Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is under pressure from Senate Democrats, House Republicans and President Trump when it comes to the fraught impeachment trial that is about to take over life in the Senate.
Democrats are making it crystal clear they’ll cast McConnell as a Trump stooge if he doesn’t run what they consider to be a fair trial. House Republicans, frustrated they didn’t get to call former Vice President Joe Biden or the anonymous whistleblower as witnesses, are demanding that McConnell put them in the hot seat.
And the GOP leader, who himself is up for reelection next year, is under the wary eyes of Trump and his own Senate caucus. Any false steps are bound to bring the heat — and even more pressure for the Senate veteran.
“There’s a lot of incoming right now,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of McConnell’s advisers, who mostly shrugged it off.
“He can handle it,” Cornyn said.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) who kept mostly quiet on the subject of impeachment during the House inquiry, went on the offensive Sunday and Monday, sending a letter to McConnell and following up with media appearances to demand witnesses at the trial.
Schumer put the GOP leader on the defensive by questioning his willingness to hold a fair proceeding.
The Democratic leader slammed as “totally out of line” McConnell’s statement in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity that he would essentially let Trump’s legal team dictate the Senate Republican’s position on what a trial should look like.
Separately, Schumer’s No. 2, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), accused McConnell of setting up an unfair trial.
He said the fact that McConnell hasn’t yet met with Schumer to negotiate the trial procedure “is not a good signal,” and drew a contrast to the communications between then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) ahead of the last impeachment trial in 1999.
“I hope there are four Republican senators who agree we ought to do this in a dignified way,” Durbin added, referring to the number of GOP senators who would need to vote with Democrats to overrule the GOP leader.
In a letter sent to McConnell Sunday, Schumer noted that during the 1999 Clinton impeachment trial, House impeachment managers were allowed to call witnesses.
Specifically, Schumer wants to hear from acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, senior advisor to the acting White House chief of staff Robert Blair and associate director for the National Security office of Management and Budget Michael Duffy.
The issue for McConnell isn’t so much Schumer as it is senators such as Susan Collins, the Maine Republican up for reelection next year who might side with the Democrats.
McConnell has just 53 GOP senators, and can only afford two defections on motions during a Senate trial. Tie votes will fail, as neither Vice President Pence nor Chief Justice John Roberts, who will preside over the trial, will vote on motions.
On Monday at least, Schumer’s gambit seemed to falter with Collins, who called his move “unfortunate.”
At the same time, the key Senate moderate distanced herself from McConnell’s statement that “there will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this.”
Collins told reporters that this “would not be the approach that I’ve taken.”
McConnell must still be wary of arguments come from his own party.
The GOP leader has come under pressure from House Republicans who have called on his Senate Republicans to take a more aggressive tack by calling on Biden and his son Hunter to explain their dealings in Ukraine.
The House Republicans are echoing Trump, who has also pressed for his party to invite witnesses to give his legal team a chance to argue that Trump was justified in seeking to investigate Ukrainian corruption.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said last month the president expected to “hear from witnesses who actually witnessed, and possible participated in corruption — like Adam Schiff, Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, and the so-called whistleblower.”
Hunter Biden’s work on an energy company has sparked scrutiny from Republicans, though no evidence has emerged that the former vice president’s efforts to get a prosecutor in Ukraine to resign had anything to do with his son’s work.
A Republican senator and senior administration official said last week that Trump had not given up his call for the Bidens and other witnesses he believes could testify about Ukrainian corruption to testify before the Senate.
The GOP senator said Trump has made McConnell’s job challenging by repeatedly changing his mind about whether he wants witnesses, which would lengthen the trial.
“Sometimes it’s ‘I want this over. Can’t we just reject it the day it comes in? Can’t you dismiss it all?’ and then it’s ‘I want a full trial,’” the lawmaker said, describing Trump’s shifting views of the best strategy to respond to the articles of impeachment.
McConnell has made it clear to GOP colleagues that he prefers a short trial without additional witness testimony.
He is betting that once the House impeachment managers make their case and the president’s legal team has a chance to respond, he will have enough votes to acquit Trump on the articles of impeachment and the president at that point will be happy to end the trial without witness testimony, said a GOP senator familiar with McConnell’s thinking.
But at least one Republican senator is undercutting McConnell’s strategy to avoid witnesses.
On Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has clashed with McConnell in the past, said Trump should be allowed to call witnesses such as the Bidens, even though some other Republicans such as Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) warn that could turn the Senate into a “circus.”
“If the president wants to call witnesses, if the president wants to call Hunter Biden or wants to call the whistle-blower, the Senate should allow the president to do so,” Cruz said on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), McConnell’s top deputy, said votes on motions to call witnesses or move to a final up-or-down vote on the articles of impeachment could come after the House prosecutors and Trump’s legal team have presented their cases to the Senate.
“I don’t think that can be decided in advance of this thing getting under way,” Thune said when asked if there would be an agreement on witnesses before the trial’s start. “That’s not the way it’s been done in the past. I think those decisions will be made down the road and I think it’s going to be up to what 51 senators want to do.”
Thune added that McConnell and Schumer could begin negotiating the trial rules as soon as this week.