President Trump’s legal defense team is gearing up for an expected Senate impeachment trial, meeting with Republican senators Wednesday to complain about the House process and go over the procedural rules of the next phase.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone met with the entire Senate GOP conference over lunch Wednesday to discuss strategy for the upcoming Senate impeachment trial in an effort to shore up the president’s legal and political defenses ahead of what could be a lengthy process.
Republican lawmakers familiar with the preparations for Trump’s Senate trial describe Cipollone as the “quarterback” in charge of the legal strategy, even while Trump himself has handled much of the political and communications strategy.
The lunch meeting, hosted by Senate Republican Steering Committee Chairman Mike Lee (R-Utah), gave the White House counsel a chance to gauge support for Trump within the conference and get a better feel for how a trial might play out.
Cipollone spent much of the meeting criticizing the House impeachment process and the Democrats’ case that Trump abused his power by pressing Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
“He said a number of times, ‘We don’t think there’s any reason the House should send this to the Senate,’” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) when asked about the White House counsel’s message to Republican senators.
Blunt said if the House passes articles of impeachment, Senate leaders will look at the calendar and assess if there’s a chance to strike a bipartisan deal to set the rules of the trial.
If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) fail to reach a deal, McConnell will try to muster 51 votes within his conference to pass a partisan rules package.
Cipollone and GOP lawmakers discussed the possibility of calling witnesses to the Senate floor, something that would require 51 votes to approve. But GOP senators say Cipollone did not float any specific names of potential witnesses, such as Hunter Biden or the anonymous whistleblower.
Nor did the White House counsel express a preference for the length of the Senate trial, indicating only that Trump wants a chance to offer a defense.
“He should have had that privilege in the House but he wants to have that day in court and he’ll get it on this side,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said of Trump.
Perdue said he would fully support Cipollone’s efforts to bring additional witnesses to the floor.
The Senate released its legislative calendar for 2020 during the meeting. The chamber has left the entire month of January unscheduled in case the trial runs for several weeks.
“I think it’s best to plan for that unless somebody has a 35th anniversary trip or something designed for the week of Martin Luther King [Day],” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who called it “prudent” to plan for the trial to take at least a month in what he called the “worst case scenario.”
Wednesday’s meeting gave Cipollone the chance to make arguments about what many Republicans perceive as the lack of fairness in the House impeachment process.
Cipollone had also met with a smaller group of Senate Republicans shortly before the Thanksgiving recess to talk about the expected trial.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who attended last month’s meeting with Cipollone and other senior advisers at the White House, has speculated the Senate trial is likely to follow the precedents set by the 1999 impeachment trial of former President Clinton.
Graham said Wednesday’s lunch would give the White House lawyer a chance to raise concerns about the House impeachment process, which has limited the White House’s ability to cross-examine Democratic witnesses and call rebuttal witnesses.
“I hope he’d walk through the administration’s concerns about what’s going on in the House, why they’re taking what positions they’re taking. Explain to the Senate the concerns they have about the House process, what they intend to do and not do,” Graham said before the meeting.
Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the ability of Trump’s legal team to call witnesses to the floor will depend on getting 51 votes or a simple majority to approve those witnesses.
In 1999, the Republican House impeachment managers were unable to muster enough support to bring Monica Lewinsky, a key witness, to the floor for Clinton’s trial, although senators voted to allow Lewinsky’s videotaped deposition testimony to be played.