McConnell appears to break with Senate rules on Trump impeachment: "I'm not an impartial juror"

Lawmakers take an oath pledging to act as an "impartial justice" before engaging in the trial, per Senate rules

Published December 18, 2019 9:53AM (EST)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (Getty/Tom Brenner)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (Getty/Tom Brenner)

Correction: An earlier version of this article cited the Constitution. This has been corrected to Senate rules.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday that he will not act as an "impartial juror" during the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

"I'm not an impartial juror. This is a political process. There's nothing judicial about it. Impeachment is a political decision," said McConnell, R-Ky. "The House made a partisan political decision to impeach. I would anticipate we will have a largely partisan outcome in the Senate. I'm not impartial about this at all."

The Republican leader has made clear that he hopes the Senate will acquit the president as quickly as possible. He previously indicated that he is "in total coordination with the White House counsel's office" and is "taking my cues from the president's lawyers."

McConnell's remarks are significant, because, according to Senate rules, lawmakers in the upper chamber must take an oath pledging to act as an "impartial justice" before engaging in an impeachment trial.

The senator from Kentucky rejected a call from his Democratic counterpart earlier Tuesday to simultaneously agree to witnesses and the rules of the likely trial. Speaking on the Senate floor, McConnell called Sunday's request by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer "dead wrong." He described the House's case against Trump as "deficient," adding that the Senate would not volunteer its time for a "fishing expedition."

McConnell's remarks on the Senate floor came in response to a letter from Schumer declaring that Senate Democrats wanted to hear testimony from four administration witnesses who have not previously testified in the inquiry: former national security adviser John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, senior adviser to the acting White House chief of staff Robert Blair and Office of Management and Budget official Michael Duffey. Mulvaney, Blair and Duffey defied subpoenas from House committees, while Bolton, who was not subpoenaed, has said he would fight one in court.

Schumer also called for the Senate to subpoena documents blocked by the Trump administration, which could shed light on the events at the heart of the charges against Trump: his effort to solicit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his political rivals and his decision to temporarily withhold nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine.

McConnell criticized House Democrats on Tuesday for declining to go to court to enforce subpoenas for testimony from witnesses who refused to testify, calling their inquiry "the most rushed, least thorough and most unfair impeachment trial in modern history." He claimed that Schumer wanted to hear testimony from those officials, because House Democrats "failed to come anywhere near the bar for impeaching a duly-elected president."

"It is not the Senate's job to leap into the breach and search desperately for ways to 'get to to guilty,'" McConnell said. "The Senate is meant to act as judge and jury — to hear a trial. Not to re-run the entire fact-finding investigation, because angry partisans rushed sloppily through it."

The battle between the two leaders over the structure of the Senate impeachment trial is certain to complicate bipartisan negotiations over the ground rules. Though both McConnell and Schumer have indicated they want to follow the five-week trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999, they have very different views about how to do so. With the House of Representatives expected to vote to impeach Trump on Wednesday, triggering a Senate trial, senators across the aisle hope party leaders can at least strike a deal on basics like when the trial will start and how much time will exist for debate.

The Republican majority ultimately has the power to set the trial rules without Democratic votes, but it will require unity from 51 members of the 53-member majority. In 1999, the Senate approved a resolution establishing the rules of floor proceedings 100-0 followed by a vote along party lines to subpoena witnesses.

The Senate requires a two-third majority, or 67 votes, to remove a president from office. The GOP holds a 53-47 advantage, which means 20 Senate Republicans would need to break from Trump in order to convict him in a Senate trial, assuming every Democrat votes to remove him from office.


By Shira Tarlo

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