The US Senate does not currently have a timeline set for a potential impeachment trial should the House send one their way, senators and aides have made clear to CNN in recent days, making apparent that neither party – from the leadership level all the way down – has coalesced around a specific strategy.
There are preliminary discussions, a lot of internal conference and caucus conversations about precedent and past trials, and no shortage of opinion pieces from people not involved in those aforementioned discussions about improbable and completely implausible procedural ideas that have slightly less than zero shot of happening.
But nothing is set, or close to being set. One aide close to the process told CNN this week that staffers themselves are still trying to understand the options available.
Here, however, is what is known, according to senators and aides on both sides:
Remember where this is in the process
The House hasn’t voted to impeach President Donald Trump yet, and likely won’t for a number of weeks. As one Democratic aide framed it, even though everyone is keenly aware of what’s coming, “it’s not quite ripe yet” for the real discussions – and negotiations.
There’s also a difference between the two sides on how this has been approached up to this point. Where Republicans have held several discussions about the process, some quite detailed, Democratic conversations have been more ad hoc up as they wait for the inquiry to play out. Individual senators on both sides say they are preparing, many in their own way by reading briefing books created by staff – or in some cases relying on their own past experience.
“We haven’t had any specific strategy meetings about impeachment – (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer has decided it’s too premature, early,” Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranked Democrat in the Senate, told CNN. “Sen. McConnell sees it differently, and I respect the differences they have between them. But 13 of us have been through this before. And the one thing I’m hoping is that once people understand the constitutional impact of this opportunity, I hope that we’ll be able to rise above politics.”
Here’s when things are getting serious
The trigger for the “OK, this is getting real” moment is the looming meeting between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Schumer, a New York Democrat.
It’s coming, and both leaders have said as much publicly, but at this point nothing is on the schedule. McConnell and Schumer will attempt to negotiate a bipartisan resolution to set the rules and procedures for a trial. That first meeting will be the starting gun, but it’s just one step in the process. The negotiations will likely take a bit and be facing crosscutting pressure points.
For example, on Thursday morning Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told CNN’s Lauren Fox he wouldn’t vote for any resolution that didn’t include the ability to hear from the whistleblower. The resolution can pass without Graham’s support, but as a close ally of the President and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, his voice carries weight and underscores that this won’t be an clean and easy negotiation.
Here’s a very detailed CNN look at the dynamics – and potential roadblocks – both leaders will be facing.
What is happening right now: Over a series of party lunches and separate meetings, Senate Republicans and Democrats have been briefed, separately, on various elements of what a trial could entail and how it has occurred in the past (with specific emphasis on the most recent presidential occurrence: Bill Clinton in 1999).
There have been PowerPoint presentations and reading rooms, instructions on how to access public documents from the House impeachment effort and legalistically heavy discussions about what constitutes a quid pro quo and what doesn’t (this is your reminder that both sides have some very well educated, highly accomplished lawyers in their ranks, and they tend to like to debate one another during closed-door lunches).
What is also happening right now: Speculation. Thoughts. Theories. And lots of all three. As one GOP official involved in the process said: “When there isn’t a clear-cut plan, rank-and-file members will start making up their own.” That’s essentially what’s happening right now.
A few examples
Single GOP senator: There must be a quick dismissal!
Reality: This will not happen. Republicans don’t have the 51 votes necessary to do this even if they wanted to, and a majority of GOP senators CNN has spoken to say there’s far more merit to holding a serious trial – which they all still believe will lead to acquittal – than short-circuiting things at the start.
“I think it would be hard to find 51 votes to cut the case off before the evidence is presented,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a senior GOP member, told reporters.
Here’s another rather important voice on the matter: “My own view is that we should give people an opportunity to put the case on. The House will have presenters. The President will no doubt be represented by lawyers as well,” McConnell told reporters on Wednesday.
Another GOP senator: Not quick dismissal, but instead a super-long trial to mess with Democratic presidential candidates!
Reality: Republican senators have been getting a kick out of this idea for several weeks – even McConnell, with a wry grin on his face, has noted the handful of Democrats who’d much rather be pinging back and forth between Iowa and New Hampshire in January than sitting in the Senate. Don’t think he won’t make that point in his negotiations with Schumer over a potential bipartisan resolution.
But this goes both ways: A lengthy trial, six days a week every week, would keep front-line Republican senators off the campaign trail (and hinder their fundraising efforts), too. That’s a nightmare scenario for some, and if there’s always one thing to remember about McConnell, it’s this: Everything is secondary to keeping the majority. If he views a drawn-out trial as putting his members at risk, there’s simply no way he’d agree to it.
Add onto that the idea that essentially nothing else would get done during the trial – something McConnell has made very clear to his members behind closed doors – and senators wouldn’t be able to go home much, if at all, during the trial – which is the furthest thing from what many senators, who have gotten fairly used to working three-plus-day weeks, want.
In other words, drawing out a hearing for the sole purpose of messing with Democratic presidential candidates is simply not something that’s on the table.
One final point: If you think Trump would be happy with a “lengthy” Senate trial that may by extension advantage Joe Biden by keeping rivals who are sitting senators off the trail, well, I’m just not sure what you’ve been watching the last three months.
So what is the timeline?
Let’s just stick with McConnell on this one: “On the issue of how long it goes on, it’s really kind of up to the Senate.”
And the Senate hasn’t decided yet.
CNN’s Lauren Fox and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.