Mitch McConnell was clear when he addressed the Senate December 18: Any impeachment trial of President Trump would follow the precedent established by the trial of President Clinton 20 years ago.
Clinton's trial was divided into pieces. The Senate agreed unanimously to begin with a briefing, opening arguments, questions from senators, and a vote to dismiss. Whether to hear witnesses or introduce additional evidence were questions decided later. "That was the unanimous bipartisan precedent from 1999," McConnell said. "Put first things first, lay the bipartisan groundwork, and leave mid-trial questions to the middle of the trial."
The arrangement satisfied Chuck Schumer back when he was a recently elected junior senator from New York. Funny how times change. Now Senate minority leader, and looking to damage Republicans in a presidential election year, Schumer demanded that McConnell call witnesses and ask for additional documents at the outset of the proceedings. Pelosi followed his cues. After the House impeached Trump on December 18, she said she wouldn't transmit the articles of impeachment until McConnell gave in to Schumer's demands.
McConnell refused. He continued to point to the (relative) bipartisanship of the Clinton era. "The Senate said, 100 to nothing, that was good enough for President Clinton," he said on January 6. "So it ought to be good enough for President Trump. Fair is fair." The following day, McConnell ridiculed the idea that Pelosi had "leverage" over the Senate: "Apparently this is their proposition: If the Senate does not agree to break with our own unanimous bipartisan precedent from 1999, and agree to let Speaker Pelosi hand-design a different procedure for this Senate trial, then they might never dump this mess in our lap." Fine with him. The Senate has plenty of other things to do.
The reliance on precedent is one of McConnell's most effective strategies. In 2016 he invoked the "Biden rule" to prevent confirmation hearings for Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, until after the election. The following spring, when Senate Republicans voted to end the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, McConnell noted that former majority leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, had done the same for lower-court nominees in 2013.
Pelosi and Schumer want to up the pressure on Republican senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romney. The goal: drive them to break from McConnell. What the Democrats failed to recognize is that beginning a trial is a separate issue from calling witnesses. And no Republican is particularly interested in holding the trial. Pelosi's leverage was nonexistent. The spin that she and Schumer were shining a light on a corrupt process? Silliness. By January 7, McConnell had secured the backing of the GOP conference. Republicans were unified.
Pelosi's gambit fell apart. Democratic senators, from Dianne Feinstein to Doug Jones, said it was time for the trial to begin. Several Democratic congressmen agreed. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, said it was "time to send the impeachment to the Senate." Smith is one of Pelosi's favorites—or at least he was before he said that. Within hours, an abashed Smith was on Twitter, walking back his comments.
"I will turn them over when I'm ready, and that will probably be soon," Pelosi said at her January 9 press conference. "I know exactly when" to appoint impeachment managers, she said earlier that day. She has a funny way of showing it.
The chances that the House would strong arm the Senate into adopting the preferences of Schumer were always low. They shrank to zero once Democrats and media personalities began questioning Pelosi's tactics. The comparison would horrify her, but Pelosi's move reminded me of the Tea Party's plan to force a Democratic Senate to repeal Obamacare through House appropriations bills. You can shut down the government, or prolong an impeachment, only for so long. Soon you will take the blame.
McConnell's victory carries risks. It guarantees that there will be a trial. And a trial is an unpredictable entity. Any senator can offer a motion. How involved Chief Justice John Roberts will want to be is unknown. Party unity might help the Democrats more than Republicans. Once the trial begins, if three GOP senators vote with a unified Democratic conference on a given motion, Schumer will have his way. McConnell's challenge: keep Republicans together to limit the scope and duration of the proceedings.
Pelosi is an example of what not to do. Since announcing the impeachment inquiry in September, she has seen independents turn against it, Trump's numbers rise, a House Democrat switch parties, and several Democrats join Republicans to vote against one or both of the articles of impeachment. Now her friends and lieutenants question her judgment in public. Pelosi's reputation as a "master strategist" is hype. It's been reported that she got the idea for withholding the articles from an interview with John Dean on CNN. Dean once gave legal advice to Richard Nixon. And look what happened to him.