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McConnell says he’s ready to begin Trump impeachment trial with no deal on witnesses

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), joined by Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), left, and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), announces at a news conference Tuesday in Washington that he has secured enough Republican votes to start President Trump's impeachment trial and postpone a decision on witnesses and documents Democrats want. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he is prepared to begin President Trump’s impeachment trial with no agreement with Democrats on witnesses, even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled she is not ready to transmit the impeachment articles until she knows more about how Republicans would conduct the Senate proceedings.

That the top two congressional leaders were hardening their respective positions indicated the standoff at the Capitol over launching Trump’s trial — only the third in history of a U.S. president — would drag on, even as members of Pelosi’s own party in the Senate said Tuesday that it was time to proceed with the initial phase of the trial.

Pelosi (D-Calif.) told House Democrats in a closed-door meeting Tuesday evening that she would not send the two charges — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — to the Senate because she wanted to see the specific rules of procedure for a trial, according to three people present for the remarks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly.

In a letter to her Democratic colleagues later Tuesday, Pelosi hinted that she would not submit the articles nor tap House impeachment managers — who will effectively serve as the prosecution in the Senate — until McConnell publicly releases the legislation that would detail the parameters and procedures for the trial.

“This process is not only unfair but designed to deprive Senators and the American people of crucial documents and testimony,” Pelosi wrote in the letter to colleagues.

Earlier at his own closed-door meeting and at a news conference, McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that he has the votes to begin the trial in the format that he and most of his members have long envisioned: opening arguments for both the House impeachment managers and Trump’s defense team, as well as ample time for senators to submit questions in writing.

Under the majority leader’s plan, a decision on whether to call witnesses would be made once that first phase of the trial is over — a move announced Tuesday to put the pressure back on Pelosi amid simmering frustration from GOP senators over the speaker’s delay in sending the articles.

That echoes the format of former president Clinton’s trial 21 years ago, and McConnell has been able to persuade his members that Trump should be treated in the same fashion as Clinton.

Asked if he could guarantee witnesses will be called, McConnell said that matter would be discussed after the Senate votes to proceed — not before.

“The way it works, at the risk of being redundant, is that 51 senators determine what we do, and there will be, I’m sure, an intense discussion . . . about the whole witness issue,” McConnell said. “The people calling the witnesses won’t necessarily be us; it will be the prosecution or the defense.”

Though the House voted on Dec. 18 to impeach the president, Pelosi has declined to send the two articles of impeachment to the Senate, effectively hamstringing the chamber from launching the trial.

Pelosi’s refusal to transmit the articles as she sought information about the scope of the trial, including witnesses, has also spurred a number of Republican senators to craft legislation and strategize about how they could begin the trial without the House’s blessing. But McConnell, speaking privately to his members, made clear that he would not make any moves on a trial until the articles had been formally transmitted.

McConnell’s remarks inside the lunch was confirmed by two officials who requested anonymity to discuss a private meeting. Senate Republican leaders did a final vote check of their 53 members Tuesday morning to make sure they had the votes for McConnell’s plan, according to a GOP senator familiar with the discussions.

Impeachment live updates: McConnell says he is ready to proceed with Trump impeachment trial with no agreement on witnesses, according to two officials

For weeks, Democrats have been pressuring a cadre of persuadable Republican senators to demand a slate of four witnesses before the trial begins. Their efforts only ramped up Monday after former national security adviser John Bolton, who would have firsthand knowledge of Trump’s demands of Ukraine and the delay in military aid, said that he would testify if subpoenaed by the Senate.

But Bolton’s announcement did not move any of the Republicans who may have sided with Democrats, such as Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) who both indicated Monday that a decision on witnesses could be made further into the trial. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has said he would like to hear from Bolton but did not endorse subpoenaing him to provide testimony.

“The Clinton trial process provided a pathway for there to be witnesses,” Romney said Tuesday. “And presuming we have a process like that, again I would be able to support the Clinton impeachment process.”

In January 1999, the Senate voted unanimously after the trial began on a framework that gave the opposing sides 24 hours each to make their opening arguments, as well as 16 hours allotted to the senators for questioning. A vote on calling witnesses did not happen until weeks into the trial.

But this time, the partisan sniping over witnesses spilled into the open even before McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) sat down to negotiate in earnest over the structure of Trump’s trial — making a bipartisan deal unlikely from the start.

“We’ve gotten so snarled up with debate over witnesses that the two leaders haven’t been able to come to terms on this first phase,” Murkowski, who met privately with McConnell on Monday evening, said Tuesday. Stressing her support for the majority leader’s plan, she added: “I'm going to make sure that we’ve laid out very clearly what this framework is in terms of timeline and the ability to move to witnesses.”

After McConnell’s announcement Tuesday that he would effectively steamroll Democrats, but before Pelosi’s comments to her members later that day, Schumer argued that Pelosi secured what she wanted by delaying sending the articles to the Senate: A clearer view of how McConnell planned to run the trial.

“Let me say this: By not sending the articles immediately, she has already accomplished two things which we fully support,” Schumer said. “One, Mitch McConnell couldn’t do what some thought he might want to do — right before Christmas or after Christmas, just dismiss.”

Schumer, who on Tuesday again threatened to force votes on demanding witnesses and documents, added: “And second, in the last two weeks there has been a cascade of evidence that bolsters the case, strongly bolsters the case for witnesses and documents, so now we have a greater feel for where we’re headed.”

Bolton’s willingness to testify in Trump’s impeachment trial ramps up pressure on Senate Republicans

But a wide array of Schumer’s rank-and-file — from the most moderate Democrats to the caucus’s liberal flank — were more blunt than their leader, saying it was time to begin the trial.

“I think that’s up to her,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said on whether Pelosi should transmit the articles to the Senate promptly. “But I do think we need to get this thing going.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said now that it is clear McConnell has Republicans in line against a witness deal, “I think the time has passed. She should send the articles over.”

“I think it needs to start; I really do,” added Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). He argued that the delay helped prompt Bolton’s statement Monday that he would be willing to testify in the Senate, and added: “Let us do what we have to do over here.”

The White House’s chief liaison to Capitol Hill on Tuesday endorsed McConnell’s strategy.

“We’re very heartened that there’s a majority in order to be able to move on ahead under a process that is clear, defined, represents the president, and that we’re able to operate inside of whenever the speaker sends the articles over,” Eric Ueland, the legislative affairs director, told reporters on Capitol Hill. “We welcome the progress and we’re hopeful that the articles come over as quickly as possible so we can get underway as quickly as possible.”

What remains unclear is whether Bolton would be summoned by the House, if not the Senate for now. Though he said he would be ready to testify before the Senate, Bolton’s statement Monday was silent on whether he would do the same for the House, and his lawyer did not elaborate when asked.

From the Oval Office on Tuesday, Trump did not weigh in on whether Bolton should appear before the Senate, which the president said was a decision for senators and for the lawyers.

Still, Trump said Bolton “would know nothing about what we're talking about, because as you know the Ukrainian government came out with a very strong statement, no pressure, no anything.”

A senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly, said Bolton provided no notice of his decision Monday, and the White House would exert executive privilege if he sought to include any deliberations with the president in his testimony.

Josh Dawsey, Colby Itkowitz, Elise Viebeck and John Wagner contributed to this report.