The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House and Republicans discuss limiting impeachment trial to two weeks

Demonstrators march on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington protesting President Trump on Nov. 8.
Demonstrators march on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington protesting President Trump on Nov. 8. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
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A group of Republican senators and senior White House officials met privately Thursday to map out a strategy for a potential impeachment trial of President Trump, including rapid proceedings in the Senate that could be limited to about two weeks, according to multiple officials familiar with the talks.

The prospect of an abbreviated trial is viewed by several Senate Republicans as a favorable middle ground — substantial enough to give the proceedings credence without risking greater damage to Trump by dragging on too long.

Under this scenario, described by officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount a private meeting, the Senate trial could begin as early as January if the Democratic-controlled House votes to impeach Trump next month as appears increasingly likely. Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mc­Connell (R-Ky.) said earlier this month that Trump would be acquitted in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-seat majority, if the trial were held today.

Even a two-week trial could run counter to what Trump has expressed privately. The president is “miserable” about the impeachment inquiry and has pushed to dismiss the proceedings right away, according to people familiar with his sentiments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Trump’s views.

Still, administration officials are readying all options to present them to Trump, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone is preparing to mount a full defense of the president for an impeachment trial, according to one of the officials familiar with Thursday’s meeting.

“I don’t want them to believe there’s an ability to dismiss the case before it’s heard,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who was among the group of half a dozen GOP senators who met Thursday with White House officials to begin mapping out a trial strategy. “I think most everybody agreed, there’s not 51 votes to dismiss it before the managers get to call the case.”

Former National Security Council official Fiona Hill and State Department official David Holmes testified at a public impeachment hearing on Nov. 21. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The preparations come after weeks of damaging testimony in the House providing evidence that Trump sought to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations targeting a potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden, in exchange for a White House meeting and the release of $400 million in military aid.

Republicans have remained overwhelmingly aligned behind the president, insisting he has done nothing worthy of impeachment or removal from office. Some, however, have acknowledged the potential toll that a continuing inquiry and trial could take during an election year, particularly when the GOP is aiming to protect its Senate majority.

In addition to Graham, the meeting Thursday included Republican Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wis.), John Neely Kennedy (La.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.), along with Cipollone; acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney; senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner; and counselor Kellyanne Conway, according to the officials familiar with the discussions.

The meeting was organized by White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland, who was also in attendance along with advisers Pam Bondi and Tony Sayegh, who were recently hired to guide the White House’s impeachment messaging and strategy, the officials said.

Other options, including a longer trial, were also discussed and still could happen, officials said. Ultimately, Trump will make the final call on trial strategy, a senior administration official said.

The impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, which ended in an acquittal, lasted five weeks. Trump would be the third U.S. president — after Clinton and Andrew Johnson — to be impeached by the House, although in neither case did the required two-thirds majority of senators vote to remove them from office.

“This is much closer to a game-time decision that will be built on the impressions and reactions of the 53 Senate Republicans who have to handle actually voting on … what the House sent them,” the senior administration official said.

During the meeting, there was also a discussion of whether to seek additional evidence or call witnesses such as Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president and potential Democratic presidential nominee. The House impeachment inquiry is centered on Trump’s alleged attempts to get Ukraine to announce investigations of the Bidens to help his reelection bid.

The group also discussed the possibility of having limited or no defense on the president’s behalf — under the theory that if Republicans believe the House’s case for Trump’s impeachment is fundamentally flawed, there is no need to legitimize it with a full argument on behalf of the president. Several congressional allies, however, have repeatedly stressed that they want ample time for Trump and his attorneys to make their case in public.

It is unclear what views will ultimately prevail with the president, and Senate Republicans are continuing to internally debate and craft their impeachment strategy through private conversations and party lunches at the Capitol.

Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, said on Fox News on Thursday evening that if the House does impeach Trump, then the president would want proceedings to unfold in the Senate.

“He wants to be able to bring up witnesses like Adam Schiff, like the whistleblower, like Hunter Biden, like Joe Biden,” Gidley said. “And he says if the House moves forward with this sham and they continue to push these fake illegitimate proceedings on the American people, then he wants it to go to the Senate, and he wants a trial.”

Thursday’s meeting — the first in what is likely to be a series of sessions between key GOP senators and the administration — underscored the increased coordination between the White House and its allies in the Senate as the House proceedings appear to point to likely impeachment as early as next month. The discussion came during a week of testimony from several key players in the House’s unfolding impeachment inquiry, including remarks from Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union who detailed under oath an explicit “quid pro quo” with Ukraine at Trump’s ultimate directive.

Cruz said after the meeting that he believed it was imperative that both the House impeachment managers and the president’s attorneys get time to make their arguments.

“If and when the matter comes to the Senate, I think it’s incumbent on the Senate to do much better,” Cruz said in an interview. “I expect the Senate to conduct proceedings that are fair, that respect due process and that allow both sides to present their case, to present their witnesses, to present their evidence and for the Senate then to render a judgment consistent with the law and Constitution.”

Cruz declined to delve into details but said the group discussed “where we are, what’s coming up next, what hurdles are likely to be.”

Senate Republicans have been divided on how long a Senate trial should be. Some align with Trump’s view, seeking to dismiss it as soon as possible, while others have sought a middle-of-the-road option like two weeks.

Still others have toyed with a more drawn-out trial that has the potential to scramble the schedules of a half-dozen Democratic senators who are running for president but would be jurors in an impeachment trial.