White House counsel Pat Cipollone previewed aspects of a likely Senate impeachment trial with Republican senators Wednesday, highlighting procedural rules while also decrying what he called an unfair inquiry in the House.
Senators who attended the lunch meeting with Cipollone said he spent much of the time discussing which articles of impeachment the House is likely to hit President Trump with and what supporting facts Democrats will use to make their case in the Senate.
A White House official said the meeting was “the outgrowth of a conversation between several members [in the Senate] and all of us over at the White House” who thought it would be a “good time” for Trump’s legal team to meet with the entire GOP conference.
Cipollone also argued that the House inquiry was flawed because Trump’s defense team was not given the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and Republicans were constrained in calling their own witnesses, GOP senators said.
“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 Cipollone’s message to Republican senators.
Cipollone said several times that the House Democrats’ case against Trump wasn’t strong enough to warrant an impeachment vote, reflecting a belief among some White House officials that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) might stop short of a final vote that could put moderate Democrats from swing districts in a tough spot.
While Pelosi has not said an impeachment vote is a certainty, the House is expected to move forward with articles of impeachment this month.
Wednesday’s meeting with Cipollone was hosted by Senate Republican Steering Committee Chairman Mike Lee (Utah), who met on at least two prior occasions with the White House counsel to discuss the Senate impeachment process.
Trump has also hosted a series of weekly meetings with small groups of GOP senators at the White House to shore up his relations with lawmakers who could ultimately vote on whether to remove him from office.
With the prospect of a Senate trial becoming more likely, some Republicans were growing concerned they had little sense of what to expect.
“Trials don’t happen very often, so members have lots of questions about what’s going to happen,” said one GOP senator. “There were a lot of members who were starting to panic because they didn’t know, they didn’t know who was in charge.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told reporters Wednesday that some senators weren’t clear on questions like how many votes it would take to decide key procedural questions.
“Like the vote threshold, a lot of us were uncertain there,” Braun said.
Fifty-one votes will be needed to pass procedural motions.
Republican lawmakers familiar with the preparations for the Senate trial described Cipollone as the “quarterback” in charge of the legal strategy, even while Trump has handled much of the political and communications component.
Some GOP senators have urged Trump to step back from the partisan fighting and not let himself be so consumed by it, a strategy that former President Clinton employed effectively during his impeachment.
Republican senators who attended Wednesday’s meeting said much of it was spent discussing what the House impeachment managers’ case was likely to look like in the Senate.
Lawmakers asked Cipollone about timing and “what should we do when we get it,” referring to the articles of impeachment, another GOP senator said.
The White House counsel and Senate Republicans also discussed the likelihood of articles of impeachment including new information or accusations that haven’t yet come up in the House hearings, according to two senators in the room.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted after the meeting that House Democrats will draft and vote on multiple articles of impeachment.
“This will be designed to allow Dem House members to vote FOR some articles and AGAINST others. They will ‘try’ to give the appearance of fairness,” Graham tweeted.
There was some discussion about the ability to call witnesses, but Trump’s counsel didn’t provide any specific names, leaving GOP senators unsure of whether the president’s team will try to bring in the anonymous whistleblower who sparked the impeachment inquiry, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) or former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.
The meeting also left unanswered exactly how long the Senate trial might last.
Senators said it could last a month or longer, citing Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial, which lasted about five weeks.
As Cipollone met with the GOP conference, the Senate released its legislative calendar for 2020, which left the entire month of January blank in anticipation of a trial.
“I’ve heard there’s a big shotgun hole in the middle of January with nothing on it,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said GOP leaders have to prepare for the “worst case” scenario of a trial stretching for multiple weeks.
Blunt, the chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, 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 Minority 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.
McConnell on Tuesday told reporters that if the Senate fails to pass a rules package at the start of the trial, debate will proceed, and the chamber will hold a series of votes on various procedural motions.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, said he will offer a motion to dismiss the impeachment articles after the House prosecutors and the president’s defense team have a chance to present their arguments.
“Under the Clinton impeachment rules, a motion to dismiss was allowed after opening arguments. So I would think at the very least we should have that. If there’s going to be opening arguments, we should do like we did in the Clinton trial and at least have a motion to dismiss at that point,” he said.
Paul also said he would push hard to allow the president’s defense team broad authority to choose their witnesses.
“The other thing that I think needs to be very clear is that the president gets to call any witness he so desires for his defense,” he said.
Jordain Carney contributed.