Trump disrupts Republican trial strategy
Just five hours after Senate Republicans carefully assembled and passed an impeachment trial framework that could clear Donald Trump by next week, the president himself delivered an unwanted surprise to the GOP: The prospect of a longer trial with lots of witnesses.
Senate Republicans have been publicly and privately maneuvering to give Trump as quick an acquittal as possible while still keeping 51 GOP senators on board. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has largely thrown cold water on the idea of hearing from new witnesses and many of his members are eager to end the trial, not extend it.
In interviews Wednesday morning ahead of House managers’ opening arguments, Republicans empathized with the president’s call for new testimony. But they also said that they will tune out any outside noise if they can — including the running commentary from a president who demands party loyalty — and potentially wrap up the trial far more quickly than Trump desires.
“Certainly, the president has those in the Senate who are very interested in his views,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), but added, “Those are decisions to more likely be made by senators themselves, and individually and collectively, than outside influences.”
“There’s obviously a frustration on [Trump’s] part that makes him just want to get everything out in the open,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “But we have an obligation to conduct the trial in the way that in our judgment is most appropriate. And that’s reflected in the organizing resolution.”
As a president who both wants to fight the charges against him while simultaneously arguing the “country has to get back to business,” Trump is sending his party mixed messages ahead of a critical point next week on whether to call witnesses. And that’s because the president himself is conflicted about how to handle the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history, allies say.
Trump’s comments also showed the challenges of working with an outspoken and erratic president right in the middle of an effort to oust him from office — all in an election year to boot.
After Trump’s legal team emphatically supported McConnell’s organizing resolution setting up a potentially speedy trial, the president mused in Davos on Wednesday morning about going the “long way” on his trial, with testimony from a “a lot of people,” including former national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
And though Trump ultimately left the question of how to handle the trial to the Senate, he made clear how he feels about whether to wind down the trial as quickly as possible: “Personally, I would rather go the long route.”
However, in an interview with Fox News later in the day, Trump then asserted “it would be very bad for the Republican Party if we lost that great unity that we have right now” by voting with Democrats for witnesses.
“He has been internally conflicted from the beginning. Because there’s value in getting it over with quickly and getting on with the business of governing,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “And for him personally there’s some value in a process that not only acquits him but exonerates him. That’s a legitimate internal conflict.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) acknowledged that the president’s remarks go against the Senate GOP strategy: “I understand the president’s desire to get all this information out in the public, but at the same time we have to look at what’s best for the country.”
Senate Democrats, however, have seen Trump’s vacillation before. From the president’s optimistic talk on everything from enhanced background checks on gun sales to a big bipartisan infrastructure deal, they are used to being left with false hope from Trump.
So when they hear the president talk about encouraging Pompeo and Perry to testify, Democrats “don’t believe a word of it,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
“He waits and sees if there’s a negative public reaction to his position, he announces he’s going to go the other way. And never does,” Durbin said.
Moreover, Trump's legal team fought every Democratic motion on Tuesday to call witnesses like Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Deputy White House counsel Mike Purpura argued it’s not the Senate’s role “to do the House’s job for it.”
Trump has offered various positions on the impeachment proceedings. At the president’s direction, White House officials refused to cooperate at all with the House impeachment inquiry. But back in November, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested that Trump should testify in the House probe, the president suggested he might do it, because he liked the idea and “did nothing wrong.” He revived that idea Wednesday.
And last year, Trump said on Twitter that he’d love to have Pompeo, Perry, Mulvaney and many others testify about the “phony Impeachment Hoax,” but worried that doing so might compromise future presidents. In the lead-up to the Senate trial, GOP aides said White House officials pressed to have the quickest possible proceedings in the Senate, including asking for a vote to immediately dismiss the impeachment articles. But McConnell said there was “little or no sentiment”" in the Senate Republican Conference for doing so.
In a typical Trump flourish, the president did add plenty of wiggle room on Wednesday to his hopes for a lengthy trial. He said there’s a “national security problem” with letting Bolton testify, in a sign the president would seek to block Bolton’s testimony.
With that level of equivocation, GOP senators say Trump isn’t yet forcing their hand in his impeachment trial. But there’s more than a week to go, and there’s no question that the president is a hands-on participant in his own impeachment trial.
“I don’t evaluate the president’s daily comments. No president’s ever been accessible to the media than he is. And he usually manages that discussion in the direction he wants to manage it,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “I assume there is some method to his [remarks].”