Senators Spar Over Impeachment Trial Rules as House Vote Nears

The Capitol is seen in Washington early Wednesday. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) — With the House nearing a historic vote to impeach President Donald Trump, the Senate is preparing to take the spotlight, with its leaders bickering over how the trial should proceed and members grappling with how to assess the evidence they will hear.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Senator Chuck Schumer, have spent the early part of the week trading barbs over how McConnell plans to conduct the Senate trial.

McConnell has said he will coordinate with the White House to set parameters for the trial, including which, if any, witnesses to call and how it will ultimately be resolved. The comment drew condemnation from Democrats, including Schumer, who sent McConnell a proposal of his own that included the Senate hearing from top administration officials like acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

Parrying Schumer’s remarks, McConnell on Wednesday said he hopes to reach a bipartisan agreement on basic trial procedures, leaving issues like whether to subpoena new witnesses until later in the trial. He cited the agreement senators reached during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999 as a template for how Trump’s trial should proceed.

In that case, the Senate adopted a resolution detailing how the Senate would handle opening statements and other procedural issues, before later adopting a separate resolution authorizing the subpoenaing of witnesses.

“I’ve hoped, and still hope, that the Democratic leader and I can sit down and reproduce that unanimous bipartisan agreement this time,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “His decision to try to angrily negotiate through the press is unfortunate. But no amount of bluster will change the simple fact that we already have a unanimous bipartisan precedent.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, chair of the Judiciary Committee and a top ally of President Donald Trump in the Senate, at echoed McConnell’s desire to have a trial similar to Clinton’s. The South Carolina Republican said he wouldn’t want either side to call new witnesses to present new evidence once impeachment hits the Senate.

“I will not support witnesses being called by the president, I’m not going to support witnesses being called for by Senator Schumer,” Graham said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’re going to vote on the same product the House used, at least with my vote, and I think most Senators on my side are ready to move forward. When it gets here, my goal is to have as short of a trial as possible. What does that translate to? When 51 people are ready to vote, we’ll vote.”

Schumer hit back by saying McConnell had still not given a reason the witnesses Democrats have proposed should not be called.

“We’re not asking to be dilatory,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “We’re not asking for a list of 4,000 witnesses. We are simply asking that those who know best the truth come and talk to us in the Senate and to the American people.”

McConnell’s stance on a trial – which he says should be expedient, brief and bipartisan – has senators preparing to study the House’s case, and discerning what standard of proof they will apply to that evidence.

A report from the Congressional Research Service ahead of Clinton’s impeachment found the Constitution requires no clear standard of proof for impeachment and that the question has traditionally been up to individual senators to answer.

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and former judge, noted the trial that will take place in the Senate is not like those that play out in courtrooms. He said he would apply “a little logic” when evaluating the evidence the House sends over.

“It’s a political process, it’s not a legal process so there isn’t any standard for evidence to my knowledge,” Cornyn said.

Senator Ben Cardin, D-Md., similarly said there isn’t a need for evidence to rise beyond a reasonable doubt, as the Senate proceeding is not a criminal trial. The standard that must be met when evidence reaches the Senate is one senators will need to decide for themselves.

“Our responsibility is to be impartial, we’ll take an oath to that effect, and to make our own judgment as to what the Constitution requires us to do: either vote for or against the articles,” Cardin said.

Cardin said he is hopeful that senators will be able to hear from witnesses that had a direct link to Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which is at the center of the impeachment inquiry. Democrats accuse Trump of soliciting interference in the 2020 election by pushing for Ukraine to investigate his likely Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.

At a minimum, senators would need to hear from these witnesses to make an informed decision on impeachment, Cardin said.

Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee, said when evidence from the House’s impeachment inquiry is finally forwarded to the Senate, he will listen carefully to the presentations and cross-examinations.

He said it is impossible without seeing the evidence to say whether it will rise above the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt

“That’s like asking somebody, ‘How many fish didn’t I catch when I went fishing on Saturday?’ I don’t know,” Kennedy said.

Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said the evidence the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees have presented publicly so far doesn’t show “anything remotely approaching an impeachable offense.”

In Hawley’s view, it gave away the game that Democrats didn’t allege any criminal offense in the articles of impeachment.

“First of all, I’m not going to vote to remove a president from office and overturn the results of a presidential election when there is no actual high crime or misdemeanor even alleged, that’s what the constitutional standard is,” Hawley said. “They don’t even allege it.”

For his part, former Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he would look to the Constitution when evaluating the evidence at the Senate trial, trying to determine whether Trump committed bribery, treason or a high crime or misdemeanor.

Senator Tom Carper, D-Del., said he thought it was odd the president was unwilling to comply with congressional subpoenas and that if he was accused of a crime, he would want those around him to testify to his innocence.

In this case, Senate jurors should expect no less from the accused, he said.

“If I were president, I would want to have the truth out there. Not hiding, not keeping it a secret,” Carper said. “Mr. Thomas Jefferson used to say, ‘When people know the truth, we won’t make a mistake.’ That’s what I see.”

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