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McConnell Prepares Senate For Trump Impeachment Trial As Inquiry Escalates

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with the media Wednesday after the Senate Policy Luncheon on Capitol Hill. McConnell said a Trump impeachment trial could begin by Thanksgiving.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with the media Wednesday after the Senate Policy Luncheon on Capitol Hill. McConnell said a Trump impeachment trial could begin by Thanksgiving.

Updated on Oct 17. at 1 p.m. ET

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday that there's no timeline for the House to wrap up its ongoing impeachment inquiry of President Trump, pushing back on predictions it could happen by the Thanksgiving holiday.

The comments come a day after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his staff held a tutorial of sorts for the Senate Republican caucus to prepare for a potential Trump impeachment trial. A senator at the meeting said they predicted the trial could occur between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Pelosi, D-Calif., waved that target off, telling reporters on Thursday, "the timeline will depend on the truth line, and that's what we are looking for."

McConnell and his staff walked the Republican caucus through the mechanics of a possible trial during their weekly luncheon on Wednesday, complete with a slideshow and a slew of questions from the senators in attendance.

The talk focused on how the senators could become jurors in the coming months.

"We intend to do our constitutional responsibility," McConnell told reporters after the luncheon.

The efforts come as the House impeachment inquiry has escalated in recent weeks. The House is looking into an explosive whistleblower complaint against Trump regarding a July phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens. Trump had also withheld promised U.S. military aid from Ukraine — he maintains it was not a quid pro quo but Democrats say the call shows he tried to meddle in the 2020 election.

Top Democrats have been reluctant to put hard timetables on when they will conclude their inquiry, with Pelosi declining to share such specifics. However, most Democrats have indicated they would like to finish their work by the end of the year.

"That would be my hope," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters on Wednesday.

If the House approves any articles of impeachment before the end of the year, it would give the Senate the month of January for a trial. Many lawmakers have indicated they would like to conclude the impeachment process before voters start casting ballots in the presidential primary process, which starts in Iowa on Feb. 3.

In a letter to his colleagues Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said the panel's probe will continue to proceed in a deliberate manner, with a series of witnesses' appearances and subpoenas already underway and more to come.

"We are doing so aware that time is of the essence, but with a solemn recognition that our current focus must be on developing the factual record," Schiff, D-Calif., said. "Indeed, we are merely three weeks removed from the release of the call record, and just five weeks removed from being informed by the Inspector General of the Intelligence community that an urgent and credible whistleblower complaint was being illegally withheld."

McConnell reiterated on Wednesday that if articles of impeachment are passed by the House, the Senate will take the matter up.

Under rule requirements, Chief Justice John Roberts would chair the proceedings, which would convene six days out every week — excluding Sundays — at around 12:30 p.m. each day. McConnell and his staff told the caucus the trial could last as long as six to eight weeks, a senator in attendance said.

There will also be other limitations that need to be met, McConnell noted with reporters.

"Senators will not be allowed to speak, which will be good therapy for a number of them," he joked.

During the GOP luncheon, McConnell and his staff faced a series of questions, such as whether a member could bring up a motion to dismiss the trial altogether. Such a move could be brought up by Trump's defense team.

In 1999, then-Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia offered a motion to dismiss charges against former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial. The move failed in a Republican Senate, and the trial went on to last five weeks.

Many senators are hoping a potential Trump impeachment trial will get to the Senate and be resolved relatively quickly. Some are hoping it will be done by the end of this year.

"I think most people think we will deal with it one way or another. ... Every indication is that articles [of impeachment] will be coming our way eventually," Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said after the luncheon. "I just wish it was sooner rather than later."

Cramer said if the trial happens between the holidays, it will help fuel the urgency to wrap up the effort quickly.

During the luncheon, one member remarked the trial could make last year's difficult confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh "look like a walk in the park," according to Cramer.

It could also bring productivity on other legislation virtually to a halt, Cramer noted. There are hopes that major legislation, like efforts to fund the government before a Nov. 21 shutdown threat, will be resolved before the trial potentially arrives at the Senate.

However, the Senate could do nonimpeachment work under a consent vote.

"There was probably as much talk as anything about what our lives could be like through that trial," Cramer said.

Cramer noted that some members are already struggling with individual, internal conflict, "with what is the right place for me to be between now and the eventuality of being a juror."

Also, there's the concern of whether the charges are enough to remove Trump. Cramer doesn't see the current evidence as sufficient grounds for an impeachable offense for a high crime or misdemeanor.

"We are talking about removal of a president; the bar should to be high," Cramer said. "It's got to look more calculating ... it's got to be a lot more egregious than what they are talking about — this phone call. That was just a couple of guys having a conversation."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.