President Trump has opted against pressuring Senate Republicans to immediately dismiss articles of impeachment, sparing the party the prospect of a clash at the outset of an election year.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone signaled during a Thursday meeting with key Senate Republicans that Trump has concluded he has more to gain politically from presenting a detailed defense at trial than from no trial at all, said GOP sources familiar with the discussion.
That decision should shield Senate Republicans from the damaging backlash from the conservative base that might ensue — at the onset of GOP primary season — if Trump demands that they use their 53-seat majority to shield him from an impeachment trial.
Senate Republicans are relieved, conceding there is not enough support among them to throw out the charges without a trial. “I think everyone agrees there’s not 51 votes to dismiss before the managers call the case,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters.
House Democrats are still developing their case against Trump.
They are accusing the president of abusing his power in dealings with Ukraine. But Trump is not waiting around. Cipollone told Republican senators during their meeting at the White House that his office is preparing a sophisticated defense.
With an overwhelming majority of Republican voters viewing impeachment as unwarranted if not illegitimate, Senate Republicans still have to guard against pitfalls. Trump’s allies, and his loyal voting base, could grow dissatisfied if they believe the trial is dragging on too long. Republicans, worried that they would be blamed, are cautioning their colleagues to manage the trial with that in mind.
“When it comes to Republican voters, it’s clear,” said Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana. “They would like an early dismissal.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would preside over an impeachment trial, with broad discretion over motions offered by individual senators, who otherwise have minimal influence over the proceedings. A majority of senators are empowered to vote to overrule a decision by Roberts, although that could be a tall order for Republicans. As many as five of them, but at least three of them, are running for reelection in 2020 in states that could vote to oust Trump.
Trump’s voting base can accept Senate Republicans’ internal political limitations, said John Fredericks, a conservative talk radio host in Virginia, if they help the president offer an aggressive defense. Indeed, Trump loyalists are excited about the possibility of a trial where the president can make his case.
But they expect Senate Republicans to be full participants, calling witnesses that the GOP base believes would support Trump’s claims that former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter are corrupt and deserve to be investigated. Democratic allegations against Trump center around a July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which the president asked his counterpart to investigate the Bidens.
In other words, the base expects Hunter Biden, at least, to be called as a witness. Whether there are 51 Republican votes to satisfy that demand is unclear.
“What most Trump voters want is for their belief in the president to be justified — and for him to be exonerated,” Fredericks said. “The base wants to hear from the Bidens and wants them to be asked legitimate questions.”