McConnell has complicated history on impeachment

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) opposed a motion to dismiss articles of impeachment in 1999, calling a Democratic proposal to quickly dismiss the trial of then-President Clinton “a terrible idea.”

McConnell, then the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, made it clear he thought the Constitution required the Senate to hold a full trial on the articles of impeachment Clinton was facing for perjury and obstruction of justice, culminating in a vote on whether to convict or acquit the president.

{mosads}McConnell’s past position will make it difficult for him to champion any motion to dismiss a Senate trial of articles against President Trump, and McConnell last week appeared to dissuade his colleagues from entertaining a dismissal.

The GOP leader told colleagues during a PowerPoint presentation that they would not be allowed to speak during the trial and that any motions to dismiss the impeachment articles would be reserved for Trump’s defense team and the House Democratic impeachment managers, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who attended the meeting, told The Wall Street Journal.

McConnell later told reporters that the Senate would have no choice but to hold a trial that would require the chamber to convene six days a week in the afternoon.

“Under the impeachment rules of the Senate, we’ll take the matter up,” he said. “The chief justice will be in the chair. We will have to convene every day, six days out of seven, at 12:30 or 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Senators will not be allowed to speak, which will be good therapy for a number of them. And we intend to do our constitutional responsibility.”

Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who served as one of McConnell’s advisers during his Senate career, said the Constitution clearly requires a trial.

“I think if the articles of impeachment are brought against the president, you have to have a trial,” he said. “I do think it’s the constitutional responsibility of the Senate.

“I suppose you could foreshorten it with a motion to dismiss, but that’s not a trial,” he said. “Just seems to me that in such a serious undertaking to remove an elected official, the president of the United States, that a trial is required.”

The Senate impeachment rules, as outlined in Senate Document 99-33, state that senators may propose motions and that all such motions except for the motion to adjourn shall be made in writing.

Any motions made during an impeachment trial need only a simple majority to pass, and Vice President Pence would not be allowed to break a tie vote since Chief Justice John Roberts will be presiding over the trial.

{mossecondads}That means McConnell could lose any motion where three GOP senators defect, as Republicans control 53 Senate seats and Democrats control 47.

The rules further state that all preliminary or interlocutory questions and motions shall be argued for not more than one hour and that all motions, objections and requests relating to procedure or the substance of the trial be made to the presiding chief justice.

McConnell as Rules chairman in 1999 during the Clinton trial said that a final Senate vote to convict or acquit the president could not be avoided, although he also endorsed conducting the trial quickly.

McConnell told NBC’s Tim Russert in December 1998 that the Senate had a “constitutional obligation to commence the trial” but that the trial should be short.

“I think it need not take very long. The majority leader’s indicated it could be from three days to three weeks. And I think if the president’s lawyers were cooperative, this could be a very short trial because it’s not a complicated case,” he said, referring to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

A month later, McConnell panned the idea of a motion to dismiss the impeachment articles and argued that all previous Senate impeachment trials ended with votes on whether to convict.

“The motion to dismiss is a terrible idea,” McConnell said on “Fox News Sunday” in January 1999.

“Ten days ago, Sen. Byrd said correctly that this ought to end with votes on the articles. All the other 14 impeachments we’ve had have all ended with votes on the articles,” he added, referring to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who offered a motion to dismiss the trial against Clinton early. 

Senate Republicans argue there are key differences between the impeachment inquiry against Trump and the articles of impeachment passed against Clinton more than 20 years ago.

GOP sources note that the House formally voted to initiate the impeachment process against Clinton and that it was based on a lengthy investigation conducted by independent counsel Ken Starr.

McConnell has complained about the lack of due process given to Trump.

“They’re denying due process to the president. I think he’s entitled in this impending impeachment process that’s going forward in the House to, No. 1, maybe have a vote on opening it — they don’t seem to want to do that. No. 2, to be allowed the kind of traditional due process opportunities that we provided President Clinton years ago,” he told reporters last week.

“At least, it seems to me, if they’re going to go forward, providing fundamental fairness and due process is appropriate,” he added.

In 1999, the time allocated for the House impeachment managers and Clinton’s defense team to make their arguments was laid out in Senate Resolution 16, which then-Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Phil Gramm (R-Texas) negotiated and the Senate approved 100-0.

The resolution authorized senators to question the impeachment managers and the defense for up to 16 hours but said their questions had to be submitted to the presiding chief justice.

The resolution also made it in order to consider and debate a motion to dismiss the articles of impeachment, a motion that Byrd later made.

House Republican impeachment managers argued at the time that the Senate would be shirking its responsibility if it adopted Byrd’s motion and ended the trial before a final verdict could be voted on.

Senate Resolution 16 also made it in order to make a motion to subpoena witnesses and to present evidence not in the record. It also provided time for depositions and made testimony inadmissible unless both parties had a chance to depose witnesses.

The Senate’s impeachment rules state the precedent for the chamber is to go into closed-door deliberations after the final arguments are presented by both sides.

In 1999, each senator was given 15 minutes to make his or her case for Clinton’s acquittal or conviction on the Senate floor and they were prohibited from filibustering by going over the time limit.

“Every senator was given 15 minutes to go to the well and talk about their view of things,” recalled former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

“I think it’s important for senators to hear other senators to evaluate their rationale and logic and think through things that one might have felt important,” he said.

The Senate voted at the time to conduct deliberations behind closed doors.

Clinton’s Senate trial began at the start of January and lasted until he was acquitted on Feb. 12, 1999.

–This report was updated at 8:17 a.m.

Tags Donald Trump Ed Case Impeachment Kevin Cramer Mitch McConnell
See all Hill.TV See all Video