Pelosi, Dems put politics first in Trump impeachment, new book argues

House Democratic leaders’ political fears surrounding Donald Trump’s impeachment in 2019 prompted missteps that emboldened the then-president as he laid the groundwork to try to overturn the 2020 election, according to a new book by POLITICO Playbook co-author Rachael Bade and Washington Post national security reporter Karoun Demirjian.

In “Unchecked,” Bade and Demirjian argue that Speaker Nancy Pelosi prioritized political calculations over a thorough fact-finding effort during Trump’s first impeachment as she charted Democrats’ perilous path to what was thought to be an election-year suicide mission for her most vulnerable members.

According to the book, obtained by POLITICO ahead of its Oct. 18 release, Pelosi squandered multiple opportunities to win support from Republicans who were initially panicked about what Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine would mean for them — allowing them to find an opening to exploit Democrats’ internal wrangling about how to proceed. The result, Bade and Dermirjian wrote, was a president with a clear path to push the limits of his power.

“A clear picture began to form of an impeachment that had been crippled by doubt and exploited by avarice — emboldening the president and weakening the legislative branch,” the authors write in “Unchecked: The Untold Story Behind Congress’s Botched Impeachments of Donald Trump.”

When asked for a response to the authors’ assertion, Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill called the book a “futile exercise of whataboutism” that “ignores the stranglehold Trump had and continues to have on the Republican Party.”

Pelosi shunned the idea of impeaching Trump in public and private during most of his term, describing the process itself as detrimental to the country due to its inherent divisiveness. Still, liberal activists and dozens of her members pushed the House to initiate impeachment proceedings stemming from Trump’s efforts to obstruct then-special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But Pelosi finally embraced impeachment after a whistleblower revealed that, in a July 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Trump implicitly threatened to withhold vital military assistance unless Ukrainian prosecutors announced an investigation into then-presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The House impeached Trump on Dec. 18, 2019, on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

To be sure, winning over even a handful of Republicans on Trump’s first impeachment would have been exceedingly difficult. GOP lawmakers were generally hesitant to condemn even the president’s most egregious transgressions, and Trump’s grip on them — and their voters — remained formidable. Even Republicans like Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who would become fierce Trump critics after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, stuck with him amid the Ukraine probe.

Pelosi and her deputies were clear-eyed about this reality and often expressed pointed skepticism about rosy predictions that Republican lawmakers would turn against Trump, motivated by conscience and lofty pronouncements from the Senate floor. But they pressed ahead anyway, convinced that a thorough airing of the charges could sway a polarized public and rein in future excesses — another guardrail he smashed through ahead of Jan. 6.

Still, Pelosi and her top lieutenants also understood that impeachment itself is, at its core, a political function, one driven by not just the vague concepts of “high crimes and misdemeanors” but also what the public is willing to accept. It’s impossible to separate, many of them said at the time, the broader politics of the day from more black-and-white questions of constitutional law.

Yet, Bade and Demirjian write, political considerations were a feature but also the dominant aspect of Democrats’ decision-making in 2019. According to the book, House Democrats’ campaign arm poll-tested the idea of framing the impeachment proceedings as a matter of “national security” and ultimately concluded that framing it as such would be viewed more favorably by independent voters.

Indeed, that’s exactly how Democrats framed the necessity, in their view, of removing Trump from office: They argued that his behavior, if left unchecked, would only cause him to continue taking actions that jeopardized national security to boost his own political standing.

But Pelosi was caught between progressives who wanted to leave no stone unturned by pursuing multiple potential crimes by Trump — including Mueller’s evidence, violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause and hush-money payments — and politically vulnerable Democrats who pushed for a more narrowly tailored strategy that would get the saga over with as quickly as possible.

“Pelosi knew that Trump would fight them at every turn of their investigation, as he had in every other probe of his business or personal affairs,” Bade and Demirjian write. “And experience had taught her that the longer it took to investigate the president, the more inured the public became to the shocking nature of his actions.”

The speaker ultimately decided in favor of an inquiry focused exclusively on Trump’s call with Zelenskyy, and pushed to complete the impeachment process before the end of the year — even if it meant not going after key witnesses like former national security adviser John Bolton in what would certainly become lengthy court battles.

“It was a message that would resonate with voters, Pelosi argued, and armed with the transcript, a clean kill shot,” the authors write. “If Democrats moved quickly, they might even be able to wrap everything up by the holidays, freeing up all of 2020 for campaigning on the pocketbook issues voters actually cared about.”

In the end, one political truism superseded all the others: What happens in January of an election year will be ancient history by the time voters cast ballots. This was especially true in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic seemed to emerge just as Democrats were licking their wounds from the impeachment trial acquittal.

Soon after, Trump would begin sowing the seeds of what would become his effort to overturn defeat in the presidential election, and by November, impeachment seemed an asterisk in a year that had become chaotic for many other reasons.

Ultimately, Democrats took the White House, even though Pelosi’s House majority shrank slightly after 2020. House managers of Trump’s first impeachment have insisted to this day that their existential warnings played a role in voters deeming him unfit for a second term.

His actions to subvert his 2020 loss, they argue, were evidence that Republicans’ decision to acquit him had left him feeling unchecked.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

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Congress wants in on Trump oversight. It may get stiff-armed.

Donald Trump isn’t in office anymore, but Congress is ramping up its oversight machine like it’s 2019 all over again.

Amid a cascade of new investigations into and tell-alls about the former president, top lawmakers are looking to elbow their way into investigations so far dominated by the Jan. 6 select committee and the Justice Department. That’s proven difficult, however, amid ongoing disputes between DOJ and Trump’s lawyers over prosecutors’ access to top-secret records the former president was storing at his Mar-a-Lago estate.

Those legal battles have, so far, deprived lawmakers, even at leadership’s highest levels, of briefings on the classified documents the FBI found at Trump’s resort. And it gives those seeking to show off their anti-Trump oversight bona fides little option but an onslaught of letters and requests to various executive branch agencies and departments, even as DOJ fires off binding subpoenas to Trump’s inner circle.

It all adds up to a Congress left in the political dark on a sensitive issue with potentially grave national-security implications — not to mention effects on a future Trump White House bid. Still, some are urging patience.

“As I’ve said to my Republican friends, let’s let the process go through,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.), who raised his hand to form a “zero” when asked how much information his panel has received about DOJ's probe thus far. “I can’t cherry-pick [different] parts of the legal system.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a former FBI special agent with a record of occasionally crossing Trump, offered his own gut check on the gulf between lawmakers' oversight goals and the hard road to uncovering relevant details.

"The reality is this: Nobody — nobody in the press, nobody in Congress — knows the answer to the question 'Was it justified or not?'" Fitzpatrick said of the Mar-a-Lago search. "We don't know. We don't have enough information."

Congress faces some clear hurdles in trying to elbow its way into the Trump-related investigations currently underway: sometimes the agencies it’s seeking information from can’t sufficiently answer Hill requests. And, indeed, so far, congressional inquiries since the FBI's Aug. 8 search of Mar-a-Lago have achieved just one victory: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence began a formal review of potential damages to national security stemming from Trump’s mishandling of classified documents at his residence.

But that assessment is already on hold.

Intelligence officials have paused their work, citing a federal judge’s recent ruling in favor of Trump’s request for an independent arbiter known as a special master to review the seized materials for potentially privileged documents.

That same delay is also affecting briefings for the upper rung of congressional and Intelligence Committee leaders often shorthanded as the Gang of 8 — even though that decision seemed to contradict the Justice Department’s position in a recent court filing.

Prosecutors told Judge Aileen Cannon last week that they did not interpret her decision on appointing a special master as barring officials from briefing lawmakers “with intelligence oversight responsibilities regarding the classified records that were recovered” at Trump’s Florida home.

“We have access to all of the most sensitive intelligence … irrespective of any court case or a pending issue. So I just don’t understand why they’d be hiding behind that,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the Intelligence Committee's vice chair. (Rubio signed onto a Warner-led request for the director of national intelligence's review, in addition to full access to the seized documents.)

In the meantime, Warner called on Cannon to “give some clarifications as quickly as possible,” citing the urgent need for a formal briefing. He also vowed to maintain the bipartisan nature of his panel’s request for information, something that other congressional committees can't boast.

That hasn't stopped other panels from jumping into the Trump oversight fray, exploring everything from the former president's handling of records to the allegations of politicization at DOJ that have been featured in the Jan. 6 select committee's public hearings. The House Oversight Committee on Tuesday asked the National Archives and Records Administration to determine whether other presidential records from Trump’s tenure remain unaccounted for.

Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who recently lost her primary bid, noted in writing that Archives officials have indicated to her committee that the agency was “not certain whether all presidential records are in its custody.”

Yet the Archives has already told lawmakers that it's separated itself from the ongoing DOJ investigation, which is looking into potential violations of the Presidential Records Act, the Espionage Act, and obstruction of justice. So it’s unclear whether the agency can even complete the full accounting that Maloney's committee is seeking.

The Oversight Committee is hoping the Federal Protective Service, the security agency overseeing many government buildings, may be able to answer other questions indirectly related to the search. The panel sent a letter Wednesday asking for details on the protection of federal employees amid increased threats in the wake of the passage of Democrats’ health care, climate and tax bill and the Mar-a-Lago search.

On the other side of the aisle, House Republicans are demanding information related to the FBI’s justification for the Mar-a-Lago search. They’re also sowing doubt about the national-security risks of Trump's document handling given the fact that congressional leaders were never informed in advance about the federal investigation.

“We certainly should be told what’s there,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “We haven’t seen anything … I just don’t see Donald Trump boxing up all these records himself and carrying these records to his car.”

In addition to the Mar-a-Lago probe, the Senate Judiciary Committee this week launched its own investigation into new claims of undue political interference at Trump's DOJ. In his initial letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) largely cited former U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman’s new book, which detailed allegations of politically motivated prosecutorial decisions at the highest levels of the department.

Much like the Oversight panel's request to the Archives, it's not clear whether Garland will even be able to comply with the Senate given his limited vantage point on his predecessor's operations. Nonetheless, Durbin described what he sees as the seriousness of the claims against Trump and his top deputies.

“We’re back to the enemies list of Richard Nixon,” Durbin said.

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.

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Senate unanimously confirms Brink as Ukraine ambassador

The Senate on Wednesday night unanimously confirmed career Foreign Service officer Bridget Brink to serve as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, putting an end to Washington’s three-year stretch without a Senate-confirmed envoy in Kyiv.

Brink, who currently serves as the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, sailed through the Senate confirmation process as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle emphasized the urgency of having a top diplomat in the country while it’s under assault from Russia.

“To have an ambassador there at this critical time as the United States continues to help the Ukrainian people … is a wonderful thing, is a good thing, and will help advance the cause of peace, security and freedom,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after Brink was confirmed. “I have every confidence she will be an outstanding ambassador.”

Brink’s confirmation comes on the same day the U.S. formally reopened its embassy in the Ukrainian capital. It had been shuttered since Russia’s invasion began in February.

The last Senate-confirmed ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was removed by Donald Trump in 2019 as the then-president was seeking an investigation into his political rivals. The saga led to Trump’s first impeachment.

Brink has served in several roles in the diplomatic corps, including as a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. She speaks Russian and has served at U.S. embassies in Serbia, Cyprus, Georgia and Uzbekistan.

At Schumer’s direction, the Foreign Relations Committee fast-tracked Brink’s nomination. Her confirmation hearing took place last week, and the committee reported her favorably to the Senate floor earlier Wednesday. In a matter of hours, all 100 senators agreed to confirm her to the post.

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‘He shoots from the hip, and that’s part of his charm’

Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address Congress on Wednesday as a wartime Ukrainian president with formidable powers of persuasion over U.S. lawmakers, after perhaps the steepest Capitol learning curve any foreign leader has faced in a generation.

It’s a historic moment for a former comedian whose only political experience before 2019 was playing an accidental candidate on TV. And it promises to illustrate Zelenskyy’s striking success at using Congress to get what he wants while Russia attacks his country.

Zelenskyy has a unique combination of moral authority and uncensored authenticity that has helped rally the West around him. He has made particular inroads with Congress lately: From a Russian oil ban to a supercharged military aid package, Zelenskyy is rallying legislators behind his priorities even as he deliberately shuns traditional Washington-speak and diplomatic norms.

“He shoots from the hip, and that’s part of his charm,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who along with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has had more direct face time with Zelenskyy than any American official. “I think it has sometimes gotten him into some political hot water, but the upside of his style is ten-fold more advantageous than the occasional downsides.”

The results haven’t been perfect, though, and there are limits to Zelenskyy's strategy; most of his outstanding requests, like the establishment of a no-fly zone, have been ruled out by members of both parties. Some lawmakers have even mused about Zelenskyy’s personal style undermining his own goals. But that hasn’t stopped him from appealing to Americans’ emotions on the brutality of Russia’s war, even on demands he knows can never be met.

“When I first met him, I thought I was going to be meeting a comic. And instead I met a statesman,” said Portman, who has met several times with Zelenskyy face-to-face. “Some people underestimated his political abilities from the start. I have not. … He’s become one of those rare figures who can actually direct the course of history.”

Zelenskyy’s evolution from entertainer, to NATO hopeful seeking an audience with former President Donald Trump, to an anti-Russia icon shows that his anything-but-buttoned-up energy can pay off on Capitol Hill. He’s said to be eager to address lawmakers on Wednesday morning — an engagement that came about at Zelenskyy’s personal request, according to a congressional official.

First elected in 2019 on a vow to stamp out corruption and integrate Ukraine with Europe, the 44-year-old assumed office at a fraught moment. His nation’s military was advancing thanks to training and support from the U.S. and other major allies, but Russian-backed separatists in his east were trying to make Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dreams of taking Ukraine a reality.

Zelenskyy came into power with a strong mandate, having won a supermajority with no prior political experience. Just a few months into his tenure, he was dragged into U.S. politics after Trump pressed him during a now-infamous phone call to investigate both then-candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.

Trump held back crucial military aid from Zelenskyy at the same time, setting his first impeachment in motion as Democrats accused him of seeking to extort a foreign leader. After the Senate acquitted Trump, Murphy led a bipartisan trip to Kyiv to meet with Zelenskyy and reassert U.S. support for a besieged European ally.

Now that Russia is attacking, Murphy said this week, “it would be negligent of him to not ask for everything. His people are dying. ... We’ve got to come to our own conclusions about what we’re willing to do and what we can’t do.”

Other lawmakers who have spent time with Zelenskyy as he has weathered American political storms described him as unscripted and candid — sometimes to his own detriment with officials more used to careful diplomatic wordsmithing. Those members of Congress who know Zelenskyy best said his efforts to shame Western nations into sending additional assistance to his country have not surprised them, given his track record.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said the Ukrainian president has always been crystal clear about the kind of support he needs. Zelenskyy’s leadership and resolve in the face of Russia’s aggression “is fundamental to keeping the Ukrainian military and people’s spirit strong in the face of such devastation,” Shaheen added.

The standard practice for foreign leaders dealing with U.S. officials and lawmakers requires caution and choreography that Zelenskyy and his top aide, Andriy Yermak, have often eschewed in intimate settings.

Their posture has sometimes forced Biden administration officials to question whether Zelenskyy is serious about his urgent pleas for additional military assistance, including MiG fighter jets from Poland that the U.S. is thus far unwilling to transfer out of concerns about escalation with Russia.

As a result, Biden administration officials often consult with those lawmakers who have met frequently with Zelenskyy to get their read on his intentions.

But other lawmakers have scratched their heads at the Ukrainian president's handling of Washington in recent weeks, among them congressional Democrats who became especially frustrated with Zelenskyy’s full-throated endorsement of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) legislation to sanction the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The Russia-to-Germany project was taken offline after Russia’s invasion, but Zelenskyy wanted the pipeline shut down sooner. And he endorsed the GOP-led legislation even though the Biden administration wasn’t yet prepared to impose those sanctions.

Some Democrats saw Zelenskyy’s support of the Cruz bill as inadvertently undermining the White House’s efforts at trans-Atlantic unity against Russia’s aggression.

Republicans, meanwhile, view Zelenskyy as the impetus for the Biden administration’s reversals on several sanctions against Russia that had initially met White House resistance. Through his private Zoom meetings with lawmakers and his dramatic public pleas, Zelenskyy got Capitol Hill on board for additional military assistance and a ban on Russian oil imports within days — unheard-of speed for Congress.

“He’s clearly grown dramatically into his presidency. He’s truly proven himself to be a world leader of great courage and conviction,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who has met with Zelenskyy twice, including an hourlong sit-down in his office in Kyiv last September.

“It does seem to me that the administration has to be dragged along and pushed to do the right thing,” Barrasso added. “Zelenskyy’s courageous leadership is making a significant difference.”

In his public remarks, Zelenskyy has sought to strike a delicate balance between expressing gratitude for the assistance Western nations have already provided and pleading for even more. That has often put him at risk of seeming ungrateful to the U.S. and other NATO allies, which have provided his nation with essential military, humanitarian and economic assistance.

That posture was on full display on Tuesday when he addressed the Canadian Parliament. He doubled down on his push for a no-fly zone, detailing the devastation that Russian forces have caused in his country.

“How many bombs have to fall on our cities before you make this happen?” Zelenskyy said. “You all need to do more to stop Russia, to protect Ukraine, and by doing that, to protect Europe from Russian threats.”

While Zelenskyy has united both parties, that hasn’t stopped fringe voices from seeking a political upper hand. Freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) recently called Zelenskyy a “thug” and a liar who’s seeking to drag the U.S. into his war, a message other Republicans have resoundingly rejected.

“People are inspired by him and by the heroism,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a recent interview. “We need to help them quickly and efficiently.”

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Jan. 6 select panel Dems cast a wide net for Trump

The House’s select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection is likely to encompass more than a violent Capitol riot. It’s shaping up to be Congress’ final word on national-security breakdowns that led to the attack — and how much those failures are tied to Donald Trump.

With a few exceptions, congressional oversight of the former president and his administration is effectively moot. But Democratic leaders expect that the select panel, whose work began in earnest this month, will turn up troubling new details of Trump’s behavior as he championed an effort to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.

“The impeachment trial was about one guy and one crime — it was about presidential incitement to insurrection,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Jan. 6 investigation who served as the lead prosecutor in Trump’s second Senate impeachment trial this past winter. “The select committee has the charge of determining how it was organized, how it was financed, and what the purposes of the insurrection were.”

Recent revelations about national security risks feared by members of Trump’s inner circle in the days leading up to Jan. 6 have emerged separately from details about the Capitol attack. But they’ve painted a fuller picture of the motivations behind the insurrection for Democrats running the select committee.

And as the panel prepares for its first hearing next week, those Democrats are foreshadowing an effort to dig deeply into the chaotic endgame of the Trump White House. The waning days of Trump's reign, they say, laid the groundwork for the Capitol riot and was worsened by a national-security paralysis set into motion by the former president.

“This is a matter of democratic survival and national security to define these events and their causes, and then to prepare for a change, and prepare for security in the future,” Raskin added.

According to a new book by Washington Post reporters, Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, worried that the then-president might attempt a coup and try to use the military to achieve it. Milley, the book’s authors write, discussed ways to prevent Trump from initiating such a dangerous move.

“This is a Reichstag moment,” Milley reportedly told his aides. “The gospel of the Führer.”

It came as Trump was repeating false claims about fraud in the 2020 election and was increasingly pressuring lawmakers to object to the Jan. 6 certification of his Electoral College loss — even prodding his own vice president who was overseeing the joint session of Congress on that day.

“If there were a variety of different potential ways of overturning the election and maintaining power against the will of the people, that would be pertinent to our inquiry,” House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a select committee member, said in a brief interview.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), whom Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped to chair the select committee, told POLITICO on Tuesday that he would pursue “any and all circumstances and facts around Jan. 6.”

“If, in fact, the investigation leads us in that direction, then obviously we’ll look at it,” Thompson said of Milley’s reported comments.

Schiff said the inquiry would also likely examine the intelligence breakdowns that led to security officials and police officers at the Capitol being unprepared and overrun by rioters. Federal law enforcement officials have faced scrutiny for failing to share intelligence suggesting that far-right extremist groups were planning for violence on Jan. 6.

“There’s a broader issue that is a holdover from the last four years of an inadequate focus on domestic violent extremism — what role did that play in the lack of preparedness?” Schiff added.

In addition to the Jan. 6 select committee, Democrats in the House and Senate are spearheading an investigation into the Trump Justice Department’s secret subpoenas targeting Democratic lawmakers. With those notable exceptions, Democrats have largely cranked down their oversight machine now that Trump is no longer president, making the select panel the focal point for congressional oversight.

Trump was impeached for inciting the insurrection but acquitted in the Senate trial after Raskin and his fellow impeachment managers failed to sway enough Republicans to reach the two-thirds threshold required for conviction. GOP senators then filibustered legislation to establish a 9/11-style commission to investigate the events of Jan. 6, prompting House Democratic leaders to set up the select committee.

The select panel's creation passed the House with the support of all Democrats and two Republicans — Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who Pelosi later appointed to serve on it, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.

The committee’s first hearing next week will feature testimony from police officers who were assaulted by the rioters.

“We will approach it with a very serious eye on how these things happened, what were the breakdowns that led to this, disinformation, breakdowns in intelligence reporting and collection and dissemination and operation, calling up the National Guard — all of those things,” said Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), a member of the select committee. “I think it’s very important work, and this is the vehicle we’re using.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are bracing for the possibility that the committee’s next steps could include seeking testimony from Trump allies within the House GOP, many of whom were in constant communication with the then-president in the days and weeks following the November election. Some had also talked with Trump on Jan. 6, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

McCarthy appointed one of those staunch Trump allies, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), to the GOP side of the select committee. Jordan on Tuesday indicated he would be willing to testify about his conversations with Trump, adding: “If they call me, I got nothing to hide.”

And Democrats may well try. Some of them remain strongly interested in unearthing details about Trump’s private behavior before leaving office and the extent to which aides, advisers and other officials around him encouraged or prevented catastrophic outcomes before, during and after the Jan. 6 riots.

“Jan. 6 was the culmination of a pattern of legal violations and norm-breaking. I hope we will not have seen the last of holding accountable the former Trump officials,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a brief interview. “I think there are some serious questions raised by the danger that Trump posed in those last days.”

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.

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Senate’s bipartisan swing at China faces GOP curveballs

Chuck Schumer’s bid to put a bipartisan China bill on the Senate floor this month is in danger thanks to a behind-the-scenes GOP push to pump the brakes on an issue personally vital to the majority leader.

Senators from both parties have publicly projected confidence in recent days about the prospect of coming together on a historic effort to counter China’s global influence, a rare alignment in a bitterly partisan era on an issue that could prove politically valuable to everyone involved. But in reality, the state of the talks is growing more precarious.

“A lot of my colleagues are approaching me and indicating that we need to slow this thing down,” Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), Schumer’s lead GOP partner on the China effort, told POLITICO on Wednesday. “They’re conscientious and want to grow comfortable with the text. We have to get this right. This is an incredibly consequential bill.”

Young’s assessment reflects the ripple effects of the Senate’s broader dynamics, with Republicans chafed as Democrats seek to push through President Joe Biden’s top agenda items without support from the GOP. The parties’ interests overlap considerably on China, as both sides acknowledge the need to out-compete Beijing on the technological front and curb its theft of U.S. intellectual property. But that accord could wither in the heat of a 50-50 Senate.

Another concern is the inevitable political battle over who gets credit for action on an issue that both parties would benefit from touting. The resulting legislative paralysis raises the question of whether the Senate can avoid a filibuster on any major bill these days — even something with such broad support and a strong chance of breezing through the House.

“There’s a lot of consensus on the China issue,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “If we can’t agree on a bill regarding China, we should probably close this place.”

Publicly, GOP senators have said they are satisfied with the level of cooperation with Democrats, noting that a bipartisan effort will send a stronger signal to Beijing as the U.S. seeks to blunt its global influence with legislation that allocates new funding for technology sectors. Privately, though, frustrations are brewing — and Republicans are already balking at Schumer’s plans.

A Republican aide working on the plan derided the “rushed process that will see good ideas left on the cutting-room floor, and which will undermine what could and should be broader bipartisan support.”

Sen. Marco Rubio leaves at the end of the second day of the second impeachment trial of  Donald Trump on Wednesday.

Democrats dismissed the GOP's criticism as an attempt to wiggle out of the talks for political reasons, even as momentum builds toward a final product that can feasibly win 60 votes in the Senate. A Democratic aide noted that Schumer is steering the bill through regular order — deflating a common GOP complaint — including markups in multiple committees and the promise of a “robust” amendment process on the Senate floor.

Schumer has long fashioned himself as a China hawk, and he often found common ground with former President Donald Trump, whose populist mantra led him to impose several strict penalties on Beijing that the New York Democrat supported. Getting a bipartisan China measure to Biden's desk would give Schumer a major victory, though also hand the GOP elements to promote in next year's midterm campaign.

“I can’t think of anything that’s in the bill that would cause a partisan division. Obviously, there could always be efforts made to make it partisan,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

The China legislation has suffered a number of setbacks in the last 24 hours, even as Schumer and Young met in person to continue crafting their proposal, dubbed the Endless Frontier Act.

Idaho Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, invoked a procedural move to delay the panel’s scheduled consideration of a bipartisan bill — which Risch himself co-authored — that was designed as a key ingredient in the final product that Schumer puts on the Senate floor. The meeting was supposed to be held earlier Wednesday, but Risch’s move pushes it back by a week.

A spokesperson for Risch said the senator delayed the measure in order to give committee members more time to “read and understand the hundreds of pages of legislation, as well as draft amendments and incorporate additional ideas at the markup.”

In a brief interview, Risch suggested that whatever bill ultimately reaches the Senate floor could look more Democratic than its bipartisan billing suggests.

“When they meld it together with another half-dozen parts, I don’t know what happens there. I think that’s a wild card,” Risch said. “Our own piece, I think, if all else fails, we’ll probably be able to run our piece separately. But I don’t imagine they’d let us do that.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, speaks with the media after a closed-door briefing for the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

But Democrats said Republicans are pre-judging the outcome and attempting to throw sand in the gears of a legislative locomotive that Schumer's already promised to drive to passage by the end of the month.

“I think it could get 60 votes on the floor,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “It has different provisions that Republicans on the committee have been advocating for. So I would hope it can stand on its own two legs.”

Risch’s bill, which he introduced alongside Menendez, is largely non-controversial and includes several smaller pieces of China-focused legislation that both parties have been pushing for, including three of Rubio’s bills.

“This place is pretty partisan right now,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a vocal China hawk. “If people wanted to get something done, we could get something done overnight. I don’t think it’s that hard to figure this stuff out.”

Schumer tasked his committee chairs with crafting components of the China bill earlier this year, though their work has gone largely unnoticed as the Senate has focused much of its attention on Biden’s Covid relief plan and his infrastructure proposal. The Menendez-Risch plan will be just one part of the broader China effort.

“The true test will come when we do the markup and the floor action,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “But I’m satisfied that we’re engaged in a real bipartisan process.”

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Mitch McConnell tends his legacy 8,000 miles away

He reshaped the federal judiciary. He made history as the longest-serving Senate GOP leader. But Mitch McConnell has unfinished business more than 8,000 miles from the halls of Congress.

There's no more consistent or surprising through line to McConnell's 36-year career than promotion of democracy in Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation of 55 million. McConnell's championing of representative government in Myanmar, mostly run by a military junta since it declared its independence in 1948, is so vital to his identity that after a recent military coup there, President Joe Biden consulted with the GOP leader to coordinate the U.S. response.

The White House's discussions with McConnell strengthened the U.S. handling of post-coup Myanmar policy, said Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who told POLITICO that he also discussed the issue with the Kentucky Republican. Involving McConnell so closely has helped the Biden administration create a united front with lawmakers in both parties as they push toward a common goal of restoring Myanmar's legitimately elected government, led by longtime McConnell ally Aung San Suu Kyi.

The White House-McConnell talks on Myanmar have paid off in another way: earning rare praise from a GOP leader famously monk-like in his on-message opposition.

“On the domestic front, I have not yet witnessed something that I’ve been happy about,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an interview. “But in this area, I think their instincts are good. I think they’re trying to do the right thing.”

Myanmar, also known as Burma, slipped back into military rule in February after its generals orchestrated a coup against Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government. While Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s most popular politician and retains an incalculably valuable ally in McConnell, she has faced withering criticism for downplaying allegations that her nation’s military was waging a genocide against the country’s Muslim minority — long before the coup sent her back under house arrest in Yangon.

Now U.S. efforts to restore democracy in Myanmar reflect both the advantage of McConnell’s decades-long engagement there and the strange-bedfellows randomness of a Democratic president working smoothly with his biggest political opponent. McConnell's interest in Myanmar is little-known to the general public but remains a defining aspect of a legacy that he's already cemented on multiple domestic issues, from the judiciary to campaign finance.

“Senator McConnell has played an important leadership role promoting an immediate return to democracy in Burma, ensuring those responsible for the coup and the devastating violence against civilians are held to account, and standing firmly with the people of Burma as they peacefully resist military oppression,” Sullivan said, a nod to the Republican’s efforts over the years.

You won’t hear a member of the Biden administration laud McConnell like that on practically any other subject. In a 2019 speech, McConnell famously quipped: “People don’t always expect the guy that my Democratic colleagues call the grim reaper to be focused on human rights and democracy promotion.”

When McConnell first took notice of Myanmar in the early 1990s, it was considered an obscure fascination with relatively little significance on the world stage — not to mention an area where U.S. legislators would be hard-pressed to make a difference.

After Suu Kyi’s party dominated Myanmar's elections in 1990, the military stepped in and placed the longtime democracy activist under house arrest, where she spent much of the next 20 years. Her rise once freed in 2010 — and the country's democratic trajectory — was meteoric: she soon ran for office and rose to become her country’s prime minister in 2016. McConnell secretly exchanged notes with Suu Kyi while she was holed up at home and visited her in Yangon in 2012 before hosting her in Kentucky that same year.

“He’s been frustrated at times that, on both sides of the aisle, the White House and the State Department hasn’t always come up with effective Burma policies,” said Kelley Currie, a former top State Department official who worked closely with McConnell’s staff as an appropriations aide on Capitol Hill in the 1990s.

“His job is really to keep the administration focused on action," Currie added of McConnell. "The most important thing he can do is continue to keep them focused on the issue and on developing a more aggressive response.”

In recent years, Myanmar has taken on a much greater strategic importance for the U.S. as administrations of both parties try to blunt the influence of China, a neighboring nation. Conditions on the ground there have grown more dire, however, since senior generals toppled Suu Kyi in February even after her party dominated in last year’s elections. Leaders of Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw, have alleged that the elections were fraudulent.

Meanwhile, the Tatmadaw has orchestrated a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, killing more than 600 civilians including dozens of children. The U.S. and allied countries have imposed sanctions on the Myanmar military, but Washington policymakers of all stripes agree that more must be done to stop the bloodshed.

“Americans hate the fact that some problems can only be worked on, not solved conclusively. It’s in our DNA,” said Franklin Huddle, who served as the top American diplomat in Myanmar from 1990 to 1994. “And this holds very much true for foreign policy.”

Enter McConnell, whose influence over the future of Myanmar has grown alongside his power in the U.S. capital. While he has not spoken directly with Suu Kyi since the coup, a GOP aide who works closely with McConnell on Myanmar said the party's Senate leader is in regular contact with the Biden administration as it seeks to restore relative peace in Yangon.

“Having no daylight between McConnell’s position and the Biden administration’s position is important because it suggests that on this issue there is absolute consensus and commitment,” said Robin Cleveland, who advised McConnell on foreign policy through the 1980s and 1990s and was instrumental as McConnell crafted the original U.S. sanctions against Myanmar. “Continuing to draw attention to the horrific and tragic events is important.”

In a phone interview with POLITICO Friday, McConnell called on the Biden administration to raise the issue at the United Nations Security Council, putting China and Russia on the spot to ensure that interest in Myanmar's struggle does not abate. McConnell highlighted America’s unique ability to elevate and draw attention to parts of the world where adversarial nations often hope to wait out firestorms until international interest wanes.

“Our ability to influence this from halfway around the world is limited,” McConnell said. “But we do have tools.”

“The lion share of the burden is on the State Department and the administration,” he added. “But in any way that congressional action needs to be a part of this: Count me in.”

Tending his 'pet issue'

McConnell’s 30-year journey on what he has called his “pet issue” began in earnest in 1986 when, shortly after his first election to the Senate, he openly challenged then-President Ronald Reagan over the White House's refusal to punish the apartheid government in South Africa.

As the former McConnell adviser Cleveland tells it, the then-freshman senator returned to Washington after spending a weekend in Kentucky reading about South Africa's horrific apartheid conditions and told her that the U.S. should speak out more forcefully against the regime there to support Nelson Mandela, the leader of the opposition.

McConnell then worked with Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) on a sweeping plan to slap harsh economic sanctions on South Africa. Reagan vetoed the legislation, but the Senate voted overwhelmingly to override his veto in the fall of 1986. At the time, McConnell said Reagan was “ill-advised” and “wrong,” adding that he was proud of that vote. (Democrats even invoked it this year as they fruitlessly appealed for McConnell's vote in favor of impeaching Donald Trump.)

A few years later, McConnell watched in horror as the military invalidated Suu Kyi’s victory in the 1990 elections. From his perch as chair of the foreign operations subpanel on the Senate Appropriations Committee, McConnell later crafted the original economic sanctions package against Myanmar, effectively isolating the country.

“There’s an arc to his work,” Cleveland said, recalling that McConnell saw sanctions as “the necessary and the right policy approach in South Africa — to essentially support an electorate that had been disenfranchised. And over time he became involved because the people of Burma voted and they were denied the outcome, too.”

Others who worked for McConnell at the time, including former top aide Janet Mullins Grissom, cited McConnell’s earlier support for the civil-rights movement in the U.S. and his subsequent work for his mentor, the late Sen. and civil rights supporter John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky.), as animating factors.

“That’s the lens through which he viewed the apartheid vote,” said Grissom, who also managed McConnell’s 1984 Senate campaign. “And from that, he began his real engagement on siding with the good guys and looking at the importance of supporting democracy and human rights around the world.”

Betting on the 'best hope'

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a joint press conference with Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Naypyitaw, Myanmar.

While McConnell has received bipartisan praise for his support of Suu Kyi over the years, he's faced criticism for standing by her even as the United Nations faulted her in 2018 for what it dubbed a genocide against Rohingya Muslims in her country.

After the widespread killing and abuse of Rohingya emerged, lawmakers from both parties proposed sanctions on Myanmar officials believed to be carrying out the atrocities; McConnell blocked that bill, drawing colleagues' ire. McConnell insisted that the crackdown was out of Suu Kyi’s control and argued that undermining her government would hurt democracy itself in Myanmar, especially when the country had come so far since its initial military junta.

The then-majority leader often reminded other senators that Suu Kyi was the “best hope” for a democratic Myanmar. His confidants said that his defense of her came from a “long view” of how the country can become a stable democracy.

McConnell’s support for Suu Kyi has occasionally "made him one of the most powerful advocates of a principled American policy towards the country,” a former senior State Department official said. “And at times, he’s been seen as an obstacle because he’s been reluctant to pressure Suu Kyi or disagree with her when she herself has been on the wrong side."

For his part, McConnell pointed to the most recent military coup as evidence that his approach was correct. Suu Kyi should not have been “thrown under the bus" by everyone from his Senate colleagues to world leaders who were trying to “measure her performance by western standards," the GOP leader argued.

“I still think today that — and the recent election which led to the coup proves it further — that she’s the only one with a real following there,” McConnell said. “There’s no other hope for a way forward in Burma but Aung San Suu Kyi."

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Sen. Roy Blunt won’t run for reelection in latest blow to GOP

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri announced on Monday that he will not run for reelection in 2022, a surprise decision from the No. 4 GOP leader that comes amid a slew of retirements from top Senate Republicans.

Blunt, who was first elected to the Senate in 2010 and previously served for 14 years in the House, is the fifth Republican this cycle to announce his retirement. His decision is certain to set off a messy GOP primary in a state where former President Donald Trump remains popular.

“After 14 general election victories — three to county office, seven to the United States House of Representatives, and four statewide elections — I won’t be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate next year,” Blunt said in a video message announcing his retirement.

Blunt, 71, has been a mainstay in Washington politics and the Republican establishment for more than two decades. First elected to the House in the 1996 GOP wave, Blunt served as House Republican whip before jumping to the Senate.

In announcing his retirement, Blunt joins GOP Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Richard Burr of North Carolina, all of whom opted against seeking reelection in 2022. Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have yet to reveal their plans.

Blunt voted to acquit Trump in the former president’s most recent impeachment trial in the Senate but occasionally broke with the former president throughout his term. Blunt’s decision, combined with the other four senators not seeking reelection, could suggest a level of discomfort with the direction of the party, especially with Trump looming over the GOP’s future. But his retirement gives Trump’s wing of the party an opportunity to gain significant ground in the Senate.

Missouri is not likely to be a competitive state for Democrats on the Senate map next year — Trump won the state by 15 percentage points last year — though Blunt’s retirement is likely to set off a competitive primary battle to replace him and could give Democrats a chance to expand their 50-50 Senate majority.

The jockeying to replace Blunt is expected to begin in earnest. Just last week, Missouri’s scandal-plagued former Gov. Eric Greitens said he was “evaluating” whether to run for the seat in 2022. Other potential GOP candidates include Rep. Ann Wagner, Rep. Jason Smith, Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe, state Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, whose father, former Attorney General John Ashcroft, once held the state’s other Senate seat.

Ashcroft indicated in a statement that he is considering making a run for Blunt’s seat, writing: “It is imperative that Republicans take back the Senate in 2022.”

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, vowed that Republicans “will hold this seat” and said the Senate GOP campaign arm “will work tirelessly” to do so.

Blunt narrowly defeated Democrat Jason Kander in 2016, but Trump carried Missouri handily twice. Kander indicated on Monday that he will not run for the seat, saying he wants to stay focused on the veterans group he runs. “Love this work, don’t want a new job,” Kander said.

Scott Sifton, a former Democratic state senator, announced his candidacy last month. He was backed immediately by the only current statewide elected Democrat, state Auditor Nicole Galloway, who lost a race for governor last fall.

In a statement on Monday, Sifton said Blunt’s announcement “shows just how high the stakes are for Missouri families next year” and called the race “an opportunity to vote for better leadership.”

Former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who served for two terms in the Senate but was defeated in her bid for a third by Republican Josh Hawley, said Monday she won't run for public office again.

On the GOP side, Greitens has already begun laying the groundwork as the pro-Trump, anti-Mitch McConnell candidate in the race. The former president and the Senate minority leader are at odds over the future of the GOP and the best way for the party to win back control of the Senate in 2022, with McConnell promising to back candidates regardless of their support for Trump, and the former president suggesting that McConnell should no longer lead Senate Republicans.

McConnell, for his part, said in a statement that Blunt’s retirement “will be a loss for the Republican conference and the entire Senate.”

“I’m very sorry he’ll be stepping away but am glad the country has two more years to keep benefiting from his talent,” McConnell said.

James Arkin contributed to this report.

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Schumer and McConnell finalize impeachment trial schedule

Senate leaders clinched an agreement on the parameters and schedule for Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced on Monday.

The schedule was initially intended to accommodate a request from one of Trump’s lawyers, David Schoen, an observant Jew who told Senate leaders that he would not work from sundown Friday through Saturday.

Under the initial agreement, the trial would have paused over the Sabbath and resumed on Sunday afternoon. But late Monday, Schoen informed Senate leaders that he was withdrawing that request due to concerns about unnecessarily delaying the proceedings.

“I will not participate [in the trial] during the Sabbath; but the role I would have played will be fully covered to the satisfaction of the defense team,” Schoen wrote.

As a result, Senate leaders are likely to update the trial’s organizing resolution before the full chamber adopts it on Tuesday, according to a person familiar with the planning.

Senators from both parties are aiming for a swift trial that lasts around a week. The proceedings will officially kick off on Tuesday, less than a month after the House impeached Trump in a bipartisan vote for his role in inciting the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“All parties have agreed to a structure that will ensure a fair and honest Senate impeachment trial of the former president,” Schumer said.

The agreement between Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in conjunction with the House impeachment managers and Trump’s lawyers, will allow up to four hours of arguments on Tuesday about the constitutionality of putting a former president on trial. The Senate will then vote on whether the trial is constitutional.

The vast majority of the Senate GOP conference, 45 out of 50, previously voted for a motion declaring that the Senate has no constitutional jurisdiction over an ex-president. That argument is expected to be a key theme of Trump’s defense, but the Senate is likely to uphold the trial’s constitutionality.

Beginning on Wednesday, each side will have up to 16 hours to lay out their case, spread out over two days per side. Senators will then have four hours to pose questions to the House managers and Trump’s attorneys.

The agreement also allows for the House managers to ask for a debate and subsequent votes on whether to call witnesses — a provision specifically requested by the managers, Schumer said. Later, each side will have two hours to present closing arguments.

House Impeachment Managers delivered the articles of impeachment to the Senate on January 25.

The House managers have declined to publicly detail their strategy for the trial, including whether they will move to seek testimony from witnesses. Most Senate Democrats, who are eager to finish the trial quickly, have said witnesses are not necessary because much of the House’s case relies on Trump’s public statements and actions.

During their presentations, the House managers are expected to rely heavily on videos showing Trump’s rhetoric leading up to Jan. 6, including his remarks the morning of the insurrection.

Under the current timeline, the Senate could vote on whether to convict Trump of the House’s charge as early as the beginning of next week.

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Where Democrats and Republicans agree on Trump

Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial in as many years has Democrats and Republicans in rare agreement: Most senators want to get it over with, and they want the former president to go away.

Democrats see the best way to achieve that goal as voting to convict Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection and barring him from ever holding office again. And Republicans, particularly those nervous about Trump’s continued stranglehold on the GOP, just don’t want to poke the bear.

“I think he’s going to be a viable leader of the Republican Party,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump confidant who helped him organize his defense team. “He’s very popular. And he’s going to get acquitted.”

Of course, Republicans don’t want to hold a trial for a former president in the first place, arguing it’s not a constitutional exercise of the Senate’s authority — a disputed legal position that undergirds Trump’s defense strategy against the House’s charge that he willfully incited the insurrection at the Capitol.

But they see the outcome of the trial, which begins on Tuesday, as a reflection of Trump’s viability and influence in the GOP moving forward. And they believe a conviction, which would require the support of at least 17 Republican senators, would simply embolden Trump and enrage his base in a way that hurts the party in 2022 and 2024.

“He does a pretty good job of being a victim,” a GOP senator, who requested anonymity to candidly address the internal party dynamic, said of Trump. “If he were to be convicted, there would be an uproar among his supporters. And it would probably energize them.”

Ahead of the trial, Republicans are predicting that no more than a handful of GOP senators will join Democrats in voting to convict Trump, especially after 45 out of the 50 Republicans in the chamber voted last month to declare that the Senate has no jurisdiction over a former president.

Trump’s allies are already dreading the trial, though, fearful that a public discussion of the events of Jan. 6 — in which a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol after the then-president rallied with them at the White House — could damage Trump long-term. GOP senators acknowledged those risks for Trump, even as the trial is shaping up to be a referendum on his standing in the party.

“It’s going to be aired as publicly as it can be, and it’s based upon recent events,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said. “So I think how he comes out of it, how he rebuilds, I’m not sure where that goes. That’s going to be up to him.”

To Democrats, an elevated retelling of the events of Jan. 6 is the next-best option to further ostracize Trump given that a conviction is highly unlikely. While Senate leaders are still haggling over the trial’s parameters, the House impeachment managers will likely be permitted to use videos and other visuals to make their case — a serious advantage for Democrats given that much of their case relies on Trump’s public statements and other available footage from the riots at the Capitol.

“One of the most powerful reasons for a trial here is the public airing of Donald Trump’s really heinous criminal wrongdoing and his criminal intent,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former prosecutor and state attorney general. “A trial airs a tableau of evidence and proof that can change the way people think about … the individual who is on trial. Even when someone is acquitted, they may still be haunted by the facts that come to light at a trial.”

Republicans have already signaled their uneasiness with Trump’s lawyers, who in an initial filing last week advanced the former president’s unsubstantiated claims that the election was stolen from him. There is widespread concern among Republicans that the arguments on the Senate floor will turn into a re-litigation of Trump’s false allegations of election fraud — a discussion that GOP senators aren’t interested in having, as most of them try to move past Trump.

“I think this trial will tell us about what the GOP wants to be going forward,” added Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “Donald Trump did not just drop out of the sky. Everything that he represents has its roots in earlier iterations of the Republican Party.”

With expectations already set, Democrats are already telegraphing a shortened trial that punts on the question of whether to subpoena witnesses, with many in the party worried that this week’s exercise will distract from President Joe Biden’s legislative and governing agenda, especially if it’s elongated by new witness testimony.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), perhaps Biden’s closest confidant in the Senate, said that during his hour-long meeting with the president last week, “We did not talk about impeachment.” Biden, Coons said, is “relentlessly focused” on delivering coronavirus relief to Americans, as well as countering China and Russia.

Coons was one of a few Democratic senators who balked at the idea of the House impeachment managers seeking to call Trump in as a witness for the trial, calling it a “terrible idea.” The Delaware Democrat, like many others in the party, is eager to get the trial in the Senate’s rear-view mirror.

Republicans, too, want to get through the trial as quickly — and painlessly — as possible. Apart from arguing that the proceedings are unconstitutional, they have not mounted a substantive defense of Trump’s actions. Many of them have already publicly said they believe Trump’s rhetoric was reckless and irresponsible.

Focusing on a procedural defense, though, allows Republicans to defend the most popular figure in their party without having to justify the alleged conduct at the heart of the House’s impeachment case.

“I think most of the focus is going to be on the constitutionality and the precedent set by trying a former officeholder,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said.

Other Republican senators have tried to appeal directly to Biden’s desire to work on legislation that has a tangible impact on Americans reeling from the pandemic and sluggish economy — rather than pursuing what they view as an attempt at partisan retribution against a former president whose influence can target those who vote to convict him.

“The whole thing is stupid,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “I know this: Nothing we do next week on that floor is going to help people get vaccines or more people keep their jobs. We should be focused on that instead.”

Of course, not all Republicans want Trump to fade into the background. Several GOP senators have directly benefited politically from Trump’s backing, and see little or no downside if Trump’s wing of the party prevails in the coming years.

In fact, some of their political fortunes are dependent on Trump’s continued involvement in the party, especially given his outsized impact on turnout among the GOP base. And many of those same Republicans worry that some of Trump’s voters might not turn out when he isn’t on the ballot.

“I think this idea that congressional Republicans secretly hate Trump is a partial fiction,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I think a lot of them have done very well by him and his movement, and are not looking forward to him disappearing.”

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