GOP divided over impeachment trial strategy
Divisions among Senate Republicans are muddying their strategy for a potential impeachment trial.
As lawmakers await any articles from the House, they’re throwing out their own ideas on what the Senate proceeding should look like.
But Republicans disagree over the length of a trial and who should be asked to testify — two issues that will need to be worked out as part of negotiations on the rules of the trial.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he is considering forcing a vote on the Senate floor to try to allow the White House to call its preferred witnesses, including Hunter Biden.
“The rules that are put forward will be amendable, and so yes I will consider strongly that the president should get his full due process, which to me means bringing in his own witnesses,” Paul said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), meanwhile, says he wants the trial rules to exclude “hearsay” and that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and the whistleblower should be called.
“I’m not going to vote for any resolution that allows impeachment to be based on hearsay upon hearsay. I’m not going to vote for any resolution that denies the president the ability to confront his accuser,” Graham added.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has largely declined to speculate on the specifics of the trial, except confirming that he expects there to be one.
“My own view is that we should give people an opportunity to put the case on. The House will have presenters. The president will, no doubt, be represented by lawyers as well. On the issue of how long it goes on, it’s really kind of up to the Senate,” McConnell said.
He added he thinks “it’s impossible to predict how long we’ll be on it or predict which motions would pass. No way to know.”
McConnell’s deputies have warned against getting too far ahead of the House’s impeachment inquiry. The House is weeks into its investigation into whether or not President Trump tied Ukraine aid to the country opening up an investigation into former Vice President Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Asked about calling the Bidens, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2, acknowledged that senators are throwing out a lot of ideas but called talk about potential witnesses “premature.”
“I know some of our members are throwing some ideas and suggestions out there, but I think at this point it’s all kind of hypothetical,” he said.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), another member of leadership, similarly warned that “we’re way ahead of ourselves” when asked about witness.
While Senate Republicans view a trial as all but guaranteed, and the outcome largely prebaked, how broadly the House drafts its articles of impeachment, what the articles are and how many there are will all likely influence how long a trial lasts, and what witnesses need to be called.
But that’s done little to stop Republicans from publicly brainstorming.
Some Republicans have pushed back hard at Paul and other who want to call the Bidens in for testimony.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) warned against going down “rabbit trails” and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said of calling on Hunter Biden: “I’m not sure what he would add.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) opened the door to bringing in the anonymous whistleblower, whose complaint helped trigger the House impeachment inquiry.
“I wouldn’t rule out anything, especially with the House, ruling out all these witnesses, basically any witnesses who Republicans want to call. I think, if they make it that much more likely, that there is a mounting sentiment within the Senate to want to call everyone whom they rejected, or at least those we deem critical to the case,” Lee said during an interview with Fox News.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) kicked off a firestorm of questions about the length of trial after he floated during an event in North Carolina that it could last six to eight weeks.
Asked about Burr’s suggestion, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) quipped that Republicans were discussing ten weeks.
“We’re thinking about maybe 10,” Cramer joked, before adding: “No I think it could be 10 minutes, frankly.”
McConnell has used the Clinton impeachment trial as a rough guide, and a cadre of Republicans shot down Burr’s timeline, arguing there’s no reason it should go longer than the five-week Clinton trial.
The time frame could have implications on the 2020 Democratic primary. If it doesn’t start until early January, even a trial the same length as Clinton’s would keep the five senators running for president in Washington, D.C., for six days a week until days after the Feb. 3 Iowa caucus.
Others have acknowledged that they are being asked to largely shoot in the dark as they get non-stop questions from reporters hungry for details about what a potential impeachment trial could look like.
“I don’t know,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), asked how long the trial should be. “I can’t answer that because I haven’t seen any of the testimony.”
Asked if he would support a motion to dismiss instead of going through a trial, he added: “I can’t answer that. I just can’t answer. You’re asking me to make a judgement when I haven’t seen the evidence.”
The Clinton impeachment trial lasted five weeks, starting on Jan. 7, 1999, and wrapping on Feb. 13, 1999. The Senate passed a resolution at the start of the trial that laid out the procedure for filing motions, how long senators would get to ask questions and how witnesses would be called.
But a second resolution specifying which individuals would be called as witnesses faltered along party lines.
McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are expected to try to negotiate an agreement on rules for the impeachment trial. The resolution would only need a simple majority to pass.
It would also, according to aides, be amendable on the floor, setting up a potential opening for conservatives, or 2020 candidates, to try to force votes on the floor.
Schumer knocked down questions about the trial during a weekly leadership press conference, saying while Democrats don’t want a trial “truncated,” questions about the details are “premature.”
“Leader McConnell has not come to us at this point. I don’t take any umbrage to that. … And remember, any discussion is also going to involve the House prosecutors. Who do they want to call? Because they’re running the trial. And the President’s defenders and who they want. So, it’s too early,” Schumer added.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added that Democrats wouldn’t try to shorten a trial just to help the senators running for the White House but warned the GOP against trying to play games.
“This is a serious matter, it shouldn’t be an object of political gamesmanship,” Durbin said.
Asked about the chatter from some Republicans on wanting to call the Bidens, he added: “the next thing they’re going to want is Hillary Clinton. They’re just trying to find the next level of political drama.”