Senate Democrats are quietly talking about asking Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to hold articles of impeachment in the House until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agrees to a fair rules package for a Senate trial.
Democratic senators are concerned by talk among Senate Republicans of holding a speedy trial without witnesses, which would set up a shorter time frame than when the Senate considered President Clinton’s 1999 impeachment.
They want to hear from Trump’s advisers and worry that if they don’t use their leverage now, they’ll have little say over how a Senate trial is run.
“If we don’t agree on a set of rules before the articles arrive over here, I think we’re cooked. I think McConnell has his people totally in line. It will be a procedural thing,” said one concerned Democratic senator.
The senator said there’s growing alarm in the Democratic Conference that McConnell will pass a resolution that would prevent witness testimony or the displaying of posters or playing of videos on the Senate floor. Videos and posters were both a part of the televised committee hearings in the House.
“They’ll pass whatever rules they want, and so we need to determine for a fair trial what witnesses we want, what documents we want. Are we going to allow videos? Are you going to allow boards that go up with votes so you explain things to the audience that is watching out there in a really powerful way?” the lawmaker added. “I think our maximum leverage of getting what we want is now, before the articles come over.”
Democrats discussed their impeachment strategy at a closed-door Steering Committee meeting on Wednesday attended by former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, former Obama White House counsel Bob Bauer and strategist Stephanie Cutter, according to a document listing the guests.
University of North Carolina law professor Michael Gerhardt, an impeachment specialist, and Frank Bowman, the author of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump,” also attended.
The legal experts told Democrats they have a strong case against Trump but that they must present their charges as vividly as possible.
“I think we should have witnesses, and I think that the way we hear from the witnesses will be determined by negotiations,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who left the presidential campaign trail to attend the meeting after missing Senate votes on Monday and Tuesday.
“But I think we should hear from witnesses, and I would most like to hear from all the president’s men,” Klobuchar told The Hill.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also attended the session.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is the witness that Democrats most want to hear from, along with former national security adviser John Bolton. They would also like to call in acting Office of Management and Budget Director Russ Vought, who could testify as to why assistance to Ukraine was held up.
None of these officials testified during the House investigation, and Democrats in that chamber decided to move forward with impeachment rather than await a court battle over subpoenas.
In the Senate, the GOP holds 53 seats and Republicans could block witnesses from testifying.
A second Democratic senator who requested anonymity acknowledged that Democrats have limited power but said the timing of when articles of impeachment come over from the House was a point of leverage.
“There’s no requirement the impeachment articles be sent here within any particular time. But certainly we don’t want delay just for the sake of delay,” the lawmaker said.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said the Senate trial should also include sensitive documents that the White House blocked House investigators from obtaining.
“We do need to admit we don’t have a full record. The White House has engaged in unprecedented obstruction regarding documents and witnesses,” he said.
“I’m most interested in records and documents,” he said. “Given what we know about the texts that were released, you have to imagine there are multitudes of damning emails and texts.”
If Pelosi holds onto the articles of impeachment, some Democrats hope it will put more pressure on McConnell to negotiate the trial rules with Schumer.
Schumer told reporters Tuesday that he has yet to sit down with McConnell for such discussions.
McConnell told reporters last week that if he fails to reach a deal with Schumer, he will attempt to find 51 votes in the Senate Republican Conference to pass a partisan rules package.
A senior Senate Republican aide scoffed at the suggested tactics, saying that holding back articles of impeachment won’t put any pressure on McConnell.
“It won’t work,” said the aide. “Leader McConnell has said multiple times he’s not going to engage on this until the articles of impeachment come over here.”
Senate Republicans in recent days have backed further away from the possibility of a lengthy Senate trial that would feature witnesses.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), when asked about the possibility of witnesses, said “people are starting to realize that could be a pretty messy and unproductive process.”
Instead, GOP senators are looking at a more streamlined process where House impeachment managers and Trump’s legal teams would present their cases and then the Senate would move quickly to a vote.
“I would think the consensus would be, let the House make their case, let the president make their case and then put forward a motion to vote,” Johnson said.
Trump wants Republicans to call former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, who received a hefty paycheck to serve on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, as well as the unnamed whistleblower whose complaint helped spark the inquiry and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to be grilled as part of his legal defense.
But GOP senators worry that would then open the door for Democrats to call Mulvaney, Bolton and other senior Trump advisers to testify.
“If you start opening up to witnesses, you start opening up to all witnesses, so I think the president’s got to really decide to what extent he wants to go down that road,” Johnson added.
Some Democrats may also want the impeachment trial to be over sooner rather than later.
A January trial would bump into the Iowa presidential caucuses, where five Democratic senators are still competing. And in the House, Democrats want to focus on their agenda as they head into the 2020 campaigns.