WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he has the votes to start President Donald Trump's impeachment trial as soon as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi releases the documents, winning support from GOP senators to postpone a decision on calling witnesses.
The announcement is significant, enabling McConnell to bypass for now Democratic demands for new testimony as he launches the third impeachment trial in the nation's history on his preferred terms. It could begin this week if Pelosi sends the articles of impeachment to the Senate.
“We have the votes,” McConnell told reporters. He said the question of new witnesses and documents will be addressed later “and not before the trial begins.”
The contours of a Senate trial have been in dispute. Pelosi is delaying transmission of the articles as Democrats press to hear from former national security adviser John Bolton and other new witnesses. McConnell has resisted and prefers speedy acquittal.
The GOP leader told senators at their closed-door lunch Tuesday that he has support for his plan, outlined in an organizing resolution that would be modeled after President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial 20 years ago. It would start the trial first and postpone votes on witnesses until later in the process.
“He has 51 (votes), for sure,”' said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a top ally of the president, exiting the meeting. Republicans hold the majority in the Senate, 53-47.
In withholding the articles, Pelosi gave Democrats an opportunity to ramp up pressure on Republicans not to go along with McConnell's proposal. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called McConnell's plan a “trap” and a “cover-up.”
Republicans countered that Democrats rushed to impeach and then delayed the process. Pelosi has yet to choose House impeachment managers for the trial, a politically sensitive next step, with many lawmakers vying to be candidates.
The House impeached the president last month on the two charges.
Just four GOP senators would be needed to deny McConnell his majority, but he appears to have locked up the votes. GOP leaders were conducting a whip count Tuesday to gauge support. Several GOP senators have indicated they want to hear from Bolton and other witnesses, but they are nevertheless standing with McConnell's plan for starting the trial.
Trump faces charges that he abused the power of the presidency by pressuring Ukraine's new leader to investigate Democrats, using as leverage $400 million in military assistance that is critical for the ally as it counters Russia at its border.
The funding for Ukraine was eventually released but only after Congress intervened.
Republicans are expected to swiftly acquit Trump of the charges, but Democrats say fresh evidence, including Bolton's willingness to testify, only increases pressure for new witnesses and documents.
Bolton apparently compared the administration's actions toward Ukraine to a “drug deal” he wanted no part of, a shadow diplomacy being concocted by the acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, according to House testimony. Bolton left the administration in September.