Republicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy

Republicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans are trying to avoid a high-profile fight with the White House as they plot their impeachment trial strategy. 

Divisions have erupted between President TrumpDonald John TrumpNational Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Democratic lawmaker dismisses GOP lawsuit threat: 'Take your letter and shove it' MORE and the GOP Senate on everything from witnesses, how long the trial should last and whether senators should wait until January to start it. 

Now GOP leaders and the White House are stepping up their efforts to get in sync, with a Senate trial just weeks away.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Senate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial Republicans will pay on Election Day for politicizing Trump's impeachment MORE (R-Ky.) went on "Hannity," a Fox News show frequently cited by Trump, to repeatedly say he will take his cues from the White House as he plots the GOP strategy for the looming trial.

“There will be no difference between the president's position and our position as to how to handle this,” McConnell said, adding that they will be in “total coordination.” 

McConnell said there was “zero chance” that Trump ultimately would be convicted by the Senate, which requires 67 votes, and removed from office and added that he thought they could get “one or two” Democratic senators to vote to acquit Trump. 

McConnell met privately late last week with White House lawyer Pat Cipollone, who is expected to lead the president’s defense team during a trial, to talk strategy. The GOP leader is planning to coordinate with Cipollone on key decisions such as the trial's length and who, if anyone, will be called to testify. 

The GOP leader's overture is being matched by White House officials who are trying to play up their coordination with the Senate Republican Conference.

Eric Ueland, the White House's legislative affairs director, said the relationship between the president’s team and Senate Republicans was “very cooperative, very collaborative” as they prepare for a trial. 

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“Our collaboration, our cooperation, our communication with the majority leader as well as Senate Republicans is very rich, very deep and very comprehensive. So we’re having a lot of discussions about the best way to proceed in the event the House actually presents articles of impeachment to the Senate,” Ueland told The Hill. 

Pam Bondi, part of Trump’s messaging team, also downplayed any potential divisions, saying they were “working hand in hand” to prepare for a Senate impeachment trial. 

McConnell and Trump, who say they talk almost daily, have had a yo-yo relationship since Trump, to the admitted surprise of the GOP leader, won the 2016 presidential race.

The two men, while close in age, have wildly different personalities.

McConnell is known for being tight-lipped and calculating, while Trump weighs in, sometimes to the chagrin of lawmakers, on any subject and can change positions within hours. 

They’ve had high-profile clashes, including a prolonged fight after the Senate failed to repeal ObamaCare, as well as notable differences on foreign policy, and McConnell has repeatedly and publicly rejected Trump’s call to get rid of the legislative filibuster.

But they’ve also paired up to win fights, including the tax package and two bruising Supreme Court battles, and they’ve tied themselves together heading into 2020, when they are both on the ballot. 

The pledge to coordinate with Trump earned McConnell fierce backlash from Democrats, who accused him of rigging the Senate trial. 

“The Majority Leader proudly announcing he is planning to rig the impeachment trial for Trump,” Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats request briefing on intel behind Trump's embassy threat claim US citizen dies in Egyptian prison after hunger strike President Trump's strike of choice MORE (D-Conn.) tweeted, reacting to McConnell’s Fox News comments. 

Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesThe Hill's Morning Report - Dems to lay out impeachment case to senators next week Seven things to know about the Trump trial House delivers impeachment articles to Senate MORE (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, read McConnell’s comments aloud during the House Judiciary Committee's markup of articles of impeachment, adding that “the jury, Senate Republicans, are going to coordinate with the defendant, Donald Trump, on how exactly the kangaroo court is going to be run.” 

McConnell defended his decision while officially filing to run for reelection in Kentucky, arguing that former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who was the minority leader during the Clinton impeachment trial, coordinated with the Clinton White House. Daschle initially told Axios that he did not coordinate but later walked back his comments, saying his staff was in touch with the White House during the trial. 

"It was done during the Clinton impeachment. Not surprisingly, President Clinton and the Democrats in the Senate were coordinating strategy. We're on the same side,” McConnell told reporters in Kentucky, according to the Louisville Courier Journal

The latest unity message comes after conservatives lashed out at the Senate GOP caucus over chatter of a speedy impeachment trial and as Republicans are already clashing with Trump over concessions made to Democrats on his trade deal with Canada and Mexico. 

The biggest point of division between Senate Republicans and some in the White House is whether to call witnesses. GOP senators are increasingly eyeing a quick trial with no witnesses for either the president’s team or the House impeachment managers. 

Rep. Louie GohmertLouis (Louie) Buller GohmertRepublicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel Sheila Jackson Lee tops colleagues in House floor speaking days over past decade Trump shocks, earns GOP rebukes with Dingell remarks MORE (R-Texas) said that “America needs to hear from the witnesses” and that having a Senate trial without witnesses “would be a big mistake.” 

“The Senate has promised for months now that they would have witnesses. ... They really need to bring in witnesses. They’re the chance to clean this mess up,” he said. 

And Rep. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) sent a letter to Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial Democratic group plans mobile billboard targeting Collins on impeachment Paul predicts no Republicans will vote to convict Trump MORE (R-S.C.) urging him to reconsider support for a speedy trial, arguing that Republicans should “fight fire with fire and tell them enough is enough.” Graham told The Hill that he favored a trial with no witnesses, saying, “I want to end this thing as quickly as possible.” 

There are also multiple signs that Republicans want to avoid an intraparty civil war that would shift the spotlight away from Democratic divisions on impeachment. 

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Trump, in a boon to McConnell, offered no hard demands on the details of a trial when talking to reporters on Friday. 

“I'll do whatever I want. Look, there is — we did nothing wrong. So I'll do long or short. I've heard Mitch. I've heard Lindsey. I think they are very much in agreement on some concept,” Trump told reporters. 

“I'll do whatever they want to do. It doesn't matter,” he added. 

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsRepublicans criticize Pelosi for gifting pens used to sign impeachment articles Trump, Democrats set for brawl on Iran war powers Overnight Defense: Iran crisis eases as Trump says Tehran 'standing down' | Dems unconvinced on evidence behind Soleimani strike | House sets Thursday vote on Iran war powers MORE (R-N.C.), a conservative lawmaker who has the ear of Trump, also declined to criticize McConnell over trial strategy, instead predicting he would make the “right decision” and that they’ll end up on the same page.

“I think at the end of the day Leader McConnell is going to make a decision that I can support,” Meadows said. “And hopefully get this thing over with.” 

Brett Samuels contributed.