Trump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans

White House counsel Pat Cipollone previewed aspects of a likely Senate impeachment trial with Republican senators Wednesday, highlighting procedural rules while also decrying what he called an unfair inquiry in the House.

Senators who attended the lunch meeting with Cipollone said he spent much of the time discussing which articles of impeachment the House is likely to hit President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Trump expands tariffs on steel and aluminum imports CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group MORE with and what supporting facts Democrats will use to make their case in the Senate.

A White House official said the meeting was “the outgrowth of a conversation between several members [in the Senate] and all of us over at the White House” who thought it would be a “good time” for Trump’s legal team to meet with the entire GOP conference.

ADVERTISEMENT

Cipollone also argued that the House inquiry was flawed because Trump’s defense team was not given the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and Republicans were constrained in calling their own witnesses, GOP senators said.

“He said a number of times, ‘We don’t think there’s any reason the House should send this to the Senate,’ ” said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntDemocrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment Trump team to present case for about two hours on Saturday GOP warns of 'drawn out' executive privilege battle over Bolton testimony  MORE (R-Mo.) when asked about Cipollone’s message to Republican senators.

Cipollone said several times that the House Democrats’ case against Trump wasn’t strong enough to warrant an impeachment vote, reflecting a belief among some White House officials that Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Social Security emerges as flash point in Biden-Sanders fight | Dems urge Supreme Court to save consumer agency | Trump to sign USMCA next week Veronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address MORE (D-Calif.) might stop short of a final vote that could put moderate Democrats from swing districts in a tough spot.

While Pelosi has not said an impeachment vote is a certainty, the House is expected to move forward with articles of impeachment this month.

Wednesday’s meeting with Cipollone was hosted by Senate Republican Steering Committee Chairman Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThe self-fulfilling Iran prophecy No patriotic poll bump for Trump, but Soleimani strike may still help him politically Senators are politicians, not jurors — they should act like it MORE (Utah), who met on at least two prior occasions with the White House counsel to discuss the Senate impeachment process.

Trump has also hosted a series of weekly meetings with small groups of GOP senators at the White House to shore up his relations with lawmakers who could ultimately vote on whether to remove him from office.

ADVERTISEMENT

With the prospect of a Senate trial becoming more likely, some Republicans were growing concerned they had little sense of what to expect.

“Trials don’t happen very often, so members have lots of questions about what’s going to happen,” said one GOP senator. “There were a lot of members who were starting to panic because they didn’t know, they didn’t know who was in charge.”

Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunSchiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Democrats worry Trump team will cherry-pick withheld documents during defense GOP cries boredom in attack on impeachment case MORE (R-Ind.) told reporters Wednesday that some senators weren’t clear on questions like how many votes it would take to decide key procedural questions.

“Like the vote threshold, a lot of us were uncertain there,” Braun said.

Fifty-one votes will be needed to pass procedural motions.

Republican lawmakers familiar with the preparations for the Senate trial described Cipollone as the “quarterback” in charge of the legal strategy, even while Trump has handled much of the political and communications component.

Some GOP senators have urged Trump to step back from the partisan fighting and not let himself be so consumed by it, a strategy that former President Clinton employed effectively during his impeachment.

Republican senators who attended Wednesday’s meeting said much of it was spent discussing what the House impeachment managers’ case was likely to look like in the Senate.

Lawmakers asked Cipollone about timing and “what should we do when we get it,” referring to the articles of impeachment, another GOP senator said.

The White House counsel and Senate Republicans also discussed the likelihood of articles of impeachment including new information or accusations that haven’t yet come up in the House hearings, according to two senators in the room.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSchiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Schiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE (R-S.C.) predicted after the meeting that House Democrats will draft and vote on multiple articles of impeachment.

“This will be designed to allow Dem House members to vote FOR some articles and AGAINST others. They will ‘try’ to give the appearance of fairness,” Graham tweeted.

ADVERTISEMENT

There was some discussion about the ability to call witnesses, but Trump’s counsel didn’t provide any specific names, leaving GOP senators unsure of whether the president’s team will try to bring in the anonymous whistleblower who sparked the impeachment inquiry, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Schiff says Justice Roberts should rule on witnesses Schiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line MORE (D-Calif.) or former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSchiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Conservative reporter on Sanders: He's not a 'yes man' Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE’s son Hunter Biden.

The meeting also left unanswered exactly how long the Senate trial might last.

Senators said it could last a month or longer, citing Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial, which lasted about five weeks.

As Cipollone met with the GOP conference, the Senate released its legislative calendar for 2020, which left the entire month of January blank in anticipation of a trial.

“I’ve heard there’s a big shotgun hole in the middle of January with nothing on it,” said Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordSchiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Schiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Senate Republicans confident they'll win fight on witnesses MORE (R-Okla.).

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Collins walks impeachment tightrope Senate Republicans muscle through rules for Trump trial MORE (R-N.D.) said GOP leaders have to prepare for the “worst case” scenario of a trial stretching for multiple weeks.

ADVERTISEMENT

Blunt, the chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, said if the House passes articles of impeachment, Senate leaders will look at the calendar and assess if there’s a chance to strike a bipartisan deal to set the rules of the trial.

If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment Impeachment throws curveball in Iowa to sidelined senators MORE (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerVeronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democrats turn to obstruction charge Liberal super PAC to run digital ads slamming Trump over Medicare comments MORE (D-N.Y.) fail to reach a deal, McConnell will try to muster 51 votes within his conference to pass a partisan rules package.

McConnell on Tuesday told reporters that if the Senate fails to pass a rules package at the start of the trial, debate will proceed, and the chamber will hold a series of votes on various procedural motions.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLindsey Graham will oppose subpoena of Hunter Biden Marsha Blackburn shares what book she's reading during Trump Senate trial Sekulow indicates Trump should not attend impeachment trial MORE (R-Ky.), who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, said he will offer a motion to dismiss the impeachment articles after the House prosecutors and the president’s defense team have a chance to present their arguments.

“Under the Clinton impeachment rules, a motion to dismiss was allowed after opening arguments. So I would think at the very least we should have that. If there’s going to be opening arguments, we should do like we did in the Clinton trial and at least have a motion to dismiss at that point,” he said.

Paul also said he would push hard to allow the president’s defense team broad authority to choose their witnesses.

“The other thing that I think needs to be very clear is that the president gets to call any witness he so desires for his defense,” he said.

Jordain Carney contributed.