Toxic McConnell-Schumer relationship strains impeachment talks

The toxic relationship between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has left senators pessimistic about reaching a deal to set the rules of President Trump’s impeachment trial.

The leaders already have scars from the battles over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018, efforts to repeal ObamaCare in 2017 and McConnell’s refusal to hold a vote on former President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016, among other controversies.

So perhaps it should not be surprising that talks on rules for the trial are off to a rocky start.

“The problem is the core of the relationship between him and Schumer,” said one Republican senator close to McConnell. “Their history is bad.”

McConnell blasted Schumer’s vision for the trial on Tuesday as “dead wrong.”

After waiting a full day to respond to his counterpart’s demands for witnesses, McConnell went to the Senate floor on Tuesday and essentially ruled it out.

“If the Senate volunteers ourselves to do House Democrats’ homework for them, we will only incentivize an endless stream of dubious partisan impeachments in the future,” he scoffed.

Schumer on Sunday had made public a letter he sent to McConnell over the week asking for the witnesses, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. The public campaign was a clear effort to raise pressure on McConnell, who had angered Democrats with comments on Fox News the previous week that he was coordinating his impeachment strategy with Trump.

On Tuesday, McConnell said the only deal he’s optimistic about striking with Schumer would be one that laid out time for arguments.

Senators who participated in former President Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial say the relationship between then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was a lot healthier than the one between Schumer and McConnell.

“It’s not even close,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who described the Lott-Daschle relationship as relatively close.

“There were clear differences among the 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats 20 years ago, but there was a friendship and an exchange of information on a regular basis that I think really served the Senate well. I don’t think that’s the case with the current leadership,” Durbin added.

Schumer told reporters Monday that he tried to start negotiations with McConnell two weeks ago about what a trial would look like but that the GOP leader essentially ignored him and went public with his own plan for how the trial would likely proceed.

“It was very partisan, very slanted, very unfair,” Schumer said of McConnell’s outline.

Schumer explained he sent his letter to McConnell Sunday “to get things back on track.”

Durbin on Tuesday said Schumer’s inability to get McConnell to agree to a meeting when first approached spoke volumes about their strained relationship.

“The fact that we’re still waiting for the first meeting on this subject between the two of them speaks for itself,” he said.

The breakdown has spurred moderate senators to begin informal discussions about ground rules.

“Conversations are just really starting between individuals,” said Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.), a leading moderate. “There’s no way that this will be perceived as a fair trial if McConnell and Schumer don’t work out rules.”

McConnell told Republican colleagues at lunch Tuesday that he would begin negotiating with Schumer this week and expressed hope of at least agreeing with Schumer on the start date for the trial.

But in his floor remarks, he ripped Schumer for leaking the letter, saying that “the preferable path would have been an in-person conversation.”

“I look forward to meeting with the Democratic leader very soon and getting our important conversation back on the right foot,” he added.

Schumer then took to the floor himself to challenge the GOP leader’s commitment to a fair trial, quoting one of the nation’s founding fathers for evidence.

“Leader McConnell, are you, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, unawed and uninfluenced to produce the necessary impartiality, or will you participate in a cover-up?” he asked.

McConnell appeared to goad Schumer later in the day when he declared that the Democrats should have no expectations of impartiality.

“I’m not impartial about this at all,” he said, prompting an exasperated response from Schumer, who complained, “I’m utterly amazed by what Mitch McConnell said.”

“Do the American people want Mitch McConnell not to be an impartial juror in this situation?” he asked.

Twenty-one years ago, the entire Senate gathered in a closed-door meeting in the Old Senate Chamber to discuss their differences in private. They emerged with an agreement laying out the opening ground rules of Clinton’s trial that passed 100-0.

McConnell on Tuesday ignored a question about the prospect of another all-senators meeting on the procedures for Trump’s impeachment trial and rejected Schumer’s request to decide the question of additional witnesses and documents from the start.

Schumer attacked McConnell for stacking the trial in Trump’s favor and accused the GOP leader of making the Senate an accomplice to the president’s “cover-up” of key evidence.

Some of their bad blood comes from the 2008 election, when McConnell was running for a fifth Senate term and Schumer was serving as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

McConnell felt Schumer, who represents many constituents who work for New York’s financial services industry, acted in bad faith when he pleaded with Republican leaders to support a Wall Street bailout package and then allowed the Democratic campaign arm to pummel McConnell with ads bashing his vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Schumer also didn’t ingratiate himself with McConnell when he voted in 2017 against the noncontroversial nomination of McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, to serve as Transportation secretary.

There have been attempts to patch up their personal relationship, such as when McConnell invited Schumer to speak at the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville in February 2018.

“We don’t dislike each other,” McConnell said at the time. “We have to work together.”

But the two leaders have found themselves at odds in high-stakes battles more often.

Their lack of an easy working relationship was on display again this week when Democratic opposition forced McConnell to file separate cloture motions on 13 district court judges.

A Senate Republican aide said it would have been customary in the past to move the nominees in a package to save time in the final week of the 2019 session, when other must-pass bills, such as two major spending packages and the National Defense Authorization Act, need floor time.

The two Senate leaders got tangled up in another personal spat earlier this year when McConnell accused Schumer of reneging on a deal to set the top-line defense and nondefense spending numbers for the annual appropriations bills.

McConnell grumbled about that episode again this week, saying that weeks of delay and the need to pass two omnibus-style spending packages could have been avoided if Democrats stuck to their word.

“I wish our colleagues on the other side had kept the agreement we reached last summer. We wouldn’t have ended up with two very massive mini-buses,” he said, referring to the spending packages on the schedule for this week.

Jordain Carney contributed. 

Tags Bill Clinton Brett Kavanaugh Chris Coons Christopher Coons Chuck Schumer Dick Durbin Donald Trump Elaine Chao Impeachment Merrick Garland Mick Mulvaney Mitch McConnell

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