Explainer: What is McConnell’s proposed impeachment trial format?

Explainer: What is McConnell’s proposed impeachment trial format?
By Jan Wolfe

(Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he has enough support from his fellow Republicans to begin the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump even though lawmakers have yet to agree whether to call witnesses.

The framework supported by Republican senators, which McConnell has described as a “phase one” deal, would postpone the decision on whether to have witnesses testify during the trial — mirroring the process used during former Democratic President Bill Clinton’s five-week impeachment trial in 1999.

The Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump in December on charges he pressured Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

The following explains what the Republican-supported resolution on trial rules is expected to look like.

What will be covered by the Republican-backed “phase one” plan?

McConnell has not yet published a draft of the resolution but he said it would be “very similar” to one adopted in January 1999 during the Clinton trial.

That resolution set deadlines for the prosecution and defense to submit “trial briefs” that laid out their cases in writing. The resolution also allocated 24 hours for representatives of each side to make oral arguments and set aside 16 hours for senators to ask them questions.

It allowed senators to seek dismissal of the charges against Clinton in the middle of the trial, which would have effectively ended the process. A senator sympathetic to Clinton filed such a motion, but it was voted down.

Crucially, the resolution, which passed 100-0, did not resolve whether witnesses would be called — one of the most contentious questions in any impeachment trial. A follow-up resolution allowing for three witnesses to testify in videotaped depositions passed 2-1/2 weeks later along a party-line vote, backed by 54 Republicans and opposed by 44 Democrats.

The type of resolution described by McConnell would supplement, rather than replace, a set of detailed impeachment trial rules dating back to 1868 known as the “standing rules,” said Donald Wolfensberger, a congressional scholar in Washington.

The “standing rules” specify speeches different individuals must recite and the times of day when events must occur, among other items.

How many votes does McConnell need for his “phase one” plan?

The answer to this question depends on whether U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi transmits the articles of impeachment against Trump to the Senate, said Wolfensberger.

Once that happens, the Senate can open the trial and only a simple majority of senators would be needed to decide on the sort of initial rules McConnell has described, Wolfensberger said.

That vote would not occur until after Pelosi sends over the impeachment package, McConnell has said. Pelosi has held onto the papers in hopes of pressuring the Republican-controlled Senate into agreeing to hear testimony during the trial.

Frustrated with Pelosi’s delay, Republican Senator Josh Hawley on Jan. 5 introduced a resolution that would allow the Senate to dismiss the impeachment articles before the House transmits them. It would require the support of two-thirds of the Senate to pass, making that outcome unlikely.

Could there still be witnesses in the Senate trial?

It is possible congressional Democrats will succeed in their push to hear from witnesses during the trial.

The Senate now has 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and two independents who usually vote with the Democrats. That means four Republicans would need to cross party lines and join Democrats in requesting witness testimony.

Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton said on Jan. 5 he would testify before the Senate if issued a subpoena, a surprise development that could potentially strengthen the case that Trump should be removed from office.

U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer now is pressuring Republican lawmakers to vote to allow witnesses and documents. Democrats hope to hear from Bolton and three current White House officials, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Republicans could conceivably try to call witnesses of their own, like Biden or the government whistleblower whose complaint ultimately led to the impeachment inquiry.

Trump is unlikely to be removed from office, however, because under the U.S. Constitution that would require the support of two-thirds of the Senate.

(Reporting by Jan WolfeEditing by Andy Sullivan and Cynthia Osterman)

Top Senate Republican blasts House impeachment effort against Trump

By David Morgan and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday signaled opposition to a Democratic request to call new witnesses in a Senate trial expected next month on whether to remove President Donald Trump from office, saying he would not allow a “fishing expedition” after a “slapdash” House impeachment process.

Lawmakers from both parties were set to grapple on Tuesday over the rules of engagement for a historic vote set for Wednesday in the Democratic-led House of Representatives, where Trump is likely to become the third U.S. president to be impeached.

If the House approves articles of impeachment – formal charges – as expected, it would set the stage for a trial in the Senate, controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans – on whether to convict him and remove him from office. No president has ever been removed from office via the impeachment process set out in the U.S. Constitution.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has said he wants the trial to consider documents and hear testimony from four witnesses, including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, saying testimony could sway Republicans in favor of impeachment.

Speaking on the Senate floor, McConnell took aim at Schumer and Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee that spearheaded the impeachment inquiry launched in September.

“So now, the Senate Democratic leader would apparently like our chamber to do House Democrats’ homework for them. And he wants to volunteer the Senate’s time and energy on a fishing expedition to see whether his own ideas could make Chairman Schiff’s sloppy work more persuasive than Chairman Schiff himself bothered to make it,” McConnell said.

“From everything we can tell, House Democrats’ slapdash impeachment inquiry has failed to come anywhere near – anywhere near – the bar for impeaching a duly elected president, let alone removing him for the first time in American history,” McConnell added.

McConnell said he also hoped to meet with Schumer very soon to discuss how to proceed.

Trump remained in attack mode a day before his expected impeachment in the Democratic-led House, referring to the process in a Twitter post as “this whole Democrat Scam” and calling himself “your all time favorite President.”

“Don’t worry, I have done nothing wrong. Actually, they have!” Trump wrote.

In what is expected to be a marathon meeting, the House Rules Committee will decide how much time to set aside for debate on Wednesday before lawmakers vote on two articles of impeachment charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress over his dealings with Ukraine.

Representative Jerry Nadler – the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which approved the articles of impeachment last week – will miss the Rules Committee meeting because of a family emergency, and Representative Jamie Raskin will represent the Democrats in his place, a congressional aide said. Nadler is expected to be back at the Capitol on Wednesday.

The panel’s top Republican, Representative Doug Collins, also will testify before the Rules Committee.

The looming vote promises to bring a raucous, partisan conclusion to a months-long impeachment inquiry against Trump that has bitterly divided the American public as voters prepare for next year’s presidential and congressional elections.

The House is expected to approve the impeachment articles largely along partisan lines. The action then moves to the Republican-controlled Senate, where the effort to remove Trump from office faces long odds.

House Democrats accuse Trump of abusing his power by asking Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic contender to oppose him in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. He is also accused of obstructing Congress’ investigation into the matter.

Trump has denied wrongdoing.

Lawmakers are expected to offer amendments at the Rules Committee meeting, which could run for 12 hours or more depending on how many of the House’s 431 sitting legislators decide to show up and speak.

In the end, the committee will set the rules for the floor debate that will precede the impeachment vote.

The White House, which has not cooperated in the impeachment inquiry in the House, also signaled opposition to Schumer’s requests for the Senate trial.

“Why in the world should we be asked to fill in the blanks that the Democrats created? They created these huge holes and canyons in the presentation of their case. It’s not up to us to help them fill in the blanks and make their case,” presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters.

The final House vote is expected to fall largely along party lines. Several Democrats from districts that backed Trump in 2016 said on Monday they would vote to impeach him.

Trump will be on friendlier terrain in the Senate, which is expected to consider the charges in January.

Republicans hold 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and at least 20 of them would have to vote to convict Trump in order to clear the two-thirds majority required to remove Trump from office. None have indicated they may do so.

McConnell has suggested the chamber could move quickly to a vote without hearing from witnesses, after House Democrats and the White House make their presentations.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Patricia Zengerle; additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Patricia Zengerle and Makini Brice; editing by Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)