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After House impeaches Trump, battle turns to Senate trial

A day after the House impeached President Trump, Sen. Mitch McConnell reassured Trump's allies and slammed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who says she may delay sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate -- a necessary step to begin a trial there. John Yang reports and talks to Michael Conway, who was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment inquiry of President Nixon.

Read the Full Transcript

  • John Yang:

    The stage is set tonight for the next act in the impeachment drama: a Senate trial of President Trump.

    But there are questions about just when that will happen. Those questions arose after House Democrats finished their work last night, and the answers remained unclear today.

    The morning after the House voted to impeach President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reassured the president's allies.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    The Senate exists for moments like this.

  • John Yang:

    He slammed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has said she may delay sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate, a necessary step to start the president's trial in that chamber.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    House Democrats may be too afraid, too afraid to even transmit their shoddy work product to the Senate. Mr. President, looks like the prosecutors are getting cold feet in front of the entire country.

  • John Yang:

    Today, Pelosi said she wouldn't set the wheels in motion for a Senate trial, including naming the House managers who would prosecute, until she got assurances that the rules would be fair.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    The next thing will be when we see the process that is set forth in the Senate. Then we will know the number of managers that we may have to go forward and who — who we would choose.

  • John Yang:

    In the Oval Office, the president blasted House Democrats.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We think that what they did is wrong. We think that what they did is unconstitutional. And the Senate is very, very capable. We have great senators, Republican senators.

  • John Yang:

    The Senate is at loggerheads over Democratic leader Chuck Schumer's request to call trial witnesses.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    Leader McConnell is plotting the most rushed, least thorough, and most unfair impeachment trial in modern history.

  • John Yang:

    The president's defenders, like Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, rejected that.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    If there's a witness request by the president, I'm going to say no. If there's a witness request by anybody, I'm going to say no. I want this to end quickly.

  • John Yang:

    Today, the president also got support from a fellow world leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • President Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    The U.S. Senate will be unlikely to remove a representative of their own party from office on what seems to me an absolutely far-fetched reason.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi:

    Article one is adopted.

  • John Yang:

    Last night, as the House impeached him, President Trump was rallying his supporters in Battle Creek, Michigan.

  • President Donald Trump:

    This lawless, partisan impeachment is a political suicide march for the Democrat Party.

  • John Yang:

    And he sparked controversy by seeming to suggest that the late Michigan lawmaker John Dingell was looking up from hell.

    The president recounted a conversation with Representative Debbie Dingell, John Dingell's widow, about memorials after his death.

  • President Donald Trump:

    She calls me up. It's the nicest thing that's ever happened. Thank you so much. John would be so thrilled. He's looking down. He would be so thrilled. Thank you so much, sir.

    I said, that's OK. Don't worry about it.

    Maybe he's looking up. I don't know.

    (LAUGHTER)

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • John Yang:

    Tomorrow, Congress begins a two-week holiday recess, returning to the Capitol and any future action on impeachment in the new year.

    This evening, Senate leaders McConnell and Schumer met for an hour to talk about the impeachment trial. McConnell said they had a cordial conversation, but remained at an impasse.

    Now, just what is House Speaker Pelosi trying to do by threatening to delay the process, and what are the rules about this?

    Michael Conway was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the impeachment inquiry of President Nixon in the 1970s.

    Mr. Conway, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Michael Conway:

    My pleasure.

  • John Yang:

    First of all, what are the rules? What — when does — or does the speaker ever have to transmit these articles of impeachment, or could she hold on this them forever?

  • Michael Conway:

    Well, she could hold on to them forever, at great political risk.

    The Constitution says sole power only twice. It says the House has the sole power of impeachment. The Senate has the sole power of trying the impeachment. Until she lets go of the articles of impeachment, Nancy Pelosi can do with them what she wishes.

    And the U.S. Supreme Court in the early '90s in a case involving a federal judge that was impeached said the courts have no role whatsoever in regulating impeachment, either in the House or the Senate. So there's no other recourse the senators have if Nancy Pelosi decides to hold onto the articles until there could be a negotiation about witnesses in the trial.

  • John Yang:

    And help us understand the — sort of the political calculus here.

    What leverage does this create by holding on to these articles of impeachment, by not triggering the trial in the Senate against the president?

  • Michael Conway:

    Well, you just played the clip of — Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell have also said they want to have a very abbreviated trial, no witnesses, no drama. Let's get it over with.

    Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer don't want to do that. There are existing rules for prior impeachments. In 1986, the Senate had a whole series of rules you can find on Senate.gov about impeachment.

    And in Bill Clinton's impeachment, they added two new resolutions. Those provided for witnesses. There were witnesses in Bill Clinton's impeachment.

    If Mitch McConnell followed the rules that were adopted unanimously in 1999, there would be witnesses. But the Senate has absolute power to change it. The question is, does he have 51 votes to do that?

  • John Yang:

    Is there a potential downside, or is there a risk to what House Speaker Pelosi is doing?

  • Michael Conway:

    Of course. You just heard the Republican talking point, which is that the managers now have cold feet, that they don't want to send the case to the House.

    But I think one of the real variables here is, how is President Trump going to react to this? He's already reacted to the issue that he's been impeached. He believes — and you just heard his words — that he — the Senate will, he says, exonerate him. That won't happen, but they can find him not guilty, acquit him.

    If the trial is prolonged, and he doesn't get that day, he may actually put some pressure on McConnell to come to some agreement about witnesses. And he's famously said he himself wants to call Representative Schiff and others as witnesses in the trial.

  • John Yang:

    This idea of withholding the articles from the Senate, it was floated by professor — Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe.

    He got — the idea was that you essentially indict the president, you charged him with these articles of impeachment, and you never give him the opportunity to — for the acquittal in the Senate.

    Is that viable?

  • Michael Conway:

    Well, it may be viable, but the public may not think it's fair.

    In Robert Mueller's report, he put a footnote that's — where he said that he couldn't take any action and recommend whether there should be criminal charges. And he said that that would be decided in impeachment.

    And one of his rationales was, the president had no opportunity to vindicate himself. And so I think, if the president really had no opportunity to vindicate himself, there was never a trial, I think that would backfire on the Democrats.

    One other thing to think about, the Democrats have been in court. They have a hearing on January 3 on two lawsuits in the court of appeals in Washington, one for Don McGahn to testify, one for the grand jury material.

    Their whole rationale is, it's part of an impeachment inquiry. So, what are the Democrats going to say on January 3? Is the impeachment inquiry still going on? Or is it over?

  • John Yang:

    And also help us. We're going to be — people are going to be hearing a lot of terms they haven't heard before.

    We heard Speaker Pelosi talking about appointing House managers.

  • Michael Conway:

    Right.

  • John Yang:

    Who are the House managers, and why is that important?

  • Michael Conway:

    The House managers are essentially the prosecutors. They're very important. They're members of Congress. They will go to the Senate. They will serve as the prosecutors in the trial.

    And I believe a lot of Democrats would like to have the designation and the status of being a House manager, but it's really a job. It's not an honorary position. They're going to have to present the evidence in the trial, whether they're witnesses or not.

    And the fact that they may not subpoena new witnesses, they can still bring the witnesses who appeared before the Intelligence Committee, Ambassador Yovanovitch, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, and others. So they better be skilled prosecutors, skilled questioners.

    And I think Nancy Pelosi understands that.

  • John Yang:

    And you also said that the speaker and also Senator Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, want to slow this process down. They seem to be racing to get the impeachment done in the House, but why would they want to slow things down now?

  • Michael Conway:

    Well, they want a set of ground rules. They want witnesses.

    And I think some Republican members of the Senate are going to be under some political pressure here. If Senator Schumer asks that these four witnesses or others — he wants John Bolton, he wants Chief of Staff Mulvaney to be witnesses and two others. They can ask Chief Justice Roberts, who will be presiding over the Senate trial, to subpoena them.

    And the rules provide for subpoenas in the Senate. That can be overruled. Chief Justice Roberts, in a normal trial, what he says goes, but not in the Senate. The Senate, by a majority vote, can overrule him.

    But let's take Republican senators up for reelection in hotly contested states like Colorado or Maine. The question is going to be, do you want witnesses or not? A recent poll shows that 71 percent of the American public want the witnesses to testify.

    So they're going to have a tough vote. And whether Mitch McConnell can keep his 53 Republicans in line will be the question.

  • John Yang:

    Michael Conway, a lot of issues we're going to be talking about for weeks to come.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • John Yang:

    Thanks a lot.

  • Michael Conway:

    You're more than welcome. Thank you.

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