Pelosi and McConnell Begin 2020 in Standoff Over Trump Trial

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi listens to President Donald Trump during the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., February 5, 2019. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are locked in a stare-down over the terms of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, which carries political risks for both sides if it continues deeper into January.

The two-week congressional holiday break produced no new negotiations on the contours of the Senate trial, according to people familiar with the matter. Pelosi is leaving the talks with McConnell up to Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, with whom she’s been coordinating, officials in the speaker’s office said.

Pelosi has held up delivering to the Senate the two articles of impeachment adopted by the Democratic-majority House, saying she wants to see a “fair” process for the trial. Officials in Pelosi’s office said she and Schumer are in lockstep on what that means: trial procedures that would include documents and testimony from witnesses that were blocked by Trump during the House’s impeachment inquiry.

“Neither Senator McConnell, nor any Republican senator, has articulated a single good reason why the trial shouldn’t have these witnesses or these documents,” Schumer said at a news conference Monday in New York.

McConnell is showing no signs of shifting off his position that a vote on calling witnesses can be left until after the impeachment case is argued by House managers and Trump’s counsel. While most lawmakers won’t return to Washington until next week — when haggling over the trial process is likely to begin in earnest — McConnell is expected to deliver remarks on the Senate floor Friday criticizing the Democrats’ position.

In the background is the 2020 election campaign that will decide control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, and that’s putting pressure on both sides in the impeachment drama.

For Schumer and Pelosi, withholding the impeachment articles and demanding more witnesses has given them a chance to raise questions about whether Trump’s trial in the Republican-controlled Senate can be fair. McConnell made clear he has no intention of being impartial — despite an impeachment oath that has traditionally required senators to deliver “impartial justice” — and said he’s closely coordinating with the White House.

Raising the fairness question also gives Schumer and other Democrats a pressure point on a few GOP incumbents facing tough re-election campaigns, such as Maine Senator Susan Collins, and Republican senators like Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska who’ve occasionally shown willingness to break with both McConnell and Trump.

Democrats would need at least four Republican votes to call witnesses.

Murkowski and Collins in the past week have chided McConnell for saying he’s consulting with the White House on the trial. Collins said she is open to witnesses at some point later. Still, both indicated they’d support waiting to decide on other testimony until after presentations by the House and Trump’s defense — similar to the process used in the 1999 impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton. That’s the same argument made by McConnell.

Pelosi’s delay could backfire if it continues for more than a week or two.

Republicans are arguing that Pelosi withholding the articles of impeachment contradicts the main message from Democrats during impeachment: that Trump is such a danger to national security and the next election that he must face swift consequences for his actions. Republicans also say the demand for more testimony and documents underscores what they describe as weak evidence for the impeachment articles.

A long delay also risks pushing the impeachment trial deeper into the presidential primary season. Five Democratic candidates who serve as senators — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Michael Bennet — would be kept off the campaign trail and trapped in Washington during the length of the trial as silent jurors. The first contest, the Iowa caucuses, is Feb. 3 and the New Hampshire primary is a week later.

Trump has been exploiting the delay to attack Pelosi and the impeachment process in the House.

McConnell said last month that if Democrats never send over the articles of impeachment it would be “fine with me.” But that would leave the impeachment hanging in the background, unresolved, as the 2020 campaign is fully underway. That could heighten the risk for several vulnerable Republicans being targeted by Democrats seeking to gain control of the Senate.

McConnell and other Trump allies in the Senate instead have been maneuvering for a quick trial that is all but certain to result in the president’s acquittal.

That would give the Trump and GOP senators running for re-election an opportunity to claim vindication and put more distance between the impeachment and election day in November.

“We know the President’s not going to be removed from office. So the question is just how long do we want this to be foisted on the American people?” McConnell said in a Dec. 18 appearance on the Hugh Hewitt radio program, laying out his vision for a trial. “What I think we ought to do is listen to the arguments, have a period of written questions, and then vote on the two articles of impeachment.”

Both parties are honing their argument to enhance their negotiating positions.

The president was impeached by the House for allegedly abusing his powers to try to force Ukraine to open a politically damaging investigation of Democrat Joe Biden in exchange for security aid, and then obstructing the House investigation. Schumer on Monday cited a New York Times report that outlined how Trump’s withholding of aid to Ukraine set off a struggle in the White House, with some top presidential advisers trying to get him to reverse course.

“This new story shows all four witnesses we Senate Democrats have requested — Mick Mulvaney, John Bolton, Michael Duffey, and Robert Blair — were intimately involved and had direct knowledge of President Trump’s decision to cut off aid in order to benefit himself,” Schumer said. “Simply put: in our fight to have key documents and witnesses in a Senate impeachment trial, these new revelations are a game changer.”

Democrats say they are united behind Pelosi’s and Schumer’s demands. Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, the most vulnerable Democrat up for re-election next year, wrote an opinion essay in the Washington Post this week saying the Senate must conduct “a full, fair and complete trial” that includes witness testimony. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from Trump-friendly West Virginia, also has supported calling new witnesses.

Michigan Democratic Representative Dan Kildee said Tuesday on CNN that Pelosi should hold the articles of impeachment indefinitely “until we have some assurances that the trial isn’t going to be a sham.”

Republicans scoff at the idea that Pelosi has any leverage over McConnell, arguing that the impeachment went ahead without waiting to see whether courts would compel more witnesses to testify in the House because Democrats set a political deadline. One GOP aide said that Pelosi’s attempt to dictate Senate process would only alienate moderate Republicans.

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