Trump impeachment trial: Squaring off in the Senate

A senior White House official and leading Senate Republicans predicted Sunday that congressional Democrats would fail in their bid to force the Senate to summon witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial.

Democrats countered by asking why, if Trump were innocent, he would block the testimony of top aides with direct knowledge of his dealings with Ukraine — actions that led the House of Representatives to approve two articles of impeachment against the president last week.

Following Wednesday’s vote, only the third time in history that the House has impeached a president, Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not immediately forward the articles to the Senate for trial.

Democrats said that, in light of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to work in close concert with the White House, they were not satisfied the proceedings would be conducted fairly and impartially. Pelosi said she wanted clarity about what rules the Senate planned to follow before deciding which members of the House would act as the prosecutors, known as managers, of the case in the Senate.

Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is expected to send the articles to the Senate after the holiday recess. Senior White House aide Marc Short said he expected Republicans would make no concessions in return, even though Trump says he wants a quick trial in the GOP-controlled Senate.

“We’re confident this position is untenable, and she’s going to move it along,” Short, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence and a former White House legislative director, told “Fox News Sunday.”

“She will yield — there’s no way she can hold this position,” he said, referring to Pelosi.

The White House’s current opposition to witnesses in the Senate marks an about-face. Until recently, Trump was insisting he wanted extensive witnesses. He hoped to turn a trial into an opportunity for his lawyers to call prominent Democrats and force them to answer questions about his so-far-groundless allegations of misconduct among that party’s members. McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Senate Republicans opposed that idea and appeared to have convinced Trump to drop it.

Democratic lawmakers defended Pelosi’s delay.

“I think what she’s just trying to do is make sure the best possible case for a fair trial happens,” said Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Addressing Trump directly, Booker said: “If you’re innocent, have acting Chief of Staff [Mick] Mulvaney come before the Senate, swear to an oath — settle this whole thing.”

Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said Pelosi was doing “exactly the right thing” in “focusing a spotlight on the need to have a fair trial in the United States Senate.”

Since an impeachment inquiry began nearly three months ago, Trump has refused any cooperation by the executive branch. The blanket rejection of subpoenas for documents and squelching of appearances by key figures such as Mulvaney and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo formed the basis for one of the two articles of impeachment, alleging obstruction of Congress. The other accuses Trump of abuse of power.

More than a dozen diplomats and current or former administration officials defied Trump’s instructions and testified in the House proceedings. Those witnesses helped House Democrats make their case that the president withheld crucial military aid and a coveted White House meeting as a means of pressuring Ukraine’s newly elected leader to announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Trump, who has never consistently accepted U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf, also asked President Volodymyr Zelensky to look into a debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in that election on behalf of Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent.

Although new evidence continues to emerge, Democrats say it is impossible to establish key details of what transpired if Trump blocks testimony by senior aides.

In the latest disclosure, documents obtained Friday by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, indicate that the White House ordered congressionally mandated Ukraine aid frozen less than two hours after Trump’s now-famous July 25 phone conversation with Zelensky.

Democrats so far have remained unified behind Pelosi, with even vulnerable Senate Democrats from red states not criticizing her delay in transmitting the impeachment case to the Senate.

Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama told ABC’s “This Week” that it was not “unreasonable” for the speaker to wait to determine “what kind of playing field” House managers would face.

“She’s not going to hold these [articles] forever,” said Jones, who faces an uphill fight for reelection next year in a state where Trump remains popular. “I don’t think it’s unfair to ask, ‘What are the rules that we’re playing by when we go and we get this over there?’”

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s most vociferous defenders, accused Pelosi of taking a “wrecking ball” to the Constitution. The South Carolina Republican, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures” that the speaker had overstepped her bounds.

“She’s actually trying to tell Mitch McConnell how to run the Senate,” he said. “Can you imagine if the roles were reversed?”

Trump has responded to his impeachment with fury, and on the Sunday news-talk shows, he was rebuked and defended for his attacks on critics of his temperament and behavior.

The editor of an evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he had not wavered from his judgment, in an editorial published Thursday, that Trump was “morally unfit” to be president.

Trump denounced the magazine after the editorial came out, calling it a radical leftist publication.

Short, on “Meet the Press,” said many evangelicals — a crucial constituency — “take great gratitude that he’s our president.”

Short also defended Trump over mocking comments last week about Rep. John D. Dingell, formerly the senior Democrat in the House, who died in February at age 92. Speaking at a rally in Michigan, the congressman’s home state, Trump, apparently angered by the vote to impeach cast by Dingell’s widow, Rep. Debbie Dingell, suggested that the congressman had gone to hell.

Debbie Dingell said on “Fox News Sunday” that the president’s comments “sort of kicked me in the stomach.”

Short, on NBC, said he was “sorry she’s hurting” but noted that the late congressman, soon before he died, had referred to Trump as an “imbecile.”

In advance of the Senate trial, whenever it does take place, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Richard Durbin of Illinois, urged fellow senators from both parties to keep an open mind and stop talking about whether they would vote to convict and remove the president.

“I’m going to take an oath … when it comes to this impeachment,” Durbin said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I promise ‘impartial justice, so help me God,’ and I want to stick by that.”

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