US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that he was not ruling out calling witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial – but indicated he was in no hurry to seek new testimony either.
The US House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to impeach Trump, who became only the third president in US history to be formally charged with “high crimes and misdemeanours”.
But the Senate trial may be held up until politicians can agree on how to proceed.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is demanding trial witnesses who refused to appear during House committee hearings, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton.
Mr McConnell, who has all-but-promised a swift acquittal of the president, has resisted making any guarantees, and has cautioned Mr Trump against seeking the testimony of witnesses he desires for fear of elongating the trial.
Instead, he appears to have secured Republican support for his plans to impose a framework drawn from the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
“We haven’t ruled out witnesses,” Mr McConnell said on Monday in an interview with Fox And Friends.
“We’ve said let’s handle this case just like we did with President Clinton. Fair is fair.”
That trial featured a 100-0 vote on arrangements that established two weeks of presentations and argument before a partisan tally in which then-minority Republicans called a limited number of witnesses.
But Democrats now would need Republican votes to secure witness testimony – and Republicans believe they have the votes to eventually block those requests.
In a letter on Monday to all Senators, Mr Schumer argued that the circumstances in the Trump trial are different from that of Clinton, who was impeached after a lengthy independent counsel investigation in which witnesses had already testified numerous times under oath.
Mr Schumer rejected the Clinton model, saying waiting until after the presentations to decide on witnesses would “foreclose the possibility of obtaining such evidence because it will be too late”.
Mr Schumer also demanded that the Senate, in addition to receiving testimony, also compel the Trump administration to turn over documents and emails relevant to the case, including the decision to withhold military assistance from Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the White House is projecting confidence that it will prevail in a constitutional spat with Democrats.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has delayed sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate in hopes of giving Mr Schumer more leverage in talks with Mr McConnell.
But the White House believes Ms Pelosi will not be able to hold out much longer.
“She will yield. There’s no way she can hold this position,” Marc Short, the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, said on Sunday. “We think her case is going nowhere.”
Pelosi gives us the most unfair trial in the history of the U.S. Congress, and now she is crying for fairness in the Senate, and breaking all rules while doing so. She lost Congress once, she will do it again!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2019
The impasse between the Senate leaders leaves open the possibility of a protracted delay until the articles are delivered.
Mr Schumer told reporters in New York on Sunday that “the Senate is yearning to give President Trump due process, which means that documents and witnesses should come forward. What is a trial with no witnesses and no documents. It’s a sham trial.”
Mr Trump has called the holdup “unfair” and claimed that Democrats were violating the Constitution, as the delay threatened to prolong the pain of impeachment and cast uncertainty on the timing of the vote Trump is set to claim as vindication.
“Pelosi gives us the most unfair trial in the history of the U.S. Congress, and now she is crying for fairness in the Senate, and breaking all rules while doing so,” Mr Trump tweeted on Monday from his private club in Palm Beach, where he is on a more than two-week holiday.
“She lost Congress once, she will do it again!”