WASHINGTON — So now what?
The House voted to impeach President Trump on Wednesday night, making him just the third president in U.S. history to have that permanent stain on his legacy. He’s still highly likely to be acquitted in the Senate. But how we get to that moment is a big question mark.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made it crystal clear that he aims to rush through a Senate trial to minimize exposure for both Trump and his own vulnerable senators. He’s moving to block any witnesses from testifying, and doesn’t want the Trump administration to turn over any documents.
On Thursday, McConnell accused the House of running “the most rushed, least thorough, and most unfair impeachment inquiry in modern history,” and said Senate Democrats wanted to call witnesses “to re-do House Democrats’ homework for them.”
Earlier this week, he said that he’s “not an impartial juror,” and declared he was working in close coordination with the White House to quash Trump’s impeachment. His blockade of witnesses is a dramatic departure from President Clinton’s impeachment trial, when the Senate agreed on a bipartisan structure that allowed witnesses. McConnell supported those rules back then.
Senate Democrats are howling about his approach.
“I have yet to hear one good argument why less evidence is better than more evidence”
“I have yet to hear one good argument why less evidence is better than more evidence, particularly in such a serious moment as impeachment of the president of the United States,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) fired back Thursday from the Senate floor. “In Leader McConnell’s thirty-minute screed, he did not make one argument why the witnesses and documents should not be part of the trial.”
But unless they can find a few Senate Republicans to agree with them and force McConnell into some concessions, there’s little Senate Democrats can do. If four establishment-minded Republicans break ranks with McConnell and back Schumer on process issues that would dramatically change the political calculus around impeachment. But so far, it doesn’t look like there’s much appetite from them to force the issue.
House Democrats thought they might have a bit of leverage to force McConnell to reconsider — but it’s looking like that was a mistake.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Wednesday night that she wouldn’t send the two impeachment articles to the Senate until Senate Republicans agreed to a “fair” process, and refused to guarantee she’d ever send the articles of impeachment over to the Senate.
Her declaration caught House Democrats by surprise, however, and she tried to clean it up Thursday by saying she wouldn’t name impeachment managers and send the articles over to the Senate until she knew what the Senate’s trial rules looked like.
“When we see what their process is we will know who and how many to send over,” Pelosi said.
But Pelosi essentially admitted she didn’t expect she could force McConnell into making fair rules. ”We would hope there would be a fair process just as we would hope that they’d honor the Constitution,” she said. And she grew irate and refused to take reporters’ questions seeking to clarify what exactly that meant.
It’s unclear how long Pelosi can hold the articles without sending them to the Senate — and whether she can hold them indefinitely, like some Democrats are advocating. But either way, she has limited leverage.
The only real pressure McConnell faces is the Constitutional requirement that the Senate hold a trial if the House impeaches a federal official. By withholding articles of impeachment, Democrats lose their one real power to force Senate action.
McConnell made it clear on Thursday he would be delighted not to have to deal with an impeachment trial.
“Frankly, I’m not anxious to have the trial”
“It’s beyond me how the Speaker and Democratic leader in the Senate think withholding the articles of impeachment and not sending them over gives them leverage,” McConnell told reporters. “Frankly, I’m not anxious to have the trial. If she thinks her case is so weak she doesn’t want to send it over, throw me into that briar patch.”
Democrats buy time
Pelosi may not be able to force McConnell into concessions on the trial’s rules, but she may be able to delay the process. The Senate had been expected to jump into an impeachment trial when they get back in early January. But Congress will head home for the holidays without the House sending the articles of impeachment along, and until they do the Senate can’t proceed.
That delay could potentially buy Democrats more time to let additional damaging information about Trump spill out into the open. A lawsuit that could determine whether former National Security Adviser John Bolton could be forced to testify is still winding its way through the courts. And a lawyer for Lev Parnas, an indicted Soviet-born associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, has been clamoring for his client to have a chance to testify before Congress about what he knows.
While McConnell wants a quick, quiet trial, Trump has had a different view. He and his allies have pushed for the GOP to call its own witnesses, like the whistleblower and former Vice President Joe Biden. And he wants a Senate acquittal to say he didn’t do anything wrong, which means a trial has to happen. That could force McConnell to reconsider his position — and possibly give Democrats some concessions in order to give the president what he wants.
There’s a chance that McConnell comes to terms with Schumer over the holidays and the Senate trial begins and ends next January, as had been expected. But while the timing is more in flux than it had been previously, there are few signs that Democrats will get the robust Senate trial they’ve long demanded.
-- Greg Walters contributed
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Battle Creek, Mich., Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)