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In Pelosi-McConnell standoff over Trump Senate trial, who has the upper hand?

There is still no official word on when a Senate impeachment trial of President Trump might begin. The lack of forward movement is due to an ongoing impasse between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. To make sense of the situation, Lisa Desjardins talks to Nadeam Elshami, former chief of staff to Pelosi, and Steven Law, former chief of staff to McConnell.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we turn back to the impeachment standoff on Capitol Hill, a clash that features two familiar figures: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

    For more on all this, Lisa Desjardins.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The impeachment process against President Trump remains essentially stuck in neutral tonight, with still no word on when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may transmit those articles of impeachment and spark a Senate trial.

    To make sense of the impasse between Speaker Pelosi and Leader McConnell, I'm joined by two Capitol Hill veterans who previously worked as their top aides.

    Nadeam Elshami was Pelosi's chief of staff from 2013 to 2017, when she was House minority leader. Steven Law was McConnell's chief of staff from 1991 to 1996. That's before McConnell became majority leader in the Senate. Law currently runs the Senate Leadership Fund.

    Thank you, two chief of staffs. No one knows these two leaders better.

    Nadeam, I want to start with you.

    Speaker Pelosi is trying to do something unprecedented here, use timing to change the shape of the Senate trial, to get more witnesses, as we reported. What is the strategy here, and how do you think she looks at any risks of that strategy? What's she doing?

  • Nadeam Elshami:

    Well, I think what she's doing here is very important.

    We have got to take a step back. And it took five weeks for the impeachment articles of President Clinton to be transmitted to the Senate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think it was three weeks, but I hear you.

  • Nadeam Elshami:

    Three weeks. So we're close.

    And at the moment, what she's focusing on is the Constitution. This is absolutely critical issues before our country. The House did vote on articles of impeachment. However, the president and the White House demanded that none of the witnesses that the House wanted that know directly from the president to come before Congress and testify.

    Now the point is, what kind of pressure can she put on Leader McConnell? And we have seen over the past few weeks, we have Ambassador Bolton said he's willing to testify if he's subpoenaed. More evidence has come out. And the president continues to say some pretty interesting things on Twitter.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Steven Law, do you think Leader McConnell is feeling any pressure? To some people, he's kind of an enigma, not to you who've worked with him.

    What do you think is going on behind the scenes with him right now? Is he feeling any of this pressure?

  • Steven Law:

    I don't think he's feeling pressure, particularly.

    I mean, one of the things about the Senate is that it — not just Leader McConnell, but there is a sense of institutional prerogative. And you look at the Constitution, which governs this, and it doesn't say a lot, but it says some very simple things.

    First of all, the House has the sole power to impeach and the Senate has the sole power to try the case. And the operative word in both of those is sole. Each one has its own respective role. And you can't try to dictate the role of the other.

    And I think that Speaker Pelosi made, in my view, a miscalculation trying to think that she could force Leader McConnell's hand or the Senate's hand to do something that he wasn't inclined to do, at least with respect to agree to somebody else's process being put on him. And I think that is actually now starting to fall apart.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We're talking about these two leaders, but I want the hear from them. I want to play some sound of what Speaker Pelosi and Leader McConnell have said recently about impeachment in the last few months.

  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.:

    We want you to defend that Constitution, which has a republic in it, as Benjamin Franklin said, a republic, if you can keep it. We see that as our responsibility, to keep the republic, instead of an attitude of, Article 2 says I can do whatever I want.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    We exist because the founders wanted an institution that could stop momentary hysterias and partisan passions from damaging our republic.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Article 2, a reference to the president's constitutional powers.

    These are both students of history, both of them. However, they also have an urgent goal, keeping their majorities, a political goal.

    I want to ask both of you, how do both of these leaders look at the politics? How important is that in their thinking?

    Nadeam.

  • Nadeam Elshami:

    Sure.

    Right now, we are sitting here discussing witnesses by Democrats. Democrats are demanding that Leader McConnell provide an opportunity for these witnesses to come before the Senate and say what they know.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But could Pelosi look like she's obstructing the process if she waits too long? And could that hurt some of her vulnerable Democrats?

  • Nadeam Elshami:

    There is nothing in the Constitution, as my friend Steven Law said here, that says that the House has to transmit these articles in a certain amount of time.

    So, clearly, she is using this time to make the case. We are protecting the Constitution. We are protecting the institution, and we are trying to ensure that the American people actually get a chance to hear from those witnesses.

    Look, if I was Leader McConnell, I would think to myself, I want to make sure that the president's fully exonerated, and I have the opportunity to bring before the Senate these witnesses who the president says will exonerate him fully. I would do it in a heartbeat.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Steven Law?

  • Steven Law:

    Sure. A couple things on that.

    I mean, first of all, I think it's important to point out that the rules that are now likely to be adopted in the Senate to direct the trial are identical to the rules that were agreed upon on a unanimous and bipartisan basis to control the trial in the Senate of the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton.

    And under those rules, there is no exclusion of additional evidence, no exclusion of seeing witnesses and taking their testimony. But it starts out on the front end with just receiving the articles and having the case presented by both sides.

    And then, at that point, there is an opportunity, if it's deemed necessary by the Senate, to call witnesses to have additional testimony.

    So, the idea that the Senate is against any potential for witnesses testifying is simply a construct of the other side.

    The key issue here is simply, does the Senate get to decide its rules vs. others thrusting that upon them? And do we have a procedure that works?

    And you asked a minute ago about the politics. I think most people outside of hothouse that is Washington just are probably viewing impeachment as a piece of overchewed gum. They have heard about it for a long time. A lot of Democrats have been talking about it since the president was inaugurated.

    And I think they would like a process that works expeditiously to bring this to whatever conclusion needs to be brought to. And I think the speaker made a miscalculation, deciding to try sort of a theatrical exercise. I'm going to hold back the articles of impeachment until I get what I want out of the Senate.

    And now that I think that's starting to fall apart, I think that move is starting to look smaller and more political than I think she wanted it to be.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So much to talk about, and we have just one minute left.

    Both of your former bosses are very good vote counters. And few people realize that they don't seem to crack the whip, so much as they spend a lot of time knowing their members and working with their members.

    But, clearly, the votes right now, Nadeam, are not there to remove this president.

    And I want to ask both of you, quickly, how much do you think this could impact the election in November, what's happening with impeachment now, briefly?

  • Nadeam Elshami:

    Well, I don't think they're thinking about how it's going to impact the election. I can tell you that for a fact.

    I think what they're thinking about is how this is going to impact a fair trial in the Senate. And that's why the speaker did what she is continuing to do, making sure that the Senate has a trial that is fair, that presents all the evidence, and putting some pressure on Speaker — on Leader McConnell to move forward.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Steven?

  • Steven Law:

    Yes.

    I mean, it is partly my job to think about the political impact in the elections. And I do kind of doubt that impeachment is going to be the dominant issue in Senate elections next fall.

    But I do think there are going to be House members, Democrats who ran in districts that Trump won, who promised that they were going to try work with this president who are largely now going to be running mostly on impeachment. And for some of them, I think that's going to be a very difficult thing to explain to their constituents.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We will see. They're talking about other issues now, but I think we will be talking about this more.

    Thank you, Nadeam Elshami, Steven Law. Appreciate it.

  • Nadeam Elshami:

    Thank you.

  • Steven Law:

    Thanks so much.

  • Nadeam Elshami:

    Thank you.

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