Pelosi puts off sending impeachment to Senate, leaving trial in limbo

(Patrick Semansky | AP) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., smiles as she holds the gavel as the House votes on articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump by the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019.

Washington • The day after the House cast historic votes to impeach President Donald Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi put an abrupt halt on the proceedings, holding back from sending the charges to the Republican-led Senate in a politically risky bid to exert influence over the contours of an election-year trial.

With some leading Democrats pushing to delay transmittal of the articles and others advocating that they be withheld altogether, the limbo is likely to persist until the new year. The House left town on Thursday for a two-week holiday recess without taking the votes to appoint impeachment managers, which is required to start the process in the Senate.

“We are ready,” said Pelosi, who has said she would not send the charges or name the lawmakers who would prosecute the case against Trump until she was certain of a fair process for a Senate trial. “When we see what they have, we will know who and how many we will send over.”

By withholding the articles, Pelosi is hoping that Trump — who is eager for a trial to present his defense and clear his name — will put pressure on Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, to commit to Democratic demands, including the ability to call witnesses during the trial.

But the speaker’s strategy is also a gamble. Having toiled to present the House impeachment inquiry and the votes on Wednesday as a somber duty rooted in the Constitution, Pelosi risks appearing to politicize the matter if she withholds the charges for negotiating leverage.

[Read more: Utahns remain split on impeachment, poll says]

And McConnell was entirely unmoved by Pelosi’s tactics, delivering a speech Thursday evening in which he appeared barely able to contain his amusement at what he regarded as the speaker’s missteps.

“I admit, I am not sure what leverage there is in refraining from sending us something we do not want,” McConnell said with a wry smile from the Senate floor. “But alas, if they can figure that out, they can explain it. Meanwhile, other House Democrats say they would prefer never to transmit the articles. Fine with me!”

The wrangling came on yet another day of raw nerves and partisan jabs in a Capitol still reeling from the vote to approve two articles of impeachment against Trump — one charging abuse of power, the other charging obstruction of Congress — in connection with his campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.

The Senate trial is the next step, as dictated by the Constitution. But to prompt that proceeding, Pelosi must name impeachment “managers” who will make the case in the Senate, and transmit the articles. And for now, the two parties are at loggerheads.

McConnell has both infuriated Democrats and complicated the picture for them by asserting that he has no intention of acting as an impartial juror in a Senate trial of Trump, but would instead do everything in his power, working in concert with the White House, to quickly acquit the president.

Still, McConnell has a challenging political balance to strike as well. With a slim majority and a small group of moderates and politically vulnerable Republicans in his ranks who might want to hear from witnesses or otherwise ensure a balanced proceeding, he will have to find consensus on how to move forward.

On Thursday, he and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and the minority leader, spoke for the first time about the parameters of a trial, but the talks went nowhere.

“As of today, however, we remain at an impasse,” McConnell said during his speech. Earlier in the day, he delivered a blistering attack on Democrats, assailing their case as weak and “shoddy work,” and promising the Senate would “put this right” by acquitting the president.

Pelosi shot back: “I don’t think anybody expected that we would have a rogue president and a rogue leader in the Senate at the same time.”

With few precedents — Trump is only the third president to be impeached — the process to determine the shape of the trial is one of malleable rules and negotiations. The Senate stalemate suggested that rather than rise above the partisan vitriol that permeated the House’s impeachment inquiry and its vote on Wednesday, the Senate — traditionally the cooler-headed chamber — may replicate it.

At the White House on Thursday, there was some evidence that Trump was rattled by Pelosi’s delay.

At the White House, the president quizzed one adviser after another about what they thought the speaker was up to. He posed the same question in an early-morning telephone call to one of his closest Senate allies, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who later said that Trump was “mad as hell” about Democrats’ hold.

“I just met with the president, and he is demanding his day in court,” Graham said on Fox News.

But the political stakes for Pelosi are high. Moderate Democrats in Trump-friendly districts have already put themselves in political jeopardy by voting to impeach the president, and they can ill afford to go home for the holidays looking as though their party is playing politics with something as grave as a Senate impeachment trial.

“It makes sense to try to have an understanding of what the structure is going to look like in the Senate,” said one of those moderates, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich. But, she added, “I hope this is handled expeditiously.”

And in comments that underscored the risks Pelosi faces in withholding the articles, McConnell took to the Senate floor Thursday morning and argued that the delay reflected a weak case against Trump, a blink by the Democrats in their standoff with the president.

“The prosecutors are getting cold feet in front of the entire country and second-guessing whether they even want to go to trial,” McConnell said. “They said impeachment was so urgent that it could not even wait for due process, but now they’re content to sit on their hands. This is comical.”

Trump, echoing McConnell’s remarks, took to Twitter to attack what he called a “pathetic” case.

“Pelosi feels her phony impeachment HOAX is so pathetic she is afraid to present it to the Senate, which can set a date and put this whole SCAM into default if they refuse to show up!” Trump wrote. “The Do Nothings are so bad for our Country!”

McConnell has already rejected a detailed plan set forth by Schumer, who proposed a trial beginning Jan. 7 that would give each side a fixed amount of time to present its case, and called for four top White House officials who have not testified — including Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, and John Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser — to appear.

“Is the president’s case so weak that none of the president’s men can defend him under oath?”

Schumer asked in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday morning, describing McConnell’s remarks as a “30-minute partisan screed.”

The back and forth came as Congress toggled between impeachment-related matters and a rash of year-end legislation. The House approved a new trade pact with Mexico and temporarily repealed a tax increase on high earning residents in certain states. Pelosi, seeking to spotlight the diverse Democratic freshman class, brought some of its members to a year-end news conference, where they stood behind a stack of House-passed bills that, Democrats complain, are languishing on McConnell’s desk in the Senate.

But the looming Senate trial was top of mind for many, with some leading Democrats casting doubt on whether it would happen at all.

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, told CNN Thursday morning that he was willing to wait “as long as it takes” to transmit the two impeachment articles approved Wednesday night.

“Until we can get some assurances from the majority leader that he is going to allow for a fair and impartial trial to take place, we would be crazy to walk in there knowing he has set up a kangaroo court,” Clyburn said.

“If you have a preordained outcome that is negative to your actions, why walk into it? I would much rather not take that chance.”

Addressing reporters after Wednesday night’s vote, Pelosi did not suggest that she was contemplating holding the articles forever.

And while she did not say explicitly what she believes would constitute a fair trial, she indicated she would support the plan laid out by Schumer.

“We’d like to see a trial where it’s up to the senators to make their own decisions and working together, hopefully, in recognition of witnesses that the president withheld from us, the documents that president withheld from us,” Pelosi said.

Advisers to Trump insisted that despite his push for witnesses with some people, he realizes that there is no mechanism for calling them without 51 votes to approve them, and he has made his peace with that.

Instead, he hopes that some of Senate committees, including the Judiciary Committee that Graham leads, can hold hearings that will allow certain witnesses to be called. And he is still preparing for a trial, making clear to advisers that Pat Cipollone, his White House counsel, will lead any defense for the White House, with an open question as to who assists from the outside.

Privately, people close to Trump said his lawyers are reviewing all options. But they pointed to a Bloomberg Opinion piece by Noah Feldman, a Harvard University law professor who testified during the impeachment inquiry at the behest of Democrats, that asserted that in order for a president to be impeached, the House “must actually send the articles and send managers to the Senate to prosecute the impeachment. And the Senate must actually hold a trial.”

Pelosi, one Trump adviser said, cannot “have it both ways.”