capitol beat

McConnell Is Drafting the Senate Trial Rules: ‘No One Is Going to See Them Until We’re Underway’

Photo: Alex Edelman/Getty Images

In a letter to congressional Democrats on Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would begin the process of sending articles of impeachment to the Senate. This would finally start the trial of President Donald Trump, one month after he became the third president in American history to be impeached.

The battleground on Capitol Hill — after weeks of jousting over when and under what conditions Pelosi would transmit the articles, which passed the House on December 19 — now shifts to what rules and procedures will be used. McConnell has said that the blueprint will be the rules used for the Senate trial of President Bill Clinton. These would delay any decision on witnesses until after House impeachment managers prosecuting Trump and the president’s lawyers have made their case.

However, the Clinton rules may be modified. One potential modification is when in the process senators would be allowed to offer a motion to dismiss the case or even if such a motion would be included. However, no more detail has been offered on the rules, which are being drafted within McConnell’s office. “No one is going to see this thing until we’re underway,” a senior Senate Republican aide involved with the impeachment process told New York. “And we can’t get it underway until [House Democrats] send [articles] over.” There was an appetite to keep the rules as similar to those from 1999 as possible. Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma told reporters that “as much as we can leave it the same as the whole Clinton trial then there’s less argument on this. Let’s just leave it the same.”

Other questions still linger over whether enough Republicans might defect for witnesses to be called. Lankford couldn’t predict the appetite from his colleagues for witnesses. However, he did note that there were no new witnesses in the Clinton trial. “The three witnesses that were called were all witnesses that had been previously called,” he said.

Regardless, Democrats were sanguine about the process, no matter how it will play out. “We see it as a win-win,” one senior Democrat familiar with the impeachment process in the Senate told New York. “Our goal is to get the truth. If we get that, great. Let chips fall where they may. If not, it’s a Republican cover-up.”

In her letter announcing the decision to proceed, Pelosi touted the benefits of her decision to delay. She noted that new tranches of emails have been uncovered in recent days on Trump’s decision to withhold aid from the Ukraine, in addition to the statement from Bolton that he would be willing to testify if subpoenaed by the Senate.

Stuck with a Republican-controlled Senate and limited control over a process that has been repeatedly obstructed by the Trump White House, Pelosi tried to use the delay as leverage to force Mitch McConnell to meet her demands to call witnesses who dodged appearances before the House impeachment inquiry. House Democrats raced ahead with the inquiry but were stymied at every turn by the administration’s invocations of executive privilege. Documents were not turned over, key witnesses like former National Security Adviser John Bolton and acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney did not testify in public or behind closed doors.

For Republicans, Pelosi’s decision to hold the articles has been a waste of time. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas saw it as a desperate attempt to make the best of a bad situation. “She’s like anybody under those circumstances,” said Cornyn. “When you’re in a bad spot, you look for how I’m going to get a break because of a tweet or something else I hadn’t anticipated for getting out of this spot.”

For Democrats, Pelosi’s gambit represented a last opportunity to try to guarantee that those witnesses would testify. As the senior Democrat put it, “We’re in the minority, we don’t have much control over the trial, but what we can do is define a fair trial, and reasonable proposals for witnesses and documents.” The goal, as defined by the Democrat, was to increase public pressure on vulnerable Senate Republicans to vote to allow witnesses. “The point wasn’t to get Mitch McConnell to agree to a fair trial, he always wanted a cover-up. What you really need is four Senate Republicans to agree to a fair trial.”

While some Senate Democrats griped about the delay, House Democrats mostly stood by Pelosi’s strategy. “I think the Speaker’s strategy has been completely vindicated by events,” said Jamie Raskin, who represents Maryland’s Eighth District. “We have senators demanding there be a fair trial and an attentive public watching. Everywhere you go Americans of all political stripes say there must be a fair trial with real integrity.”

With Senate Trial Looming, McConnell Is Now Making the Rules