The debate on articles of impeachment against Trump

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8:07 p.m. ET, December 12, 2019

McConnell and top White House lawyer agree to close coordination, but not final strategy, on impeachment trial

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump’s top lawyer sketched out a plan to coordinate closely for the Senate’s impeachment trial, but haven’t reached agreement on a final unified strategy to defend Trump against charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, according to two sources familiar with the conversation.

The closed-door meeting today between McConnell and White House counsel Pat Cipollone occurred as Senate Republicans and the White House have diverged on what each 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 Trump.

“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, there both 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.

McConnell made clear this week that no decisions have been made about witnesses or final 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 bring the trial to an end and then vote to acquit the President.

7:44 p.m. ET, December 12, 2019

Committee debates fifth amendment that would strike language on Trump's removal from office

Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Ohio, has introduced a fifth amendment to the articles of impeachment that would strike language that President Trump should be removed from office.

The four other amendments proposed today were all voted down.

The phrase "strike the last word" keeps coming up during the debate. Here's what it means:

  • Strike the last word: A lot of representatives have said "I move to strike the last word" today as the House debates amendments. It's a maneuver that allows them time to speak. House rules allow each member five minutes to speak on each amendment. Since they're proposing a new amendment (a change to the text), they're given five more minutes.
7:34 p.m. ET, December 12, 2019

Meanwhile, Trump attends tonight's congressional ball

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

President Trump delivered brief remarks at the congressional ball tonight while the House Judiciary Committee continued to debate the articles of impeachment.

Trump called it a “very exciting month in Washington, DC,” receiving some warm laughter. He also touted stock market records.

“Our country is doing really great,” Trump said, thanking everyone for attending and acknowledging Vice President Mike Pence, who was in attendance with his wife Karen.

Trump, who spoke from a podium with a golden carved eagle, congratulated first lady Melania Trump on a “beautiful job.” 

"We’re going to have a fantastic year,” Trump said, predicting “the best year in decades.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, legislative director Marc Short and Rep. Steve Scalise were among those in attendance.  

Democrats were invited to the congressional ball, according to a White House official. 

7:17 p.m. ET, December 12, 2019

The committee votes down a fourth amendment

A fourth amendment to the articles of impeachment was voted down this evening by the House Judiciary Committee.

The committee is now debating a fifth amendment.

7:12 p.m. ET, December 12, 2019

White House views impeachment outcome as "locked down along partisan lines," official says

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

White House officials were less focused on shaping Republicans’ messaging heading into this House Judiciary Committee debate due to their sense that the outcome of impeachment, at this point, is “locked down along partisan lines," an administration official said.

While Vice President Mike Pence has met with some members and rallied them last week during a conference meeting on Capitol Hill, the White House has not really been involved in whipping votes, a senior White House official said.

A senior GOP aide said while the House team is whipping, as CNN's Manu Raju reported, it is hardly viewed as necessary because Republicans don’t expect to lose any members on the floor vote. White House officials, including Tony Sayegh and Pam Bondi, have been in daily contact with lawmakers and their staff. Republican unity on the resolution vote became a major point of pride for the President and White House officials, so maintaining zero defectors for the vote on the articles is also important to the team.

White House officials are also discussing the prospect of a direct response from the President on the day of the vote on the articles — something beyond a tweet or comments at Trump’s rally on Wednesday, should the vote occur that day.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone and legislative director Eric Ueland met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to go over options for the trial as the White House works to reconcile Trump’s desire for a theatrical defense with Senate Republicans’ eagerness to end the trial quickly.

 

6:58 p.m. ET, December 12, 2019

Justice Department quietly posts internal legal opinions about immunity from congressional testimony

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Justice Department quietly published on its website today some never-before-seen internal legal opinions that could help President Trump block congressional requests as he faces impeachment by the House and a trial in the Senate.  

Eight of the opinions appear to bolster the White House's stonewalling of Congress on witness testimony and document subpoenas.The opinions date back to the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon faced impeachment. One opinion from 1982 was written by the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the request of Rudy Giuliani who, at the time, worked within the Justice Department.

Some of the opinions appear to have been made public before, and some have only been cited by the Justice Department in other legal arguments. The ones released today hadn't all been collected on the Justice Department's central website regarding its internal legal opinions before today.   

A Justice Department official acknowledging the releases said these opinions were cited in the Office of Legal Counsel's more recent opinion that former Trump White House counsel Don McGahn should be immune from subpoenaed congressional testimony.

The House has sued for McGahn to testify, winning at the trial court stage, and the Justice Department is appealing. The newly released opinions were requested by the House as part of the McGahn lawsuit, according to the official. 

Putting these legal opinions in perspective: The collection could be a valuable central resource for the President in the coming weeks, fleshing out the authority the executive branch has given to itself to ignore congressional requests.

Then-head of the Office of Legal Counsel Ted Olson wrote in July 1982 that the White House counsel should not submit to a subpoena or request to testify to the Senate, arguing the President’s “close advisors are an extension of the President." Just as he cannot “compel congressmen to appear before him,” Congress “may not compel him to appear before it,” Olson wrote. 

Notably, Olson told the deputy attorney general that if the President broke with precedent and submitted to such testimony it would be seen by “many — including members of Congress who are aware of the historical practice — as a sign of weakness."

6:16 p.m. ET, December 12, 2019

What we know about Trump's impeachment legal team

Two GOP officials familiar with planning for a Senate impeachment trial tell CNN they hope White House Counsel Pat Cipollone takes the lead role in defending President Trump — and not private defense attorney Alan Dershowitz. 

One of those officials said there will likely be some Republican concerns about Dershowitz taking on a more public role. 

"Cipollone is well respected in the Senate," the official said. "Most senators would say they hope he's in the driver's seat." 

CNN's Pamela Brown reported earlier that Dershowitz is expected to handle a constitutional piece of the defense in the Senate trial. An official tells CNN it is possible Dershowitz could formally join the Trump legal team, but the White House counsel is taking the lead. 

6:01 p.m. ET, December 12, 2019

House schedule for next week starting to take shape

According to two Democratic leadership aides, Democrats are looking at a House floor schedule for next week that looks this:

  • Tuesday: Spending deal
  • Wednesday: Articles of impeachment
  • Thursday: USMCA trade deal

Reminder: The schedule is subject to change.

Democratic sources also say they expect the House Rules Committee to approve a rule that would govern floor debate of the impeachment resolution. They don’t need to do a rule — and didn’t when President Bill Clinton was impeached — but if they don’t approve a rule, they would need an unanimous consent agreement with the GOP over the parameters of the floor debate. Getting such an agreement in this environment seems unlikely.

The floor vote on the rule would occur Wednesday before the articles are approved. Each article will be voted on separately.

The House Rules Committee would have to meet to approve the rule first — and that will likely happen Tuesday.

5:54 p.m. ET, December 12, 2019

Trump and legal team mulling idea that a shorter impeachment trial may be better in the Senate

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Trump is listening to his lawyers about the idea that a shorter trial may be better in the Senate, a source familiar with White House discussions told CNN.

Lawyers advising Trump have been trying to make the case to him that a lengthy trial is risky, with the potential of allowing time for unforeseen bombshells that could change the calculus among senators weighing the President's case. The source said Trump has not ruled out this more cautious approach.

"When you're on defense, time is never on your side," the source said, arguing a shorter trial is much more advantageous to Trump.

"You just don't know what's going to erupt or not erupt," the source added.

The source went on to say "things are fluid" as to whether witnesses would be called. But the current thinking is that both sides would present their case in a Senate trial, without witnesses and then proceed to closing arguments. This would allow for a one- to two-week trial, the source estimated, cautioning a lot could change between now and a trial.