WASHINGTON — A group of Republican senators and senior White House officials met privately Thursday to map out a strategy for a potential impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, including rapid proceedings in the Senate that could be limited to about two weeks, according to multiple officials familiar with the talks.
The prospect of an abbreviated trial is viewed by several Senate Republicans as a favorable middle ground — substantial enough to give the proceedings credence without risking greater damage to Trump by dragging on too long.
Under this scenario, described by officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount a private meeting, the Senate trial could begin as early as January if the Democratic-controlled House votes to impeach Trump next month as appears increasingly likely. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier this month that Trump would be acquitted in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-seat majority, if the trial were held today.
Even an accelerated two-week trial could run counter to what Trump has expressed privately. The president is “miserable” about the ongoing impeachment inquiry and has pushed to dismiss the proceedings right away, according to people familiar with Trump’s sentiments, who requested anonymity to discuss the president’s views.
Still, administration officials are readying all options to present them to Trump, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone is preparing to mount a full defense of the president for an impeachment trial, according to one of the officials familiar with Thursday's meeting.
“I don’t want them to believe there’s an ability to dismiss the case before it’s heard,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was among the group of half-dozen GOP senators who met Thursday with White House officials to begin mapping out a trial strategy. “I think most everybody agreed, there’s not 51 votes to dismiss it before the managers get to call the case.”
The preparations come after weeks of damaging testimony in the House providing evidence that Trump sought to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations targeting a potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden, in exchange for a White House meeting and the release of $400 million in military aid.
Republicans have remained overwhelmingly aligned behind the president in insisting he has done nothing worthy of impeachment or removal from office, but some have acknowledged the potential toll that a continuing inquiry and trial could take during an election year, particularly when the GOP is aiming to protect its Senate majority.
In addition to Graham, the meeting Thursday included Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, John Neely Kennedy of Louisiana, Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, along with Cipollone; acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney; senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner; and counselor Kellyanne Conway, according to officials familiar with the discussions, many of whom requested anonymity to disclose internal deliberations.
The meeting was organized by White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland, who was also in attendance along with advisers Pam Bondi and Tony Sayegh, who were recently hired to guide the White House's impeachment messaging and strategy, the officials said.
Other options, including a longer trial, were also discussed and could still happen, officials said. Ultimately, Trump will make the final call on trial strategy, a senior administration official said.
The impeachment trial of former president Bill Clinton, which ended in an acquittal, lasted five weeks. Trump would be the third U.S. president in history — after Clinton and former president Andrew Johnson — to be impeached by the House, although neither president reached the two-thirds majority of senators needed to remove them from office during their trials.
“This is much closer to a game-time decision that will be built on the impressions and reactions of the 53 Senate Republicans who have to handle actually voting on . . . what the House sent them,” the senior administration official said.
During the meeting, there was also a discussion of whether to seek additional evidence or call witness such as Hunter Biden, the son of former vice president and potential Trump 2020 rival Joe Biden. The House impeachment inquiry is centered on Trump's alleged attempts to Ukraine to announce investigations of the Bidens to help his reelection.
The group also discussed the possibility of having limited or no defense on the president’s behalf — under the theory that if Republicans believe the House’s case for Trump’s impeachment is fundamentally flawed, there is no need to legitimize it with a fulsome argument on behalf of the president. Several congressional allies, however, have repeatedly stressed that they want ample time for Trump and his attorneys to make their case in public.
It is unclear what views will ultimately prevail with the president, and Senate Republicans are continuing to internally debate and craft their impeachment strategy through private conversations and party lunches at the Capitol.
Thursday’s meeting — the first in what is likely to be a series of sessions between key GOP senators and the administration — underscored the increased coordination between the White House and its allies in the Senate as the House proceedings appear to point to likely impeachment as early as next month. The discussion came during a week of bombshell testimony from several key players in the House’s unfolding impeachment inquiry, including remarks from Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union who detailed under oath an explicit “quid pro quo” with Ukraine at Trump’s ultimate directive.
Cruz said after the meeting that he believed it was imperative that both the House impeachment managers and the president's attorneys get time to make their arguments.
"If and when the matter comes to the Senate, I think it's incumbent on the Senate to do much better," Cruz said in an interview. "I expect the Senate to conduct proceedings that are fair, that respect due process and that allow both sides to present their case, to present their witnesses, to present their evidence and for the Senate then to render a judgment consistent with the law and Constitution."
Cruz declined to delve into details, but said the group discussed "where we are, what's coming up next, what hurdles are likely to be."
Senate Republicans have been divided on how long a Senate trial should be. Some align with Trump’s view, seeking to dismiss it as soon as possible, while others have sought a middle-of-the-road option like two weeks.