Impeachment Briefing: A Preview of the Senate Trial

This is the Impeachment Briefing, The Times’s newsletter about the impeachment investigation. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every weeknight.

  • Senate Republican leaders said that they had the votes — including those of moderates like Susan Collins — to shape an impeachment trial on their own terms, allowing them to move ahead without reaching a deal with Democrats, who want to call new witnesses and introduce new evidence.

  • The plan put forward by Senator Mitch McConnell would feature representatives of the House and the president making opening arguments before senators question both sides. A decision on witnesses would come afterward.

  • The plan is like the one used during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999, which was approved by unanimous vote. But unlike then, when testimony from every major witness had already been made public by the time the case came to trial, President Trump has withheld key witnesses and nearly every piece of documentary evidence related to the case.

  • Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, called the plan a “kick-the-can down the road theory” and promised to force votes on four witnesses and document requests regardless. Senate Democrats are expected to oppose the Republican plan almost unanimously.

It appeared that all 53 Republican senators would vote for Mr. McConnell’s plan at the outset of the trial. Here’s where both sides stand on what a trial should look like.

  • Many Senate Republicans have for weeks advocated a brief, narrow trial without witnesses, accusing House Democrats of failing to build a thorough enough case against Mr. Trump to warrant consideration of new material. Mr. McConnell is betting that once a trial starts, the desire to get it over with may persuade members of his party not to vote to hear from more witnesses.

  • That abbreviated trial could include only what Mr. McConnell announced Tuesday: opening statements and cross-examination, giving a voice to both sides without incorporating new revelations. An acquittal of Mr. Trump would cap it off.

  • Some moderate Republicans have signaled that they would support a more deliberate trial featuring witnesses like John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser. “Going with the Clinton impeachment process is satisfactory to me because that process did provide, down the road, for an opportunity to hear from witnesses, and I would like to hear from John Bolton,” Senator Mitt Romney said.

  • Senate Democrats have focused on two elements of a potential trial — new witnesses and new documents. They want to hear from four people: Mr. Bolton, Mick Mulvaney, one of Mr. Mulvaney’s deputies and a White House budget official, none of whom testified in the House. Mr. Schumer has also said he wants to see more documents in the vein of the White House emails released in December.

  • Democrats want Mr. Trump removed from office. But at the very least, they want to put vulnerable Republican senators in uncomfortable positions. The rules require only a simple majority — 51 senators — to call witnesses, meaning that Republicans unwilling to publicly protest more fact-finding can break ranks on motions that Democrats introduce. “Our best leverage right now over Republicans is votes inside the Senate trial,” Senator Chris Murphy said Tuesday. “We should probably get to the point where we can put Republicans on record as soon as possible.”

Before the Senate trial can begin, Speaker Nancy Pelosi must send over the two impeachment articles that House Democrats passed in December. Why is she still holding on to them? I asked my colleague Nick Fandos, who’s been covering the discussion in the Democratic caucus.

Nick, did anything happen with the articles over the two-week break?

Democrats will tell you they succeeded in some ways, by using the time to try to focus on the need for witnesses and documents in the Senate trial and put pressure on Republicans to have to take a position on whether they’d support calling witnesses. They did that both in private and by giving speeches and interviews that attempted to shift the media narrative around these questions to ensure that moderate senators like Ms. Collins and Lisa Murkowski, when they went home, got questioned about a trial and its fairness.

But Mr. McConnell didn’t give over anything today. What is Ms. Pelosi hoping for by continuing to hold the articles even after Congress’s return this week?

By every account, she has kept her own counsel on this and given very little idea of the direction she’s going in. But we know that she continues to want to try and leave the question open to allow for more information to surface through news reports or public information requests. The idea is to allow for other wild cards to get played, like John Bolton, and make Senate Republicans and Mr. Trump, who wants to be acquitted, sweat a little.

What do Senate Democrats think?

There’s a good deal of pressure mounting on Ms. Pelosi to bring the suspense to a close and get the next step in the process on its way. Some Senate Democrats have started to say there are diminishing returns on holding the articles, that the best shot they have for leverage now is for calling for votes on the Senate floor and forcing moderates or politically vulnerable senators to go on the record about whether they want to hear from people like Mr. Bolton.

What do you think the timing looks like for a trial?

The House reconvenes tonight, so there could be a decision as soon as this week. Or we could see this play out a little further into next week. But with lawmakers finally back in town, it’s feeling increasingly likely that this ambiguous period is going to come to an end.

Ms. Pelosi clearly still thinks she can still try to make the politics harder for some senators, that she could maybe squeeze out a little more political juice. But after today, it appears highly unlikely Democrats are going to be able to influence the ground rules.

  • A day after Mr. Bolton said he would be willing to testify in a Senate trial, Mr. Trump played down his former aide’s relevance as a witness. “He would know nothing about what we’re talking about,” Mr. Trump said.

  • In an Op-Ed in The Times, George Conway (the husband of Kellyanne Conway, a top counselor to Mr. Trump) and the former acting solicitor general Neal Katyal urged Senate Republicans to allow Mr. Bolton to testify. “The Constitution imposes upon the Senate a duty to ‘try all impeachments,’” they wrote, “and so a real trial — with all relevant testimony and evidence — is what is required.”

  • My colleague Carl Hulse sees similarities between Mr. Bolton’s possible appearance and the landmark testimony by Christine Blasey Ford at Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. “Republican leaders are leery but eventually relent, as some of their rank and file insist that fairness — and, equally important, public perception and credibility — depends on hearing the crucial firsthand account and allowing more investigation,” Carl wrote.

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