Republicans will seek to craft rules governing a potential impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on their own if they can’t reach an agreement on guidelines with Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.
The Kentucky Republican has already declared that the GOP-controlled Senate would follow through with a trial should the House impeach Trump. He has also suggested that the Senate would not cut short such a trial, allowing evidence against Trump to be presented.
What remains far less clear, however, is how such a trial would be conducted ― which witnesses, if any, will be called to testify, which senators will be allowed to speak and for how long, and how much power Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who would preside over the proceedings, will wield.
“There is no answer at this point” to such questions, McConnell told reporters at his weekly press conference at the Capitol.
Should he fail to reach an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the outset of a trial, McConnell said he “would probably come back to my own members and say, OK, can 51 of my own members agree how we’re going to handle this.” If that fails, McConnell described a hypothetical “jump ball” scenario in which the Senate would vote on witnesses on a case-by-case basis.
During the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, the Republican-controlled Senate reached a bipartisan agreement governing some of the proceedings. It failed, however, to reach a deal on witness testimony. That decision was put to the entire Senate in a series of votes. In one of those votes, the upper chamber voted 70-30 not to call Monica Lewinsky as a live witness because many feared the “salacious details” involved in the case would tarnish the Senate.
In advance of a Trump impeachment trial, some Republican lawmakers and other allies of the president have expressed a desire to see former Vice President Joe Biden and perhaps his son Hunter Biden testify. They argue that the two would be key witnesses in the case, given that Democrats pushing for impeachment argue that Trump abused his power by allegedly withholding congressionally approved aid to Ukraine in exchange for that country’s leaders announcing an investigation into the Bidens’ Ukrainian business dealings.
Other possible witnesses floated by some Republicans include the U.S. intelligence community whistleblower whose concerns that Trump pushed for such a quid pro quo in phone call with Ukraine’s president kicked the impeachment push into high gear. Another of the potential witnesses wanted by the Trump allies is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who chaired the impeachment hearings in the lower chamber and helped author his panel’s report citing “overwhelming” evidence of misconduct by Trump in the Ukraine matter.
“If the White House chooses to call witnesses in its defense, and obvious potential witnesses include Hunter Biden or the whistleblower, I believe the Senate should allow the White House to present its witnesses,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Tuesday.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said Schiff would be “one of my favorites” on a list of possible impeachment witnesses.
The best way to do something as important and almost a hallowed procedure as this is in a bipartisan fashion. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
But McConnell acknowledged Tuesday that it’s possible Republicans would encounter difficulty in getting the 51 votes needed to call some of those witnesses. Joe Biden, for example, is a former senator with decades of relationships with several of the chamber’s members. He also happens to be running for president in 2020. Insisting he or his son testify could sow further discord in the upper chamber and alienate a small group of moderates and frequent Trump critics who have expressed distaste with his conduct regarding Ukraine.
“I don’t think that is likely appropriate, but I want to see all of the evidence before making any decisions in that way,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told a reporter last week when asked if either Biden should testify in an impeachment trial.
Republicans have a slim hold on the upper chamber, 53-47, meaning they’d need nearly all their members to sign off on either a rules package or individual witness testimony.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said the trial “can’t just be a dog and pony show,” adding that it’s “got to be serious proceedings.” When asked if he wants Hunter Biden to testify, however, Manchin declined to rule out supporting such a motion, saying, “Anything that is relevant to this trial should be heard.”
Schumer said Tuesday he had not yet begun discussions with McConnell about an impeachment trial. But he added that he hoped the Senate could avoid a partisan proceeding, which appears on track to take place sometime next month.
“The best way to do something as important and almost a hallowed procedure as this is in a bipartisan fashion,” Schumer said.
CORRECTION: During Clinton’s impeachment trial, the Senate was controlled by the Republicans ― not the Democrats, as a previous version of the story mistakenly said.
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