Trump to Benefit From McConnell’s Trial Rules: Key Takeaways

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21 jan. 2020, 03.26

(Bloomberg) -- The rules that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed for the trial to determine whether President Donald Trump should be removed from office would give the White House defense team a path to a speedy acquittal.

McConnell had said he would use as a model the rules for Bill Clinton’s trial a generation ago. But the resolution he offered on Monday differs in significant ways, with restrictions on the treatment of House evidence as well as a ruthlessly tight timetable.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called the rules a plan for a “cover-up” rather than a trial and said they were designed to benefit the president. No Republican senator has raised objections to McConnell’s proposal.

Debating, and possibly changing, the resolution is the first order of business when the Senate trial gets underway in earnest Tuesday.

Here are the key takeaways:

GOP sets a tight -- and grueling -- schedule

McConnell’s proposal gives House managers and Trump’s defense team 24 hours of floor time each to make their arguments, but they have just two days to use that time, instead of the three utilized in Clinton’s trial.

That’s a tough schedule for the impeachment managers if they want to use all of their alloted time. The proceedings each day get underway at 1 p.m., meaning their arguments would stretch into the wee hours on both days.

The compact schedule could help McConnell speed the trial toward completion, especially if no witnesses are called. Schumer on Tuesday called it “a blueprint for an impeachment trial on fast-forward” and said he will offer amendments to assure that crucial parts of the trial aren’t held in the dead of night.

If McConnell can keep his party united against witnesses and fresh evidence, Trump could be acquitted as early as next week under the plan to limit arguments.

Trump’s team can move to dismiss charges

The rules would also allow the president’s team to seek a quick dismissal of the charges, though McConnell has said there aren’t enough votes in the GOP-led chamber for it to pass. Many Republican senators have said they should at least hear the case.

During the Clinton trial, a motion to dismiss was considered toward the end of the trial, and it was advanced by a U.S. senator, not the White House. That motion, which failed, was offered by Senator Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat.

The White House immediately backed McConnell’s rules but didn’t indicate whether it would press for a quick vote on a motion to dismiss, which could be offered as soon as Wednesday.

“Protecting the president’s rights to offer pretrial motions was critical for us to support the package, and we’re very gratified with the resolution,” Eric Ueland, the White House’s liaison to Congress, said. “I’m not going to talk about trial strategy publicly.”

House evidence won’t be automatically accepted

During the Clinton impeachment trial, the initial ground rules said the House record, including the publicly available materials produced by the House Judiciary Committee, would be admitted as evidence, printed and made available to senators.

McConnell’s proposed rules don’t automatically accept the record compiled by the House, although it would still be printed and distributed. A vote would occur later in the trial on whether to admit House evidence into the trial record after the Senate has considered any motion to subpoena witnesses or documents.

That doesn’t prevent the House impeachment managers from making the evidence part of their arguments in the Senate. As part of their case, they may also attempt to reference evidence that wasn’t part of the original impeachment inquiry, such as material from Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani.

A senior GOP leadership aide said this procedure was added because of what Republicans say was a lack of due process for the president in the House proceedings. Schumer charged that the process is “designed to prevent the Senate and the American people from learning the full truth about President Trump’s actions that warranted his impeachment.”

Moderate GOP senators get vote on whether to call witnesses

Neither side will be allowed to call witnesses or seek documents under the proposed rules unless a majority of the Senate votes to allow such motions after the opening phase of the trial, including up to 16 hours of senators’ questions.

McConnell had initially pushed Senate Republicans to consider a trial with no witnesses, but that ran into opposition from at least four Republicans who want to vote on whether to hear additional testimony. They are: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Mitt Romney of Utah.

The resolution will allow the Senate to take a roll call vote on whether to hear from more witnesses.

If that succeeds, Schumer wants to call four witnesses, including White House Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former National Security Advisor John Bolton. But to win, Schumer will need the support of at least four Republicans, and it’s not clear the four who simply want a vote on the matter of witnesses would be with him.

There is a risk for Democrats, because Republicans may seek to call their own witnesses. Trump also threatened to invoke executive privilege to limit or block testimony from Bolton or current members of the administration.

--With assistance from Billy House and Daniel Flatley.

To contact the reporters on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at llitvan@bloomberg.net;Steven T. Dennis in Washington at sdennis17@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Anna Edgerton, Kevin Whitelaw

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