Trump impeachment: What happens next with US on brink of war with Iran and Senate trial in limbo?

President spends Christmas vacation plotting response at Mar-a-Lago as assassination of Qassem Soleimani ratchets up tensions with Tehran

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 06 January 2020 15:36 GMT
Chuck Schumer says Trump impeachment hinges on fair trial in Senate

Donald Trump returned to the White House on Sunday evening after spending a two-week break at his Florida golf resort Mar-a-Lago over Christmas and New Year.

In addition to signing off on the killing of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani – threatening fresh instability in the Middle East without forewarning Congress or his international political allies – the US president used the festive hiatus to relax with family and friends, keep up a steady stream of tweets to his followers with one eye on this year’s upcoming election and plot the response to his impeachment.

A vote in the House of Representatives on 18 December 2018 passed two articles of impeachment against Mr Trump, charging him with abuse of power by withholding $391m (£302m) in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine as he asked the Eastern European nation to launch an anti-corruption probe into domestic rival Joe Biden and obstructing Congress when it subsequently sought to investigate his actions.

That vote marked the culmination of months of detective work by a Democratic-led inquiry into his 25 July phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, a process that ended in a series of dramatic televised public hearings with senior diplomats and national security officials.

But House speaker Nancy Pelosi has since declined to pass the articles on to the Republican-held Senate for the next phase of proceedings, expressing concern that majority leader Mitch McConnell would not allow a fair trial to take place after he openly admitted he would be taking direction from the White House and would not himself be impartial.

With neither side ready to agree on the rules of engagement and the situation seemingly mired in deadlock, here’s what both sides are saying.

What’s happening in Washington?

On Friday, Mr McConnell took to the floor of the upper chamber to address the state of play.

“Let me clarify Senate rules and Senate history for those who may be confused. First, about this fantasy that the speaker of the House will get to hand design the trial proceedings in the Senate, that’s obviously a non-starter,” he said.

“We’ve heard claims that it’s a problem that I’ve discussed trial mechanics with the White House even as my counterpart the Democratic leader is openly coordinating political strategy with the speaker, who some might call the prosecution. So it’s okay to have consultation with the prosecution, but not apparently with the defendant?”

“We can’t hold a trial without the articles,” he added, “so for now we’re content to continue the ordinary business of the Senate.”

Democrat Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, responded by saying that Mr McConnell, who has styled himself the “Grim Reaper” of Democratic bills, “intends to act as an executioner of a fair trial”.

“Leader McConnell has been clear and vocal that he has no intention to be impartial in this process... Thankfully the rules of an impeachment trial will be determined by a majority of the senators in this chamber, not by the Republican leader alone,” he said.

Mr Schumer then appeared on ABC’s This Week on Sunday and told host George Stephanopoulos he hoped four Republican senators would join the Democratic cause and push for a “fairer” format as Mr Trump’s future in the Oval Office is placed up for debate.

“If the president is acquitted through a sham trial, through a mock trial, where there are no witnesses, where everything is covered up, that will not stand him well with the American people and it will not stand the Republicans with the American people,” the New York Democrat said.

“Where but in Alice and Wonderland do we hear all the arguments and then maybe have the evidence, the witnesses, and the trial?” he asked.

In any final vote in the Senate, the Democrats would ultimately need at least 20 Republicans to agree with the prosecution’s case to secure the 67 needed to secure the president’s removal from office, but those four defections in the meantime would be enough to secure key procedural wins, empowering the opposition to call witnesses and demand documents of interest.

For her part, Speaker Pelosi tweeted on Friday that Mr McConnell “made clear that he will feebly comply with President Trump’s cover-up of his abuses of power and be an accomplice to that cover-up. The American people deserve the truth.”

What took place at Mar-a-Lago?

As for President Trump, he too took to social media on Saturday to complain: “It is ashame [sic] that the Democrats make us spend so much time & money on this ridiculous Impeachment Lite Hoax. I should be able to devote all of my time to the REAL USA!”

Keen to downplay the significance of the process while tacitly admitting it continued to dominate his thoughts, the president spent the holidays contingency planning with his inner circle.

Mr Trump was seen chatting with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Fox News anchor Lou Dobbs at his New Year’s Eve party in West Palm Beach, according to CNN, and otherwise spent vacation time discussing media strategy with the likes of influential Republican senator Lindsey Graham, ex-congressman Trey Gowdy and veteran conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh.

Back in Washington, White House counsel Pat Cipollone reportedly spent the time on the second floor of the West Wing interviewing GOP allies with a view to securing help with opening and closing statements and the presentation of evidence.

Loyalist congressmen Matt Gaetz, John Ratcliffe and Jim Jordan have all meanwhile been tipped to play a role in the upcoming proceedings by their colleague Mark Meadows, speaking on Steve Bannon’s podcast War Room: Impeachment last week.

Mr Cipollone and Jay Sekulow, another private attorney, are expected to appear for Mr Trump’s defence, with as many as 12 other lawyers reportedly in contention to join them, including TV pundit Alan Dershowitz, spotted at Mar-a-Lago on Christmas Eve.

How might the Iran crisis impact proceedings?

While partisan disagreement over the format of the Senate trial can presumably be overcome, the great unknown in all of this is how Iran will respond to the assassination of popular Quds commander Soleimani, who was killed in a US air strike near Baghdad airport on Friday.

Tehran has reacted angrily to his death, threatening revenge attacks against America and withdrawing from its remaining denuclearisation commitments as citizens took to the streets of its cities to mourn his passing.

President Trump has in turn warned that 52 sites “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” will be targeted should the regime retaliate.

If that warning is not heeded and Iran does lash out, the US could find itself at war and the impeachment process left looking like a decidedly secondary concern.

Qassem Soleimani: Trump claims 'last night we took action to stop a war, not to start a war'

With the president’s judgement already in question, the decision to take out Soleimani without previously briefing Congress (as he is required to by the War Powers Act of 1973) or his fellow world leaders has enabled Mr Trump to portray himself as a strongman before his supporters but has prompted his opponents to accuse him of engineering the crisis as a distraction from his domestic travails.

“We know Donald Trump is very upset about this upcoming impeachment trial,” Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “But look what he’s doing now. He is taking us to the edge of war.” She went on to liken the situation to the plot of the 1997 political satire Wag the Dog.

“Donald Trump was just impeached a week and a half ago, and we need to get to the bottom of how and who helped him carry out this illegal cover-up,” Democratic congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz agreed on CNN last week. “That’s outrageous, and I think that has a lot to do with what this attack was about.”

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