Trump’s House warriors likely sidelined in Senate trial

By Melanie Zanona and Anita Kumar

President Donald Trump’s attack dogs in the House are unlikely to be unleashed in the Senate impeachment trial.

GOP lawmakers like Reps. Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan and John Ratcliffe aren’t expected to serve on Trump’s official impeachment defense team, according to three people familiar with the situation, despite having played a key role defending the president during the House’s public impeachment hearings.

“They’re not needed,” said a friend of the president who spoke to him recently. And on a scale of 1 to 10, one GOP lawmaker pegged the likelihood of House allies joining the defense team at a 2.

Instead, Trump’s top defenders are more likely to help out in a public relations capacity — including the media appearances that the TV-obsessed president covets — though the White House has made no final decision as it waits for lawmakers to set the timing and parameters of the trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday he’s ready to move ahead with the trial rules without Democratic support, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi could transmit the impeachment articles as early as this week.

The likely decision to exclude House members, which may disappoint conservative hardliners, signals the White House and top Republicans want orderly and serious proceedings in the Senate, where the president is expected to be acquitted.

Officials have wrestled with the idea of adding some of Trump’s fiercest congressional defenders to the president’s legal defense team as the White House finalizes its defense strategy. They even had lawyers analyze whether such a move is allowed, and came away with the impression that there’s no prohibition against it.

Trump has talked for weeks about possibly enlisting House members, but some Senate Republicans and other Trump allies both inside and outside the White House oppose the idea, several people familiar with the deliberations said. They are reluctant to elevate Trump’s partisan warriors to such a high-profile role in the trial, which they worry could take away from the solemn nature of the proceedings and serve as a distraction.

The decision isn’t settled, though, and Trump could always change his mind at the last minute as he tends to do.

An outside adviser who speaks to the president said there’s a fear House members would “grandstand” and turn it into a “clown show” as they tried to grab the spotlight.

During the trial, only Trump’s defense team and the House Democrats’ impeachment managers will be allowed to substantively debate on the floor. Senators will be limited in what they can say during the proceedings.

But a White House aide familiar with the latest thinking said House Republicans could aggressively defend Trump on television, leaving Senate Republicans to stick to trial business as impartial jurors and avoid criticism they’re going on the air waves.

Cipollone, who has written several searing letters to Democrats critical of their efforts, will take the lead during the trial with assistance from two of his three top deputies, Michael Purpura and Patrick Philbin. Jay Sekulow, Trump’s longest-serving personal attorney, also is expected to have a presence on the Senate floor during the trial, though it’s still unclear whether he’ll deliver public remarks.

Those who spoke to Trump in recent days or over his two-week vacation, which he spent at his Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida, said he talked about impeachment strategy but dropped any mention of House members’ role.

But some in the president’s orbit continue to argue that Trump’s congressional allies would provide a strong counterweight to the House Democratic impeachment managers — a coterie of lawmakers who will be hand-picked by Pelosi to prosecute the case against Trump on the floor.

Some of Trump’s most vocal supporters continued to make a case for themselves over the recess holiday break. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) touted some of his colleagues late last week while appearing on the podcast "War Room: Impeachment," arguing that Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) would be a strong addition to the impeachment team.

"He had one of the greatest performances in the Judiciary, and I say performances because he brought the truth," Meadows said. “Listen, everybody wants to have their day in the sunshine. This is not a time to play politics, this is a time to put your best team on there and I think Matt Gaetz would be one of them."

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.,during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Other names that had been in the mix to represent Trump include Meadows, Trump’s confidant on Capitol Hill; Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee; Ratcliffe of Texas, a former prosecutor; and Jordan of Ohio, who had a starring role in the public impeachment hearings. All of those lawmakers had participated in the hearings or closed-door depositions with impeachment witnesses.

Even if they don’t secure a spot on the defense team, however, they are still expected to play informal public messaging and behind-the-scenes strategizing roles.

Trump had been fuming both privately and publicly for weeks before the House’s public impeachment hearings began that Republicans weren’t doing enough to defend him. But that changed after the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees hearings got underway, according to several people familiar with the situation.

“These are individuals I would actually pull in at the White House,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on Fox News last month, name-checking Collins, Jordan and Ratcliffe. “You want people that have been through this, understand it, been in the hearings, even when they were in the basement.”

Meridith McGraw and Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.