certain to open in the Senate in January. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on two articles of impeachment Friday morning. The full House is tentatively set to hold a historic vote next Wednesday charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Trump has expressed a desire for a lengthy impeachment trial with multiple witnesses who could air out his own narrative about election interference and Democratic corruption.

“It’s up to the Senate to decide how they move forward with some of this, but the president has also been clear: he wants witnesses out there because he wants his side of the story told,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Thursday on Fox News. “They didn’t allow us to do this on the House side.”

Senate Republicans, however, are increasingly warming to the idea of a short, tightly orchestrated trial without calling witnesses to avoid unleashing an unpredictable circus that could tie up the chamber for weeks or months, even though the outcome – Trump’s eventual acquittal – isn’t really in doubt.

That leaves it to McConnell to thread the needle, and he met Thursday with two top White House officials to hash out how that will be done.

The relationship between Trump and McConnell has had rough patches, especially early on in Trump’s presidency. But it has also yielded major wins for both men: a historic number of conservative judges confirmed to the federal bench, a major cut in income tax rates and – when Trump has listened to McConnell’s advice – deals on spending.

“I’m going to take my cues from the president’s lawyers,” McConnell told Fox News host Sean Hannity Thursday night . “You could certainly make a case for making it shorter rather than longer since it’s such a weak case.”

White House and Senate GOP officials have been in regular contact about planning for the impeachment trial.

Close Communication

“We’re having good close communication, conversation with Senate Republicans in the event the House goes ahead and actually produces articles of impeachment,” White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland said after he and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone met with McConnell on Thursday. “We’re going to continue to work closely with Senate Republicans as well as other members of Congress on the questions.”

Cipollone will argue on behalf of Trump during the Senate trial, according to a person familiar with the matter. It’s not clear if Cipollone will act as sole counsel or as part of a group of lawyers.

McConnell has already played one card. He said that final approval of a trade deal with Mexico and Canada that is high on Trump’s priority list will be delayed until the impeachment trial ends.

The Kentucky Republican said in the end there would be no daylight between himself and Trump.

“Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with White House counsel,” he said. “There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this.”

But McConnell, who reiterated this week he sees no chance of a conviction and removal of Trump, has made clear in recent days that if the White House – or House Democrats – want to call witnesses, they’ll need to get 51 votes to do so.

That means it’s not up to McConnell alone to decide how the process unfolds, another point he can bring to bear when working with the White House.

Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff who advises him on election strategy, said the majority leader wants to keep Republicans united and focused. The smoother the process, he said, the more likely he can do that. He noted that McConnell presides over a conference with little appetite for free-ranging and unpredictable proceedings.

While Trump may be focused now on the impeachment process in the Democrat-led House, the endgame is clear.

“Acquittal is the desired outcome,” Holmes said. Senators see that “as something that can be achieved without a big circus.”

Senator John Cornyn of Texas said he asked Cipollone at the Senate Republican lunch last week if the White House was focused on acquittal or a “messaging exercise.”

“He said we’re not going to waste any time on anything that isn’t directly relevant to the charges brought by the House and the president’s defense,” Cornyn said. “From my perspective that would mean a pretty efficient presentation, meaning witnesses would be deposed and then excerpts presented rather than call live witnesses, which might rival the three-ring circus we’ve seen in the House of Representatives.”

51 Votes

Cornyn said he expects that McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer will meet to see if they can work something out. “Having said all that, if 51 senators say they want to do something, they can.”

Early on in the process, McConnell rebuffed speculation that the Senate might simply dismiss the articles of impeachment without any trial at all. But he has not made any commitments about how it would be conducted or how long it might go.

A number of Senate Republicans like Ted Cruz of Texas and John Kennedy of Louisiana say they would back Trump’s call for witnesses and a lengthy defense if he desired.

“I think the Senate needs to respect the process and do a much better job than the House Democrats have done in conducting a fair trial,” Cruz said. “That means both sides should be allowed to present their case, and if the president wants to call witnesses in his defense the Senate should allow him to do so.”

It’s not clear that Trump would have the 51 votes he needs to call some witnesses he might want, such former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden and the anonymous whistle-blower who sparked the impeachment inquiry over Trump’s push to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens.

Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, two Trump allies, have questioned the wisdom of prolonging a trial when the outcome isn’t seriously in doubt.

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a potential swing vote on procedures, said she isn’t yet announcing a position on which witnesses should be called. Two other Republicans who could be wild cards, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah, likewise have said little on the subject of witnesses.

Cornyn said McConnell’s “message to me is that there’s a bipartisan interest in doing our job, but not stringing this out to the exclusion of other important work.”

With assistance from Jordan Fabian.