Republicans claim victory, but Democrats praise Pelosi's impeachment strategy

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies boasted Tuesday that they had rebuffed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to shape the Senate impeachment trial and mocked the Democrats’ tactics as a pointless waste of time. 

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, announced that he had enough Republican support to begin an impeachment trial without deciding the matter of whether witnesses will be called. Democrats had pressured McConnell to reach an agreement on witnesses before a trial.  

McConnell’s campaign cast the Republican leader as the lead character in “The Godfather Part II,” tweeting out an image of McConnell’s face superimposed on Al Pacino’s body, with a quote from the movie: “My offer is this: nothing.”

The message from team McConnell to team Pelosi: You lost. Pelosi delayed sending the articles over to the Senate after the House impeached President Trump on Dec. 19, and still hasn’t done so. She will huddle with House Democrats Wednesday morning to discuss next steps. 

McConnell himself referred to Pelosi’s tactic as an attempt to use what he described as “mythical leverage.”

However, even though McConnell may have staved off the House push to accept witnesses before a trial begins, Democrats told Yahoo News that Pelosi's strategy has yielded a few benefits and was worthwhile.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

First, top Democrats said, the chances of getting 51 votes in favor of witnesses during the Senate trial is greater after the break than it would have been if Pelosi had not delayed. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he was cautiously optimistic that at least four Republicans would vote in favor of witnesses, saying there is a “pretty decent chance” of such an outcome. 

John Lawrence, a former chief of staff to Pelosi, told Yahoo News that Pelosi was never “under the impression she had all the leverage over Mitch McConnell.”

Rather, Lawrence said, Pelosi’s goal was to play a more modest tactical game. “It started a discussion in the country that focused on the fact that the president had failed to provide both witnesses and information,” Lawrence said, 

Three weeks of debate over what a fair trial should look like was better, Democrats believe, than giving Trump a pass to simply blast away over the holidays on Twitter about how he believes he is innocent of any wrongdoing. 

And as the question of how the trial would be conducted stayed in focus during the break, a number of new developments took place: Additional e-mails came to light highlighting the Pentagon’s discomfort with Trump’s actions, as did the news that the White House refuses to turn over 20 specific e-mails between White House aides about the withholding of military assistance to Ukraine. 

And then there was the announcement Monday by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, that he would be willing to testify in a Senate trial if subpoenaed. Bolton is one of four witnesses Schumer has said Democrats want to hear from in a trial. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to reporters after a policy luncheon at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 7, 2020. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

The second benefit of Pelosi’s gambit, Democrats said, is that it has paid political dividends for their candidates who are running in competitive Senate races across the country. 

The national public focus on the question of a fair trial in the Senate has put vulnerable Republican incumbents running for reelection under a microscope and on defense. For example, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. — one of the Republicans most in danger of losing his seat this fall to a Democrat — has come under increasing scrutiny in his home state for avoiding questions about the impeachment trial. 

The Denver Post on Monday put a picture of Gardner on its front page under the headline, “Gardner stays silent as Senate trial looms.”

In Arizona, Sen. Martha McSally is another Republican incumbent who is locked in a tight reelection campaign and has been running away from questions about whether she supports having witnesses in a Senate trial. 

Other Republican incumbents, such as Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa and Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, are also under pressure to answer to voters on this question. 

The consistent Democratic talking point is that a Senate trial will not be fair if Republicans refuse to allow witnesses and don’t force the White House to provide documents relevant to the House investigation.

Republicans up for reelection in swing states find it difficult to say they are against more information in a trial. However, McConnell’s inclination seems to be to hold a trial without witnesses. 

The question is whether he can do so while also protecting his vulnerable incumbents from tough votes on witnesses. 

Schumer vowed to force votes on witnesses in a floor speech on Tuesday morning. “There will be votes at the beginning [of a trial] on whether to call the four witnesses we’ve proposed and subpoena the documents we’ve identified,” Schumer said.

Schumer pointed out that with Senate Republicans holding a 53-to-47 majority, it takes only four Republicans to approve witnesses. “Four Republican senators at any point can compel the Senate to call the fact witnesses and subpoena the relevant documents that we know will shed additional light on the truth,” Schumer said in his floor speech. 

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton. (Photo: Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images)

This tightening of the screws on a handful of Republican senators is helpful to Democrats’ hopes of retaking control of the Senate. The issue is how much, and on that question, not all Democrats agree. 

One Democratic chief of staff told Yahoo News that the votes over whether to have witnesses in the Senate trial will be the equivalent of a vote on whether to go to war. But one veteran Democratic consultant close to Democratic leadership said that overestimating the importance to voters of partisan wrangling over impeachment was the result of being in a D.C. “bubble.”

Nonetheless, Joe Trippi, a Democratic campaign operative, pointed out that Bolton is writing a book that is supposed to be published at some point before the election this fall

One thing Republicans will have to weigh, Trippi told Yahoo News, is the possibility that Bolton has explosive details to share that will be in his book. Aides to Bolton who worked for him in the White House have already told the House impeachment investigators that Bolton called Trump’s scheme to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden a “drug deal.”

If the book comes out and Bolton says he would have shared these details in a Senate trial, but Republicans voted to block him from testifying, that may hurt the GOP in the days leading up to the election, Trippi said.

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