White House counsel Pat Cipollone met with Senate Republicans for lunch on Wednesday to denigrate the impeachment proceedings in the House and plot strategy for the likely Senate trial, the latest example of increasing coordination between the president and senators who will determine his fate.
The lunch occurred while the House Judiciary Committee held its first impeachment hearing, during which three constitutional scholars said President Donald Trump committed impeachable offenses by trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.
Trump refused to send his lawyers to that hearing, but Cipollone and White House officials Pam Bondi and Tony Sayegh were welcomed warmly by the 53-member Senate GOP caucus.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said Wednesday that Cipollone was emphatic that the impeachment inquiry against Trump was not worthy of being approved by the House, but that if it is sent over to the Senate, the president is eager to present his case.
“The president’s counsel said enough times that he wanted to be sure we heard it, that even though they’re talking about what they may do if it comes here ... they clearly don’t believe — based on what’s happened so far — that the House should send it here,” Blunt said.
Cipollone’s lunch comes amid rising White House outreach to Senate Republicans. A small group of GOP senators huddled with him before Thanksgiving and agreed that the Senate will likely hold a full trial rather than immediately try to dismiss it. Trump himself has met with dozens of Republican senators at the White House this fall.
One attendee said the meeting was intended in part for “relationship building with Pat” and that there were no new revelations about the Senate impeachment process. Cipollone, who was accompanied by White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland, was the only administration official who spoke at the lunch.
“They just wanted to help us get an understanding of where they’re coming from and how they see it,” added Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “It was an opportunity for our members to ask questions and for some to offer comments.”
GOP senators at the lunch said the White House counsel was careful not to dictate anything to the Senate other than to say the chamber can and should give the president a better deal than the House.
“Pat, to his credit, knows this is our chamber,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “With regard to the process, they yield completely to us and leadership.”
Several senators asked questions about how many votes it takes to pass motions in an impeachment trial (it’s 51), but generally, specifics were not discussed. Cipollone did not bring up potential witnesses and said he can’t lay out his defense plan because “he doesn’t know where it’s going to shake out,” given the uncertainty in the House, according to Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).
Senators also discussed the possibility that perhaps there will be no trial at all. That seems unlikely given the rapid advance toward impeachment, but some Republicans said they believed Speaker Nancy Pelosi might lack the votes to pass articles of impeachment.
“I wonder right now whether there might be something other than articles of impeachment voted on, because politically it’s lost quite a bit of support,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the House,” added Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), adding that Cipollone mostly laid out “here’s why we think the House process was flawed and the president did nothing wrong.”
Despite some Republicans emphasizing their role as jurors in any Senate impeachment trial, the White House hasn't been shy about wooing the jury.
Since the fall began, Trump has hosted more than 40 Republican senators, primarily for weekly lunches. The White House has also hosted Republican House members for weekends at Camp David, and Trump has brought lawmakers to several sporting events, including to the World Series in Washington and the Ultimate Fighting Championship in New York City.
Senate Democrats discussed impeachment at their own lunch Wednesday. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) gave a presentation about the “mechanics of a potential Senate trial” to the caucus, which included clips from the 1999 Clinton impeachment proceedings, according to a senior Democratic aide.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Schumer have yet to hammer out the details of what a Senate trial would look like. McConnell suggested Tuesday that if he can’t come to an agreement with Schumer, he would then try to pass a partisan package that would determine the rules of the impeachment trial.
Timing for the impeachment trial remains uncertain.
The Senate’s legislative calendar, released Wednesday, includes an ominous blank spot for the month of January, a reminder that the proceedings surrounding impeachment are fluid. Although the details for an impeachment trial remain unclear, Senate Republicans said they can guarantee at least one thing: Trump’s defense will be heard.
“Should the proceeding come to this body, we’ll respect due process far more than the House has done. And we’ll conduct a fair and open process, both sides I believe will be allowed to present their case,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “The White House will be allowed to defend themselves.”