McConnell Will Move Ahead With Impeachment Trial Rules Without Democrats' Support

Jan 7, 2020
Originally published on January 8, 2020 9:14 am

Updated at 4:25 p.m. ET

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says he has the votes to establish rules for the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump without support from Democrats.

McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he has abandoned attempts to reach an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., after weeks of public bickering over Democrats' demands to agree on a set of witnesses and rules for evidence in the trial. The decision to move ahead with the rules puts new pressure on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to release the House-passed articles of impeachment so that a trial may begin.

"We have the votes once the impeachment trial has begun to pass a resolution essentially the same, very similar to the 100-to-nothing vote in the Clinton trial, which sets up as you may recall what could best be described as a maybe a phase one," McConnell said about the process. He said the resolution would lay out a process for arguments from the prosecution, arguments from the president's defense team and written questions from senators.

McConnell noted he is modeling the rules on the 1999 trial of President Bill Clinton. At the time, senators voted unanimously to approve a basic outline of how the trial would be conducted. They saved the question of witnesses and evidence for a second set of rules that were later approved along party lines. McConnell said he anticipated addressing questions about witnesses after the first phase of the trial was complete.

But Senate Democrats say the facts and circumstances of the Trump impeachment process cannot be compared to the Clinton trial. They say that the White House blocked key witnesses from appearing before the House and that they need to be vetted in the Senate.

"Democrats believe that a fair trial means that all of the relevant facts come out," Schumer said. "And witnesses and documents are part of that fair process."

Senate Democrats have refused to agree to that two-step process, saying it makes it less likely that any new witnesses will be called. Schumer has called it "a poorly disguised trap."

Schumer and other Democrats say they need to hear from four witnesses who refused to testify before the House. The list includes acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton. Their demands were heightened this week after Bolton announced he would testify under a Senate subpoena.

"Momentum for uncovering the truth in a Senate trial continues," Schumer said in a statement following Bolton's announcement. "If any Senate Republican opposes issuing subpoenas to the four witnesses and documents, we have requested they would make absolutely clear they are participating in a cover-up."

McConnell said the Senate cannot move ahead with a vote on the resolution until Pelosi sends the articles over from the House.

Schumer suggested that he believes Pelosi will do so soon and maintained that her strategy helped put pressure on Republicans to answer questions about witnesses. Pelosi's office declined to comment on her plans.

Under existing Senate rules, Democrats can still try to call witnesses once a trial has begun, but they would need 51 votes to do so. That means persuading four Republicans to agree, a high bar in the political trial of a GOP president.

McConnell's decision to forgo further negotiations on the rules also signals that he believes that at least 51 of the 53 Senate Republicans will vote to support his plan. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told reporters Tuesday that McConnell has been clear about his plans and that top Senate GOP leaders have been counting votes for the rules in recent days.

"He's made no bones about his desire to do it that way and he has made the case to us privately, to the country publicly," Cramer said. "His floor speeches have been filled with that and so he's been very transparent about the process."

Democrats had hoped to persuade some moderate Republicans, like Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, to push for a bipartisan process. Collins and Murkowski in particular have said they are uncomfortable with statements McConnell has made about being "in lockstep with the White House" on impeachment.

But in recent weeks, most Republicans, including moderates like Collins and Murkowski, have said they support McConnell's plan to base the process on the Clinton trial.

Collins told Maine Public Radio that she would like the rules to be adopted with unanimous bipartisan support, but she "can't imagine anything like that happening today, regrettably."

McConnell did not provide a timeline for voting on the rules, but by simply establishing a plan, he now shifts greater pressure on Pelosi to release the articles of impeachment. Pelosi has said she is withholding the articles to try to pressure McConnell to agree to Schumer's request for witnesses.

The Senate is scheduled to consider judicial nominations for the remainder of the week but could interrupt their plans to vote on the rules once the articles of impeachment are received.

NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales contributed to this report

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he has the votes to start the impeachment trial without hashing out the terms with Democrats. McConnell confirmed yesterday he is abandoning attempts to reach an agreement with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: We're going to get started in exactly the same way that a hundred senators agreed to 20 years ago. What's good for President Clinton is good for President Trump.

MARTIN: The announcement comes after weeks of disagreement about how to hold the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump - specifically, whether to call any new witnesses. NPR's congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is in the studio with us this morning. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So what are the consequences of McConnell's announcement?

SNELL: Well, it signals that he is confident that he has the votes not only to get this trial started but likely to move forward with things as he wants them to work. So he wants to establish these rules and kind of set up a framework for what this trial looks like, in part because he never really wanted to agree to these witnesses. Democrats said that they actually believe that he never wanted to agree to calling new witnesses, though he says it'll be something they'll address further along the line. It shows that he believes he has Republicans all together.

MARTIN: That means we're not going to see John Bolton, who said that he would come.

SNELL: It's not totally clear that we won't see John Bolton, but it looks like that means that the witnesses will come down to individual questions later on once the trial has begun. And when it's an individual question, it's a question of a 51-vote question in the Senate, so 51 senators have to agree to bring a witness in. And that means that Democrats, if they want to bring somebody in, have to convince four Republicans to join their side, and that is a big, difficult ask.

MARTIN: We've got tape from Minority Leader Chuck Schumer yesterday, who was talking about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK SCHUMER: They were afraid to say yes because they know Donald Trump will be furious at them.

SNELL: Right, and that is what Democrats keep saying, is they now believe that it is much more difficult for them to get witnesses. That's why they wanted an agreement upfront, and that's part of why they were so dismayed when McConnell said that this was not, you know, part of his plan.

MARTIN: So what's the timeline? When can we see the trial start?

SNELL: It's not totally clear because it's still up to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to send the articles of impeachment over to the Senate, and she has not made clear that that is happening anytime soon. So this could stretch out for several more weeks before we even really know when things will begin.

MARTIN: All right. We have to talk about this - today is also the day top intelligence and national security officials are going to brief members of Congress about the drone strike that killed Iran's top commander, Qassem Soleimani. Do we have any sense of what that's going to look like?

SNELL: Well, it's a really large venue for these briefers to be coming in, to be talking to huge groups of members of Congress, all of the House members on one side and all of the Senators on the other. So it's not really a great venue for really detailed conversations, and that's actually something that members on both sides have complained about over the years. So it may not be a very detailed conversation, very in-depth investigation into what has happened here...

MARTIN: They may not hear the intelligence that they're using as justification...

SNELL: And that's part of why there have been requests for additional briefings and more follow-ups, so that Congress can stay on top of what has happened and what may be coming in the future.

MARTIN: So overnight, Iran retaliated - more than a dozen missile attacks on these two bases that house U.S. troops in Iraq. So does President Trump at this point have to get approval from Congress in order to now up the ante, do anything in response?

SNELL: Technically, Trump is supposed to inform and consult with Congress at every possible moment, but that hasn't happened so far, and then, you know, it really is not often that Congress reasserts their power to ask for that. So we are expecting the House to vote on a War Powers Resolution to kind of reassert some of those powers, but we don't know when, and Democrats are still talking about that.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell for us. Thank you.

SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.