Donald Trump’s impeachment moves to the GOP-controlled Senate where the president and Democrats will battle over a small group of Republicans whose votes will determine the course of a trial on whether he should be removed from office.
The Senate proceedings will begin formally on Thursday with a show of pageantry that includes the reading of two impeachment articles and U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts swearing in 100 senators as jurors. Yet one of the most pressing and contentious issues -- whether to meet Democratic demands for witnesses -- will remain unresolved for more than a week.
The seven House Democrats chosen by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday to argue the impeachment case will have their best shot when the trial fully gets under way early next week to persuade at least four Republicans that new witnesses must be heard and new evidence presented.
Despite Trump’s conflicting statements about wanting witnesses to defend him during the Senate trial, White House officials said Wednesday the president’s team is seeking a short trial and that no additional testimony is needed.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that’s his preference as well, but it may be up to his Republican colleagues, Senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney and Lamar Alexander.
All four have said they’re open to hearing new testimony. Together they have the power to join with Democrats on key questions like whether to subpoena former National Security Adviser John Bolton, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and a trove of documents sought by the House but blocked by the president.
Collins said Wednesday she’s satisfied that they will “ensure a roll call vote on the overall issue of whether or not to have witnesses.”
The trial is almost certain to end with Trump’s acquittal on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress; 67 votes are required to convict and no Republican senator has said the articles laid out by House merit his removal from office. But the entire proceeding will hang over his bid for re-election as well as his legacy.
“This is a difficult time for our country, but this is precisely the kind of time for which the framers created the Senate,” McConnell said after the House impeachment managers marched to the Senate chamber for a ceremonial delivery of the impeachment articles. “I’m confident this body can rise above short-termism and factional fever and serve the long-term best interests of our nation. We can do this, and we must.”
Before the trial fully gets under way on Tuesday, the Senate must summon the president to respond to the charges and make other procedural moves, including adopting a resolution setting the rules. McConnell has said they would parallel those set out for the 1999 impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton.
Assuming that resolution is adopted by 51 senators without changes, the impeachment managers will have several days to be present their case, followed by the defense, questions from senators and then either votes to extend the trial or wrap it up and declare Trump guilty or not guilty.
Once the House managers and Trump’s counsel begin presenting their cases, senators will find themselves in an unusual setting.
They’ve been told they must stay seated at their desks for the proceedings with only reading material related to the case and have been admonished to avoid even talking to neighboring senators. Their telephones and other electronic devices will be kept in special cubbies in the cloakrooms, and access to the Senate side of the Capitol will be unusually limited for both reporters and staff. The trial may go on for six days a week.
In the House, the seven lawmakers who’ll make up the prosecution team led by Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California met as a group for the first time Wednesday afternoon, along with representatives from Pelosi’s office and Intelligence and Judiciary committee legal teams.
Schiff will read the articles of impeachment in the Senate on Thursday.
Several members said little was discussed about trial strategies or what assignments they will have in pulling together and presenting the case.
“You know what? We haven’t discussed to that level of detail yet,” said Representative Val Demings of Florida.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said he and his House manager colleagues will likely work over the weekend in preparation.
The managers can file certain preliminary motions under the rules of impeachment, and also file a trial brief stating its overall case. Nadler said one focus of House legal arguments from the start will be to argue for the allowing of evidence not considered or available in the House’s impeachment investigation.
The House inquiry focused on alleged efforts by Trump to use U.S. military assistance as leverage to get Ukraine’s government to probe Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden, a potential challenger in 2020.
The attempt to sway Collins, Romney and the other GOP senators had begun well before the first arguments are made on the Senate floor.
“Above all, a fair trial must include additional documents and relevant witnesses,” Nadler said.
Among the additional evidence, Nadler cited the materials turned over by Lev Parnas, a former associate of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who was central to the attempt to pressure Ukraine
A lawyer for Parnas, who is under indictment on campaign finance-related charges, turned over to House investigators a trove of notes, emails and text messages that Democrats said “further corroborates the findings and evidence related to the president’s scheme, which was laid out in the Trump-Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry Report.”
The material includes a May 2019 letter from Giuliani to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy requesting a meeting “in my capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent.”
Schiff said the materials from Parnas showed that Giuliani’s back-channel effort to influence Ukraine was directed by Trump. “There is no fobbing this off on others,” he said. “The president was the architect of this scheme.”
He said the documents are only a “small sample” of the kinds of material that were withheld by the White House during the House investigation. “Those documents should be demanded by the senators,” Schiff said.
Since the impeachment process got started in the House in September, Republicans and Democrats have exchanged charges of bias and accusations that one side or the other was seeking a pre-determined outcome.
Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas said an impeachment trial is a “unique process” that is unlike a regular court proceeding.
“They call us a jury but we’re hardly disinterested,” Cornyn said. “So the analogies we are all trying to make” to judicial trials “have their limitations.”
--With assistance from Daniel Flatley and Erik Wasson.