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Top Republican suggests changing Senate rules to begin Trump impeachment trial within days

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) suggested that Republicans could change rules governing impeachment if articles of impeachment are withheld. (Video: The Washington Post)

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham suggested Sunday that Republicans should try to change Senate rules governing impeachment if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to withhold the charges against President Trump — an unlikely 11th-hour bid to begin a trial within days without the actual documents.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was unequivocal in a Senate floor speech on Friday that “we can’t hold a trial without the articles; the Senate’s own rules don’t provide for that.” But Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of Trump, floated the idea of a unilateral GOP move, saying he would work with McConnell to allow the Senate to proceed without the two charges against Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

The suggestion, while unlikely due to the high threshold of votes required for changing Senate impeachment rules, underscores the pressure some Trump allies feel as the president stews over the impeachment delay.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Jan. 3 said the Senate would “render sober judgment” on impeachment once the House transmitted the articles. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Well, we’re not going to let Nancy Pelosi use the rules of the Senate to her advantage,” Graham said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures,” later adding: “My number one goal is [to] not let the speaker of the House become the majority leader of the Senate. . . . If we don’t get the articles this week, then we need to take matters [into] our own hands.”

After the House impeached Trump on Dec. 18, Pelosi (D-Calif.) decided to withhold the articles of impeachment to try to help Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in his negotiations with McConnell for witnesses the White House blocked from testifying in the House, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Former national security adviser John Bolton balked at cooperating in the House probe.

McConnell, however, has refused to budge, scoffing at the strategy and telling Pelosi she can keep the articles if she wants — that he would focus on “ordinary business” in the Senate, including nominations.

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But Trump has been eager to get a trial over with and a likely acquittal vote in the Republican-led Senate, a possible reason for Graham to try to find a way to start the trial without the articles.

Senate rules suggest such a move would be difficult, if not impossible. It would take 60 votes to pass a resolution on impeachment outside a trial and 67 votes to change the impeachment rules. That threshold would require Democratic support, since McConnell has only 53 Republicans — and Democrats would be loath to undercut Pelosi.

The idea could be moot in a matter of days. Multiple Democratic officials expect Pelosi to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate as soon as this week — though Pelosi’s office said Friday that no decision has been made and declined to detail her plans.

Some Democrats are concerned about Republican accusations that they’re playing political games with impeachment to try to dictate the Senate process. Democrats are also carefully balancing the decision to play hardball with McConnell with their own insistence that impeachment is “an urgent matter” because, they argue, Trump has become a national security threat to the nation.

The comments by Graham, who said his goal “is to start this trial in the next coming days” and hopes to finish by the end of January, also reflect the pressure on Pelosi. Congressional Republicans plan to focus their criticism on the speaker this week to force her to transmit the articles, a strategy they highlighted Sunday.

“It’s now been almost three weeks, and she hasn’t taken any action,” Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) told Fox News. “She’s let that progressive, socialist, Democratic mob walk her into a box canyon. She’s put a gun to her own head and she’s looking for Mitch McConnell to give her a way out, and he’s not going to do that.”

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Senior Democrats, including two who appeared on the Sunday shows before lawmakers returned from the two-week congressional recess, have defended the strategy. Pelosi’s top ally, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the maneuver has been successful in highlighting the positions of Senate Republicans on the trial — and holding them accountable.

“One success this has already had is flushing out McConnell, showing he is working in cahoots with the president — that he has made himself an active participant in the president’s coverup,” said Schiff, who is expected to be named as an impeachment manager in the Senate. “So the American people needed to see that, and now they do.”

Likewise, Schumer said on ABC’s “This Week” that Pelosi “has done a very good job here,” predicting that if she’d sent the articles in December, “McConnell could have well just voted for dismissal the day before or after Christmas.” Other senior Democratic officials have privately suggested the hold was worth the wait even if they don’t get a commitment from McConnell on witnesses, since the party has been able to spotlight what they view as a rigged Senate process.

“Now, in the last two weeks, where we haven’t had the articles, lots of new evidence that bolsters our case for witnesses — for witnesses and documents has come out,” Schumer said. “. . . So, the bottom line is very simple. We need the truth, not a coverup, not a sham, not to have some nationally televised mock trial where there’s no evidence.”

Schumer suggested it was a matter of time before the articles were transmitted, saying “when these articles come over, the focus will be on four Republican senators” — referring to Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). And he implored them to join Democrats backing their bid for witnesses with firsthand knowledge, arguing that it’s not the same as voting to convict Trump — just a vote to ensure a fair process.

“And I hope, pray, and believe there’s a decent chance that four Republicans will join us,” he said.

The crux of the Democrats’ case is the allegation that Trump tried to leverage a White House meeting and military aid, sought by Ukraine to combat Russian military aggression, to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, as well as a probe of an unfounded theory that Kyiv conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Schumer articulated a new defense for Democrats’ demands that McConnell commit to hearing from key witnesses before they begin the trial. McConnell often argues that the Senate should follow the impeachment process for Trump as it did for former president Clinton 21 years ago. In that case, the Senate did not decide on testimony from witnesses until after the trial began.

But Schumer noted that in Clinton’s case, all the relevant witnesses eventually called in the trial had already been deposed as part of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation. In this situation, individuals such as Bolton and Mulvaney, who have firsthand information of the internal White House deliberations, have not been questioned.

“Where, but in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ do we hear all the arguments, and then maybe have the evidence, the witnesses, and the trial?” Schumer asked, later adding that Trump’s top men “are eyewitness to the main charge against the president, that he withheld the aid for political benefit to himself.”