Pelosi Buys Democrats Time With Impeachment Trial Standoff

The two congressional leaders are jousting, but not yet fighting, over Senate impeachment trial parameters. Photo: Win McNamee/Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Immediately following Wednesday night’s historic vote to approve two articles of impeachment against President Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested she might not send the articles over to the Senate until she had a better idea of the kind of trial Mitch McConnell is planning. It sure looked like she was offering to add leverage to Chuck Schumer’s demands that McConnell agree to calling four witnesses from the White House (Mick Mulvaney, John Bolton, Robert Blair, and Robert Duffey) whose testimony had been blocked in the House. That’s how Senate Republicans seemed to interpret it, mocking her veiled threats as reflecting the fears of a leader unconfident about the case she had developed.

By Thursday morning Pelosi was more studiously vague about her goals, and exactly how long she was willing to hold up a Senate trial if McConnell didn’t satisfy her concerns, as the Washington Post reports:

At a news conference the morning after the House voted to impeach Trump, Pelosi said she is waiting to name impeachment managers until the Senate outlines the process it plans to follow for a potential impeachment trial.

“The next thing for us will be when we see the process that is set forth in the Senate,” Pelosi told reporters. Pelosi emphasized that there needs to be a “fair process,” although she declined to go into detail.

Under the rules the House adopted Wednesday for consideration of the impeachment articles, a resolution naming the impeachment managers — and authorizing the transmittal of the articles to the Senate — can be called up at any time by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) or a designee.

It’s true that while McConnell has lofted many trial balloons about the kind of impeachment trial he wants to hold, he hasn’t released any definitive plans, and given his provocative remarks about working in “total coordination” with Trump’s lawyers, it’s possible Pelosi wants her Senate counterpart to commit to a course of action rather than dictating exactly what it should be. That may actually be easier than it was a week ago, since the White House is now signaling that Trump is not wedded to the show trial of Democrats (including the Bidens) he was talking about so recently:

Trump spokeswoman Pam Bondi said Thursday that Trump will be happy with whatever Senate leaders decide about the scope of a trial in the chamber….

Trump had originally advocated for a calling a long list of witnesses, including Hunter Biden, the son of former vice president Joe Biden, and the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint prompted the impeachment inquiry.

Bondi said that impulse was understandable from someone who has been “falsely accused.”

But she suggested the White House is more flexible now and in line with the thinking of McConnell, who has said it’s possible no witnesses will be called.

“At this point, I think the American people are over this … and we want Congress to get to back to work,” Bondi said.

Pelosi hasn’t really expended any political capital on forcing McConnell to change his trial plans; the House is about to go dark until January 7, and impeachment managers haven’t been identified. So sending the articles over immediately isn’t necessary or appropriate. And it buys time for her and other Democrats to strategize while shifting attention from the hurried pace of the House impeachment proceedings to McConnell’s displays of partisanship and his efforts to keep any impeachment trial from uncovering new evidence. Yesterday’s House Republican cries of “sham impeachment” can now be replaced by Democratic complaints of a “sham trial” and a “Trump cover-up.”

It’s plausible that Democrats in both chambers will eventually go along with a trial without witnesses, so long as House impeachment managers are given a full opportunity to present their case, which of course (in the article on obstruction of Congress) includes the “Trump cover-up” allegation. But with impeachment finally off Pelosi’s schedule, allowing the House to take up its own Democratic agenda, she has no particular need for speed in how the Senate proceeds. If the public begins blaming Democrats for short-circuiting the impeachment process it initiated, Pelosi can cut the best deal available and move on at any point.

If a deadlock between McConnell and Pelosi does appear and persist, it’s possible each side could conclude that an impeachment without a trial is in its best interests. Pelosi and her party can continue to argue that Trump won’t allow a fair trial to proceed, and McConnell and his party can continue to argue that House Democrats never had a good case and were afraid to proceed to a trial that would exonerate the president. Both sides would have 2020 campaign talking points, just like they will if Trump is tried and acquitted.

For now, Congress can go home for Christmas with Republicans and Democrats alike in a state of righteous indignation and envisioning a new year that will bring vindication and victory.

Pelosi Buys Democrats Time With Impeachment Trial Standoff