Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump’s top lawyer sketched out a plan Thursday to coordinate closely for an impeachment trial but haven’t reached agreement on a final strategy to defend Trump against charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, according to two sources familiar with the conversation.
The closed-door meeting Thursday between the Kentucky Republican and White House counsel Pat Cipollone occurred as Senate Republicans and the White House have diverged on what they would like to see take place in the looming trial in the chamber. Trump has made clear he wants witnesses to testify, in person, while senators – including McConnell in private – have warned that going down that path could lead to a politically precarious slippery slope in the GOP effort to acquit the President.
“We are having a lot of good conversations with Senate Republicans,” Eric Ueland, the White House director of legislative affairs, told reporters as he departed the meeting with Cipollone. “We will continue to do that here over the next few days and weeks as we work through all these issues and priorities the President has outlined when it comes to where we should go on these articles.”
While no final decisions have been made, McConnell and Cipollone agreed that when a trial begins, the House Democratic impeachment managers would have an opportunity to present, followed by the Trump’s lawyers presenting the President’s defense, the sources said.
At the conclusion of the presentations, the White House may provide its own briefing to Senate Republicans about the next steps it would want to see in the trial, including possible witnesses it would like to be called, the sources said.
McConnell would have the opportunity to gauge where his conference stood on the trial, including whether there were 51 GOP votes in place to bring the trial to a close and hold a final vote on the two House articles of impeachment.
A quick end to the trial is something the majority leader has signaled to his members he supports as the best path forward. He’s also expressed that to Trump himself in phone calls, according to people familiar with the discussions.
“My hope is that it will be a shorter process rather than a lengthy process,” McConnell said in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Thursday night. McConnell made clear, however, that those decisions would be made “in total coordination with the White House counsel.”
“There will be no difference between the President’s position and our position in how to handle this,” McConnell told Hannity.
But rank-and-file Republicans have largely shifted away from Trump’s proposal of witnesses – ranging from Hunter Biden and the whistleblower to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff – toward the idea of a swift end to the trial after the initial presentations, concerned about the fallout of witnesses, the recourse Democrats may deploy with their own witnesses and the amount of time the whole proceeding would take.
“I think people are starting to realize that that would be a pretty messy and unproductive process,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.
Close coordination and ongoing conversations are key as the White House and Senate Republicans move into the trial, the sources said.
It also tracks with a strategy the White House has deployed repeatedly in recent weeks for the broader Senate Republican conference, punctuated by small-group meetings between Trump and GOP senators, where impeachment often comes up but the focus tends to shift to the parochial policy interests of the senators in attendance, lawmakers who have attended say.
McConnell made clear this week that no decisions have been made about witnesses or trial structure, but the path after the initial presentations will be dictated by what a majority of his conference wants to see next: witnesses, or a quick vote to end the trial and then vote to acquit the President.
“It could go down the path of calling witnesses and basically having another trial or it could decide – and again, 51 members could make that decision – that they’ve heard enough and believe they know what would happen and could move to vote on the two articles of impeachment,” he said. “Those are the options. No decisions have been made yet.”
One thing that McConnell, at least at this point, is certain of: the eventual outcome.
“There’s no chance the President will be removed from office,” he told Hannity. “My hope is there won’t be a single Republican who votes for these two articles of impeachment.”