US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday said the Republican-led chamber could start an impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, next month.
McConnell said that if the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives approves articles of impeachment, introduced on Tuesday, then the trial in the Senate will be “first order of business in January.” A conviction at this point is unlikely.
McConnell’s comments came just hours before the House Judiciary Committee was scheduled to begin considering whether to recommend two articles of impeachment to the full House for a vote.
Those articles charge the president with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The charges stem from Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to announce investigations of his political rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden, as he withheld aid to the country.
The Democrats’ impeachment inquiry was centred on a July phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 presidential frontrunner, and his son Hunter, who served on a board of a Ukrainian gas company. Trump also wanted an investigation into a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 elections.
At the time of the call, the Trump administration was withholding nearly $400m in military aid from Ukraine.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing, tweeting on Tuesday there “WAS NO PRESSURE”.
Democrats have moved rapidly in their impeachment inquiry since launching an investigation on September 24.
In drafting the articles of impeachment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faced a legal and political challenge of balancing the views of her majority while hitting the Constitution’s bar of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors”.
Some liberal members of Congress wanted more expansive charges encompassing the findings from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Centrist Democrats preferred to keep the impeachment articles more focused on Trump’s actions towards Ukraine.
Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said Democrats had to take action because Trump had endangered the US Constitution, jeopardised national security and undermined the integrity of the 2020 election.
But Trump will be on friendlier terrain in the Republican-controlled Senate, which will likely consider the matter in January in a trial presided over by US Chief Justice John Roberts.
Democrats are not expected to pick up the 20 Republican votes they need at a minimum in the Senate to drive Trump from office with a two-thirds supermajority. But Republicans have yet to decide how to handle the matter.
Trump wants a full trial, featuring testimony from witnesses, including Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others, that would flesh out the case for and against impeachment and eat up weeks of time just as the Democratic Party holds its first presidential nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in February.
McConnell suggested on Tuesday, however, that his chamber may opt for a quicker trial that would allow senators to return to their regular business.
McConnell will need a majority of the Senate’s 100 members to agree to a trial plan. That could put a handful of Republican moderates, like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, in the position of deciding how much time the chamber would devote to the proceedings.
During Democratic President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial, no witnesses testified on the Senate floor. Instead, videotaped depositions were conducted with just a few witnesses, which senators screened behind closed doors. Clinton was acquitted in the Senate on charges arising from his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.