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GOP is already thinking about how to turn a Senate impeachment trial to Trump's advantage

Jennifer Haberkorn and Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Clinton's trial lasted five weeks -- a length of time that GOP senators speculate is all but unfathomable in today's political and news environment.

Any amount of time in Washington could put a significant damper on a campaign, particularly because impeachment is not a central concern of Democratic primary voters. That will be particularly true in Iowa, where voters have grown accustomed to face-to-face contact with candidates.

Republicans' ability to control the timing of a trial may be limited, however. For example, current Senate rules require it take up articles of impeachment the day after they are forwarded from the House, giving Democrats some influence on the calendar. A trial could be delayed, but that might require Democratic support.

Republicans could simply use their majority to change the rules before the trial begins, though such a move has not been openly discussed.

Current rules and precedents are already not very conducive to a campaign schedule. They require the chamber to conduct the trial six days a week and begin at 1 p.m. each day. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indicated Tuesday that he wants those rules to remain in place. That leaves little time to hop on a flight to Iowa.

Once the trial begins, senators are prohibited from speaking on the Senate floor; they are expected to sit at their desks and write their questions down to be given to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who would oversee the trial.

Of course, candidates could -- and certainly will -- do cable television hits from the Senate office buildings to highlight their role in the process. So even though they may lose face time with Iowa voters, they'll be at the center of a national story that is likely to dominate airwaves and headlines.

McConnell has downplayed how much Republicans can control the process, saying that once the trial begins, rulings will be made by Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. -- not by a majority of the Senate. "This is not something that the majority can kind of micromanage like it can on almost any other issue," he said Tuesday.

During the Clinton impeachment trial, however, former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist took a largely ceremonially role.


Many of the major decisions will be made before the trial. Senators will have to approve a resolution setting up the rules, including whether witnesses will be allowed and when the trial should begin. During the Clinton impeachment trial, the Republican and Democratic leaders wrote rules that were approved 100 to 0. McConnell suggested Tuesday that at some point, he will sit down with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to potentially draw them up.

But given the sharp partisan divide over how the House has conducted the process so far, it is far from certain whether the leaders can match the level of bipartisanship seen in 1999.

The Senate trial will give the president and his lawyers a high-profile opportunity to make their case to the American public. In theory, Republicans will have a chance to call witnesses who could undermine the Democrats' case. But during Clinton's impeachment trial, the bipartisan agreement limited witnesses and determined that video of a private deposition of Monica Lewinsky would be aired instead of allowing a House prosecutor to question her in the well of the Senate.

Republicans appear to be staying almost universally supportive of the president, suggesting there is little chance Trump will be convicted.

"If it were today, I don't think there's any question," McConnell said Tuesday. "It would not lead to a removal" of the president.

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