Lawyers for President Trump on Friday quietly scoped out the Senate, seeking possible locations for the trial that will weigh two articles impeaching the president for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
But the timing of the trial, or whether one will take place, has been left in limbo for the next several weeks because of partisan fighting over witnesses.
Republicans and Democrats aren’t going to resolve immediately when, or if, the Senate will hold a trial to consider the articles, which leaves the president’s fate dangling until at least early January.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday he doesn’t have immediate plans to meet with his Democratic counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, to try to reach a compromise on major differences in how each party wants to set the terms governing a trial.
The Senate and House are not scheduled to return for votes until Jan. 6 and 7, respectively, so any resolution will likely have to wait until well after the holidays.
McConnell and Schumer met privately on Thursday to try to work out a deal on how the trial would proceed. Schumer wants McConnell to agree to subpoena four witnesses who are former and current Trump administration officials. McConnell rejected the offer. He wants the Senate to agree to a bipartisan “first step” that would allow both the House Democratic impeachment managers and the White House lawyers defending Trump to present their arguments. At that point, lawmakers could decide whether they have heard enough to vote on the matter.
McConnell said all 100 senators agreed to a similar arrangement in 1999 when the Senate held a trial weighing two impeachment articles against President Bill Clinton.
“We remain at an impasse, because my friend, the Democratic leader, continues to demand a new and different set of rules for President Trump,” McConnell said. “He wants us to break from that unanimous bipartisan precedent and force an all-or-nothing approach.”
The articles haven’t made it over to the Senate yet, and perhaps they never will.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, is under pressure from her liberal base to hold onto the articles to increase Schumer’s leverage in getting testimony from the four Trump witnesses.
Democrats want former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, as well as two other officials, to testify about Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and to look into whether Democrats in 2016 worked with Ukraine to undermine his campaign. Democrats are also seeking documents related to Trump’s July 25 call with the president of Ukraine, when he asked for help with those investigations.
Schumer seemed content to leave the impeachment effort in limbo, telling reporters that the matter may not be resolved for several weeks and that he will continue to seek what he believes are terms for a fair trial and not the quick dismissal the GOP wants.
“If the House’s case is so weak, why is Leader McConnell so afraid of witnesses and documents?” Schumer said.
It’s not clear what Pelosi would do in January if Schumer and McConnell don’t reach a deal on how to hold a trial.
She told reporters the House must first learn what kind of trial the Senate will conduct in order to decide which Democrats to appoint as impeachment managers.
“We cannot name managers until we see what the process is on the Senate side,” Pelosi announced. “So far, we haven’t seen anything that looks fair to us. We are hoping it will be fairer, and, when we see that, we’ll appoint managers.”
Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who attended the House impeachment debate last week, accused Pelosi of attempting to “extort” the Senate with the demand for Senate witnesses.
“As if impeachment here were somehow a reward for us?” Lee said on Fox News. “It’s strange. And in the event it’s not going to work, it’s going to backfire badly.”
Trent Lott, who was the Senate Republican leader during the trial that followed Clinton’s impeachment, recalled working very closely with Democratic Leader Tom Daschle to work out a deal acceptable to both parties. The first proposal the two came up with called for holding a two-week Senate trial with no witnesses. Republicans rejected it.
“We fumbled around for another week trying to figure out the rules for how we were going to proceed,” Lott, who was then the majority leader and spoke to Daschle almost daily, said. “My thought was, always, ‘We are going to find a way to get this done.’”
Senators gathered in the Old Senate Chamber and came up with an agreement, approved 100-0, that called for hearing from impeachment managers and Clinton’s lawyers. The trial included taped depositions of witnesses and hand-written questions from senators. It lasted five weeks and resulted in Clinton’s acquittal.
“It would have probably been a lot uglier” without that agreement, Lott said, adding that bipartisan compromise was easier 21 years ago. “It was a different time, different media, and different people.”
Lott said McConnell and Schumer can also find an agreement for holding a trial. “Important moments in history bring people together, whether they want to or not,” Lott said. “They are going to have to talk about how to proceed.”