Impeachment headed for crucible of Senate

Now what?

By a margin of just over 30 votes, the US House impeached President Trump last night.

For those hoping to hold the Republican president accountable for alleged abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, that was the easy part.

The case now moves to the Senate, where Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have substantial sway over whether the charges are taken seriously.

The accusations strike at the integrity of Trump. During the House impeachment inquiry this fall, several government officials testified about a pressure campaign mounted by Trump’s inner circle to force the president of Ukraine to publicly launch a criminal investigation entangling Joe Biden, and to raise questions about whether Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election. Both of those would be to Trump’s political advantage.

Meanwhile, for several years, Ukraine has been fending off an invasion by Russian troops. As he allegedly pushed for compliance with his wishes, Trump withheld congressionally approved military assistance – relenting to the latter only after a whistleblower alerted others in government. Trump also allegedly held off on inviting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to a White House visit until Zelensky delivered on the political investigations, which he has not.

That Trump asked for those investigations is not in dispute. Neither is the fact that he withheld the aid and has not extended a White House invitation. Nor is the timeline showing the aid was released only after the whistleblower raised an alarm about the situation.

But the witnesses who have testified so far had only a limited view into Trump’s personal activity. The higher level officials – such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney – have not testified because they defied congressional subpoenas on orders from the White House.

What would those top Trump administration officials say if they were to testify before the Senate? Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wants the Senate to call Mulvaney and former National Security Advisor John Bolton to appear for a trial, but it’s hard to imagine he has anything better than a good guess about what they would say.

While Democrats want to hear from the president’s allies – taking it as a matter of faith that, despite their political fealty, they might corroborate the accusations against Trump – McConnell is leaning towards a Senate trial without any real witnesses.

“If we go down the witness path, we’re going to want the whistleblower. We’re going to want Hunter Biden. You can see here that this would be kind of a mutual assured destruction,” McConnell told Fox News. Instead, McConnell wants a trial without witnesses, where pro-impeachment members of the House present their arguments, the president’s lawyers have a chance to rebut, followed by a “period of written questions,” and then a vote.

The outcome of a Senate trial would determine whether Trump is removed from office, which would hand the reins of power to Vice President Mike Pence, but it is unlikely the Senate will do so. Not only is McConnell in charge of the chamber and determined to protect the president, but two thirds of the Senate would need to vote for removal to actually kick Trump out of office, and a majority of the senators are Republicans. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also wants some certainty about how the Senate plans to conduct itself. In a surprise move after the Wednesday night vote, the Democratic speaker would not commit to sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate, saying she wants to see what happens in the other chamber first. 



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