Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has proposed pushing back the start of former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial to February to give him time to prepare and review his case.
“Senate Republicans are strongly united behind the principle that the institution of the Senate, the office of the presidency, and former President Trump himself all deserve a full and fair process that respects his rights and the serious factual, legal, and constitutional questions at stake,” McConnell said in a statement Thursday night. “Given the unprecedented speed of the House’s process, our proposed timeline for the initial phases includes a modest and reasonable amount of additional time for both sides to assemble their arguments before the Senate would begin to hear them.”
“At this time of strong political passions, Senate Republicans believe it is absolutely imperative that we do not allow a half-baked process to short-circuit the due process that former President Trump deserves or damage the Senate or the presidency,” the GOP leader added.
House Democrats who voted to impeach Trump last week for inciting the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot have signaled they want to move quickly to trial as President Joe Biden begins his term, saying a full reckoning is necessary before the country — and the Congress — can move on.
But McConnell suggested a more expansive timeline that would see the House transmit the article of impeachment next week, on Jan. 28, launching the trial’s first phase. After that, the Senate would give the president’s defense team and House prosecutors two weeks to file briefs. Arguments in the trial would likely begin in mid-February.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is reviewing the plan and will discuss it with McConnell, a spokesperson said. The two leaders are also negotiating how the new 50-50 Senate will work and how they will balance other priorities.
McConnell is concerned Democrats will try to kill the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to advance major legislation in the Senate. There is momentum from some within the party, especially the progressive wing, to do just that, which would allow for bills to pass with support from a simple majority.
McConnell is using the power-sharing negotiations as leverage to coax a commitment out of Schumer to not target the filibuster.
“I believe the time is ripe to address this issue head on before the passions of one particular issue or another arise,” McConnell wrote in an email to his GOP colleagues this week.
Schumer wants to strike a deal similar to the one that Sens. Trent Lott and Tom Daschle struck in 2001, the last time the Senate was evenly divided.
“Our caucus believes that the fairest, easiest, and most bipartisan way to come to an organizing resolution is to enact the 2001 agreement that Senators Lott and Daschle came to in a bipartisan way back then,” Schumer said Thursday. “Our caucus is strongly opposed to any extraneous provisions, and so we are going to keep working to try and get a bipartisan agreement.”
A trial delay could appeal to some Democrats, as it would give the Senate more time to confirm Biden’s Cabinet nominees and debate a new round of coronavirus relief. Democratic Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a key ally of the president’s, told CNN that Democrats would consider a delay “if we are making progress on confirming the very talented, seasoned and diverse team that President Joe Biden has nominated.”
The ultimate power over timing rests with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who can trigger the start of the trial at any point by sending to the Senate the charge of incitement of an insurrection. The California Democrat has not yet said when she will do that.
“It will be soon. I don’t think it will be long, but we must do it,” Pelosi said Thursday. She said Trump doesn’t deserve a “get-out-of-jail card” just because he has left office and Biden and others are calling for national unity.
Facing his second impeachment trial in two years, Trump began to assemble his defense team by hiring attorney Butch Bowers to represent him, according to an adviser. Bowers previously served as counsel to former South Carolina Govs. Nikki Haley and Mark Sanford.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) helped Trump find Bowers after members of his past legal teams indicated they did not plan to join the new effort. Trump is at a disadvantage compared to his first trial, in which he had the full resources of the White House counsel’s office to defend him.
Pelosi’s nine impeachment managers, who will be prosecuting the House case, have been regularly meeting to discuss strategy. Pelosi said she would talk to them “in the next few days” about when the Senate might be ready for a trial.
Shortly before the Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump told thousands of his supporters at a rally near the White House to “fight like hell” against the election results that Congress was certifying. A mob marched down to the Capitol and rushed in, interrupting the count. Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died in the mayhem, and the House impeached Trump a week later, with 10 Republicans joining all Democrats in support.
Pelosi said it would be “harmful to unity” to forget that “people died here on Jan. 6, the attempt to undermine our election, to undermine our democracy, to dishonor our Constitution.”
Trump was acquitted by the Republican-led Senate at his first impeachment trial. The White House legal team, aided by Trump’s personal lawyers, aggressively fought the House charges that he had encouraged the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden in exchange for military aid. This time around, Pelosi noted, the House is not seeking to convict the president over private conversations but for a very public insurrection that they themselves experienced and that played out on live television.
“This year, the whole world bore witness to the president’s incitement,” Pelosi said.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and incoming head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it was still too early to know how long a trial would take or if Democrats would want to call witnesses. But he said, “You don’t need to tell us what was going on with the mob scene we were rushing down the staircase to escape.”
McConnell, who said this week that Trump “provoked” his supporters before the riot, has not said how he will vote. He told his GOP colleagues that it will be a vote of conscience.
Democrats would need the support of at least 17 Republicans to convict Trump, a high bar. While a handful of Senate Republicans have indicated they are open to conviction, most have said they believe a trial will be divisive and questioned the legality of trying a president after he has left office.
Graham said that if he were Trump’s lawyer, he would focus on that argument and on the merits of the case — and whether it was “incitement” under the law.
“I guess the public record is your television screen,” Graham said. “So, I don’t see why this would take a long time.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.