Stalemate remains in US Senate over how to proceed with Trump impeachment trial

VIDEO: REUTERS
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (centre) walks to his office after speaking on the Senate floor at the US Capitol.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (centre) walks to his office after speaking on the Senate floor at the US Capitol.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US Senate remained at a stalemate on Friday (Jan 3) over how to proceed with the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, as the chamber's leaders continued a dispute over whether top White House aides will be called as witnesses.

After a two-week holiday recess, there was still no clarity about when Trump's impeachment trial might begin.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said the trial could not begin without the articles of impeachment, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has not yet sent to the Senate.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted in December to impeach Trump for pressuring Ukraine to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden, a potential rival in the 2020 presidential election.

A trial would be held in the Senate, and Trump is expected to be acquitted by the Republican-controlled chamber. But McConnell and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer have been at loggerheads since late last year over how it should be conducted.

McConnell said on Friday the Senate should go ahead and start the trial and resolve the dispute over witnesses "mid-trial," a repetition of his earlier stance. He said this would follow the precedent set in former President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial two decades ago. Clinton, a Democrat, was acquitted by the Senate.

"Just like 20 years ago," McConnell said, "we should address mid-trial questions such as witnesses after briefs, opening arguments, senator questions and other relevant motions."

Schumer, speaking after McConnell, repeated his call for a commitment to include witnesses before proceedings begin. He said there had never been an impeachment trial "in which the Senate was denied the ability to hear from witnesses."

"It may feel like we are no longer - we are no closer to establishing the rules for a Senate trial than when we last met, but the question - the vital question of whether or not we have a fair trial - ultimately rests with a majority of the senators in this chamber," Schumer said.

Republicans have a 53-seat majority in the Senate, where 51 votes are needed to pass a set of rules for the Trump trial.

At least two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, expressed concerns over the holiday break about McConnell's approach to the trial after he said he was acting in "total coordination" with the White House and would not be an impartial juror.

The actual impeachment trial in the Senate would need a two-thirds majority vote for a conviction, requiring more than 20 Republicans to break with their party to remove the president.

Schumer said Trump administration correspondence released this week bolstered Democrats' case that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine in an effort to pressure Kiev to investigate the Bidens.

He has asked for testimony from Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, along with former national security adviser John Bolton and two other White House aides.

The two Senate leaders spoke after a US air strike in Baghdad killed Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's elite Quds Force and architect of its growing military influence in the Middle East. The attack was authorised by Trump, and Iran has promised harsh revenge.

Clinton ordered four days of bombing on Iraq in 1998 as he was facing an impeachment vote in the House. The airstrikes delayed the vote, but did not prevent it.