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McConnell indicates he’ll let Trump’s lawyers dictate Trump’s impeachment trial

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to work with President Trump’s lawyers on impeachment and expects the Senate won't vote to oust the president. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

As soon as the House votes to impeach President Trump — which is likely to happen next week — it is no longer in charge of the process. The situation then goes over to the Republican-controlled Senate, where Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. will preside but the GOP otherwise can control much of the length and substance of the process.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is indicating he’ll endeavor to give the White House whatever kind of trial it wants.

Appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Thursday night, McConnell made a point of saying that he would be coordinating with White House counsel Pat Cipollone every step of the way.

What we know and don't know about how the Senate trial will work

“Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with the White House counsel,” McConnell said. “There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this to the extent that we can.”

He added later that “exactly how we go forward I’m going to coordinate with the president’s lawyers, so there won’t be any difference between us on how to do this.”

And then he said that “I’m going to take my cues from the president’s lawyers.”

McConnell also, notably, said there is “no chance” Trump will be removed from office. This, he indicated, is why he’s not treating the trial with much regard.

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The repetition of the first talking point made pretty clear that McConnell very much intended to say all of this. But it’s worth taking stock of how remarkable a statement it is — giving the White House any say over how the trial would be handled would be something, but McConnell says he’ll coordinate everything — and how discordant it is relative to many of his fellow GOP senators.

Those senators have, in many cases, declined to comment on impeachment and the Ukraine scandal because they will serve as jurors in the Senate trial. For some, it was certainly a cop-out to avoid having to comment on the substance of the Ukraine scandal, which, however you slice it, doesn’t look good for Trump. But now that McConnell is effectively saying he’ll let the defendant’s lawyers dictate how the trial will be handled, those professions of respect for the process ring pretty hollow.

“I’m a juror, and I’m comfortable not speaking,” Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) told The Washington Post in late October. Pressed again, he said, “I said I’m comfortable not speaking.”

“I don’t need a strategy for impeachment, because I may be a juror someday,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said.

“I’d be a juror, so I have no comment,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) added.

McConnell is effectively prejudging the outcome and declaring it all to be a waste of time. Before one witness is called, he’s signaling he’s inclined to make it a short process, because it’s just not worth the time.

Earlier on Thursday, McConnell met with Cipollone and legislative affairs director Eric Ueland. And McConnell said in his Thursday news conference he had not yet sat down with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to negotiate on the process.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Dec. 10 outlined the anticipated process for the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump. (Video: The Washington Post)

There’s not a lot of precedent here. President Trump’s would be only the third Senate trial of a president, and there has never been one when the presidency and Senate majority were controlled by the same party. Former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, who was in charge of Democrats when Clinton was being impeached, told Axios on Friday his staff did coordinate with the White House. Then, as now, the process of impeachment was controlled by Republicans.

Of course, in context, this is hardly that surprising from McConnell. The Senate majority leader has in recent years reveled in his political victories, even as he’s drawn criticism for his ruthless tactics. He has said that the most consequential thing he did was block President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. In doing so, he didn’t even give him a hearing and cited a somewhat mythical “Biden rule” against confirming justices in the final year of a president’s term.

And in the same interview Thursday, McConnell both assured that he wouldn’t abide by the “Biden rule” himself and patted himself on the back for blocking Obama’s other judicial picks. Hannity brought up those failures by Obama to confirm the judges as if it was some big mystery that he didn’t get more.

“I was surprised that former president Barack Obama left so many vacancies and didn’t try to fill those positions,” Hannity said.

But McConnell wasn’t about to let that one slide without taking credit for his bare-knuckle tactics.

“I’ll tell you why: I was in charge of what we did the last two years of the Obama administration,” McConnell said proudly.

The logical extension of McConnell’s comments is that the judicial system is something to be gamed politically, which is not something people used to say out loud. But given his attitude toward that — and the political payoff the strategy has incurred — is it really any surprise McConnell is emboldened enough to come out and just say he’ll let the White House dictate its own impeachment trial?