Senate

McConnell signaling Trump trial to be quick, if it happens

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is signaling that he's prepared to dispose quickly of articles of impeachment against President Trump and that any upcoming trial in the Senate will look much different than the 1999 impeachment trial of President Clinton.

McConnell says he is required by the Senate rules to take up articles of impeachment, but notes that there is no requirement on how long such a trial must last.

"I would have no choice but to take it up. How long you're on it is a whole different matter," McConnell said on CNBC Monday.

Clinton's trial in 1999 took a month, with three days of testimony by the House impeachment managers and another three days for the defense. At one point, videotaped depositions of key figures in the Clinton controversy, including former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, were taken.

Senate Republican sources say no decision has yet been made about whether to hold a trial but predict if there is one, it's likely to be much shorter.

Senate GOP aides are pointing to a 1986 memo on the impeachment process by then-Senate parliamentarian Bob Dove asserting "the rules and precedents on impeachment argue for a rapid disposition of any impeachment trial in the United States Senate."

And GOP senators are already complaining about the impeachment process wasting time and crowding legislative items off the agenda.

Republicans say the partisan tone of the launch of the House impeachment effort undercuts the argument for a prolonged deliberative process in the Senate.

In the CNBC interview, McConnell hit Democrats for wasting time on impeachment that could otherwise be spent on passing a new trade deal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement and other legislative priorities.

"What I want to do is spend our time accomplishing things for the American people," he said in the same interview, touting the need to pass the trade deal and bashing Democrats for "harassing" Trump.

"They spent the last three years harassing this president and I gather we're going to get another chapter of that with the impeachment episode. But we need to find other things that actually make a difference for the American people and accomplish as much as we can," he said.

One key difference between now and 1999 is that the White House and the Senate were controlled by different parties.

While then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) didn't appear to share the same fervor as House Republicans to impeach Clinton, he had a partisan interest in giving the Republican prosecutors from the House a stage to make their case against the sitting Democratic president.

Senate Republicans today see little similar imperative to give House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and other Democratic prosecutors weeks to lay out their indictments against Trump on the Senate floor.

A Senate Republican aide said a drawn-out impeachment trial in the Senate later this year or next year would only further distract from legislative priorities on the GOP agenda.

"A lot of offices here would prefer it never got to that," the aide said of a potential Senate trial.

"It becomes a distraction," the aide added. "It's one of those things where we can't do anything else. This will overtake everything for the next year. The election is 13 months away and there's going to be at least 6 months focused on this before anything happens. I don' think that's the best use of our time."

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told reporters in Kansas this week that Congress has enough trouble getting legislation passed without the divisive and distracting spectacle of an impeachment trial.

"We have enough problems in Washington, D.C., in working together to get things done," he said.

Earlier this year, key Senate Republicans were predicting that any House-passed impeachment measures based on former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation would be "disposed of very quickly," in the words of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has jurisdiction over impeachment.

Some Republicans now argue that impeachment articles based on a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would be treated as an even more cursory matter.

Senate Republicans predict any articles of impeachment passed by the House won't get any support in the upper chamber.

So far only two Senate Republicans - Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) - have criticized Trump's conversation with the Ukrainian president about Biden as "troubling."

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is up for reelection in a state that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, has largely avoided comments, telling reporters that she must maintain her appearance of impartiality as a potential juror in a future Senate trial.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of McConnell's leadership team, told a Missouri radio station Wednesday that he didn't know of any Senate Republicans who would vote for the impeachment articles.

"My guess is by the time we get to that vote if it's a purely partisan effort in the House, which is what it appears to be, that there will be a lot of pressure in the Senate to take this for what it is," he said.  

Blunt acknowledged that things could change if there's something "nobody knows about yet," but he added that the phone call itself between Trump and Zelensky was not grounds for removing Trump from office.

Josh Holmes, a Republican strategist and McConnell's former chief of staff, made a similar prediction: Senate Republicans won't take much time to deliberate the articles of impeachment if Democrats ram it through the House without establishing new facts to bolster their call to remove Trump from office.

"The biggest factor in terms of how the Senate processes articles of impeachment is the process in the House," he said.

"If it is, as it appears to be at this point, an entirely partisan - not terribly substantive - set of articles [of impeachment] then it is probably dealt with in much the same manner on the [Senate] side," he said.

Holmes said McConnell's handling of the articles of impeachment will depend heavily on the sentiments of Republican senators in his conference.

If Senate Republicans feel the articles passed by the House are legitimate and worthy of careful consideration, then McConnell is likely to schedule more time on the Senate floor to adjudicate them.

But if the impeachment push fails to pick up any Republican support in the lower chamber, then it's unlikely any Senate Republicans will back the call for a lengthy Senate trial.

"His ability to navigate is entirely related to how many Republican senators see the world the same way," Holmes said of McConnell's ability to dispense with articles of impeachment quickly. "And they do have to have a vote."

Jordain Carney contributed.  

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