Trump impeachment trial crashes Biden’s first 100 days

President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is set to collide directly with President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. And there may be little anyone can do about it.

Absent the consent of all 100 senators, Trump’s trial for “incitement of insurrection” will start at 1 p.m. on Jan. 20 — just an hour after Biden is sworn into office and Trump becomes a former president, provided the articles arrive by Jan. 19. And only the same consent from the entire Senate will allow the chamber to create two tracks: One to confirm Biden’s Cabinet and pass his legislative agenda, and another for Trump’s impeachment trial.

“I’m all for accountability. But I want to make sure that we prioritize our business in a way that gets the Cabinet set and Covid relief legislation moving fast,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in an interview, adding: “Especially after the events of the last week, it’s so critical that we get a Cabinet into place and we show the peaceful and efficient transition from one Cabinet to the next.”

Given that many Republicans oppose impeachment or think it’s not even constitutional once Trump has left office, it could be tough to get the cooperation Biden needs to handle a trial alongside Cabinet confirmations and begin work on a new coronavirus stimulus bill. Biden and Democrats say it’s critical to cut a deal that does both, but one single senator can disrupt any effort to multitask.

All that makes for an even higher degree of difficulty for Biden’s Cabinet and early legislative priorities to pass the Senate in his critical first few days in office.

“We are working with Republicans to try to find a path forward,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Chuck Schumer, who will become majority leader later this month once two new Democratic senators from Georgia are sworn in and Kamala Harris becomes vice president to break ties. Until then, however, Sen. Mitch McConnell is the majority leader.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said on MSNBC on Thursday that he spoke to Schumer that morning and that "there has been no exchange or conversation with Senator McConnell about setting a specific time to begin the trial."

And there’s already concern that Biden will be hamstrung in his early days. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a centrist who supports convicting Trump, said a trial “impedes that first week or two that basically should be dedicated to putting our government back in place.” He had hoped that the House might give the Senate at least a month “until we had our government up and running again.”

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is unlikely to wait until after Biden’s inauguration to trigger the trial’s start by formally transmitting the impeachment article over to the Senate. Pelosi has been tight-lipped about precise timing, but her top lieutenants spent recent days emphasizing the urgency of moving the process to the Senate as quickly as possible. Democrats had wanted McConnell to bring the Senate back this week to begin the trial in earnest, but McConnell rejected their request.

“To choose between holding accountable those who are responsible for attacking our democracy in the U.S. Capitol on the one hand and getting the work done for the people around Covid relief? That is a false choice,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.). “We need to do all of those things.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sit together at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Schumer and McConnell could also be faced with a procedural mess even after the trial begins. Control of the Senate is set to flip in the middle of the trial, once Biden and Harris are inaugurated and Georgia’s two newly elected Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, are sworn in. Simultaneous to setting up the trial, Schumer will have to work out the rules of the road for a 50-50 Senate with McConnell.

With the Senate split and Chief Justice John Roberts presiding over the trial, partisan votes in the Senate could also lead to deadlock. Last year both parties sought to avoid putting Roberts in the position of having to break a tie.

Some Republican senators have even called into question the Senate’s constitutional authority to put a former president on trial.

“The Founders designed the impeachment process as a way to remove officeholders from public office — not an inquest against private citizens,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said. “The Constitution presupposes an office from which an impeached officeholder can be removed.”

There are signs that Biden is concerned about the upcoming trial and its impact on his first 100 days in office. Earlier this week, the president-elect said he hopes the Senate can “bifurcate” during the trial and “go a half-day with the impeachment and a half-day getting my people nominated and confirmed in the Senate as well as moving on the [Covid-19 relief] package.”

And in a statement after the House’s impeachment vote Wednesday night, Biden indicated he supports the effort to hold Trump accountable for the deadly Capitol riots, but said the Senate should not abandon his Cabinet confirmations and other legislative priorities like Covid-19 relief.

“This nation also remains in the grip of a deadly virus and a reeling economy,” Biden said. “I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their Constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation.”

Biden may enter office with none of his Cabinet nominees confirmed by the Senate, which typically considers an incoming president’s choices ahead of the inauguration. That makes the opening days of his presidency all the more critical.

Biden specifically named the Homeland Security, State, Defense, Treasury and intelligence chief positions as his top priorities. Senate committees are convening in the coming days to hold confirmation hearings for those and other Cabinet posts.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the Homeland Security panel, said on Wednesday evening that Biden “has rightly said he wants to set a new tone of greater unity as his administration begins. All of us should be concerned about the polarization in our country and work toward bringing people together.”

But if Trump’s second trial plays out like his first, it will be that much harder to turn the page for Biden. Republicans are already complaining that the House did not grant Trump “due process” — suggesting the Senate could be in for a slog.

“I’ve spent the last two days interviewing five Biden nominees to the Cabinet and I want to get to the serious business of legislating and forming a new administration we can work with,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said on CNBC. “Not continue to work against, which is what I’m afraid is going to happen if we continue with these theatrical impeachments.”

Ben Leonard, Marianne LeVine and Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.

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McConnell’s GOP takes Trump’s election-year cues

Mitch McConnell can’t afford any tension with President Donald Trump. So he’s doing everything he can to keep his fragile majority in sync with Trump and his explosive election-year playbook.

Just three days after Trump berated McConnell on Twitter to “get tough” with Democrats and probe the 2016 Russia investigation that ensnared Trump’s campaign, the Senate majority leader took to the floor to echo the president’s misgivings in a way he declined to do last week. Trump’s campaign “was treated like a hostile foreign power by our own law enforcement,” McConnell said Tuesday, subject to “wild theories of Russian collusion.”

In the days to come and with McConnell’s public blessing, GOP committee chairmen plan to follow Trump’s lead and approve a series of subpoenas for documents and testimony that could hit some of Trump’s favorite targets, including Hunter Biden and dozens of Obama administration officials.

It’s all part of the last stage of the GOP’s evolution during Trump’s first term: an apparent end to public disagreements for the next six months until the party is past the election.

“I just think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the party whip. “One thing we have to do is to make sure that we are united on our agenda and make sure that there’s not separation between the White House and Republicans in Congress.”

Two hours after McConnell’s floor speech, Senate Republicans hosted Trump for their first party lunch in two months. The gathering was largely an opportunity for the president to present poll numbers, talk about his re-election campaign and tout his handling of the coronavirus crisis, which has ravaged the economy and infected more than a million people.

But Trump also urged Republicans to stick together as the election approaches — and act a little bit more like the opposition party he loathes.

“He very frequently reminds us that we’re not as tough as [Democrats] are, that they play more for keeps, that they stick together better,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “Part of what makes us conservative is our independence, so that is our strength philosophically but sometimes it can be a weakness.”

There was no real agenda for the meeting, but the takeaway was clear to attendees. Trump told senators that “we need to be a team,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). When asked whether Trump encouraged senators to hammer home on the investigative front, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) replied: “He didn’t need to.”

The moment reflected a new level of political synergy between Trump and the Senate Republicans who once blanched at his Twitter insults, his erratic governing style and his unorthodox economic, immigration and diplomatic policies. These days the Senate GOP majority has become an extended arm of Trumpism, with occasional complaints by a scattered few senators but mostly toothless dissent.

Trump has been on a tear as he seeks retribution against his political enemies, whether it’s on the origins of the Russia investigation, the FBI’s case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, or Hunter Biden’s Ukraine work — and Republicans seem eager to play along. McConnell is defending his majority this fall in increasingly difficult conditions, and the GOP has decided the only way to win is to stick by Trump as closely as possible.

“You’re not crazy or a conspiracy theorist if you see a pattern of institutional unfairness toward this president,” McConnell said earlier on Tuesday. “You would have to be blind not to see one.”

McConnell also used his floor remarks to take a rare public jab at a federal judge for trying to slow the Justice Department’s move to drop the case against Flynn.

When asked whether he spoke with Trump after the president issued a direct appeal to him on Twitter over the weekend, McConnell sidestepped the question and said that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will have “all control on reviewing” the 2016-era investigations. “He has a pretty expansive plan to look into all of that,” McConnell added.

Trump did not directly answer a reporter over whether he was satisfied with how Republican senators were handling the matter. Instead, he reiterated his litany of grievances against the Obama administration.

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters after meeting with Senate Republicans at their weekly luncheon on Capitol Hill.

Since Friday, Trump fired the State Department’s inspector general, went after McConnell on Twitter and revealed he was taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug with uncertain benefits for coronavirus according to officials. Meanwhile the U.S. death toll for the pandemic has shot past 90,000 and the unemployment rate is spiking.

Republicans have largely shrugged at Trump’s self-medication and defended his coronavirus response. They’ve also largely backed down as Trump continues his purge of government watchdogs in the aftermath of his acquittal in the Senate’s impeachment trial, sending stern letters to Trump that have been ignored so far.

And when they had the president in front of him on Tuesday, senators decided it was not the venue to demand the explanation for the ousted inspectors general that they say they want.

“I didn’t ask him about it because I’m tracking down my own questions and trying to be able to work through the process,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “I’ve already started my own follow-up, privately.”

At the beginning of 2019, Republicans grimaced at Trump’s government shutdown and a bipartisan majority voted against his national emergency to build a border wall. GOP senators decried Trump’s tariffs for years and even conceded some tweets targeting progressive women in the House were racist.

But after everyone except Utah Sen. Mitt Romney banded around Trump during the impeachment trial, the party turned the page.

“The impeachment thing clearly brought people together,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).

And Republicans are about to dig in even further behind Trump. On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security Committee will vote on a subpoena as part of the panel’s GOP-run investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

After Graham rebuffed Trump’s calls for the Judiciary Committee to haul in President Barack Obama and question him about the Flynn case, Graham now plans to approve a broad subpoena to compel documents and testimony from a slew of former Obama administration officials.

Graham told reporters he hoped to have his report out before the election and insisted that the subpoenas had nothing to do with Trump’s calls for him to call in Obama.

“We’ve been planning this for a long time,” Graham said.

Like Graham, McConnell had declined to endorse Trump’s push to haul Obama and Biden before the Senate, saying only in a Fox News interview last week that the public deserves to know more about how the 2016-era probes began. That response set off a flurry of criticism from Trump's allies in the conservative media, which led to Trump’s direct appeal to McConnell on Saturday to “get tough and move quickly.”

The new subpoena action also comes a week after two key Republicans senators released a list of Obama administration officials who might have been involved in efforts that “unmasked” Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI but whose criminal case was dropped earlier this month. Biden’s name was on the list, which was compiled by Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell.

These efforts by Republican senators are likely to give Trump a boost with his political base. The president’s reelection campaign unleashed a torrent of criticism against Biden after the “unmasking” list was released.

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) has said he wants his party to multi-task and also make headway on climate change policy and health care. But for rank-and-file GOP senators, the election-year agenda is now mostly out of their control and focused increasingly on Trump’s targets.

“Personally, I didn't run for Senate to be involved in that,” said Braun, who won his seat in 2018. “I can see you're largely along for the ride on most of the stuff you'd like to see done.”

He then made clear that he views Trump’s agenda as his own, too: “For the American public there’s some grave issues that occurred. And we ought to get to the bottom of it.”

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How Burr’s stock scandal shocked the Senate

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday met as usual in a classified room in the Capitol. During the meeting, Chairman Richard Burr discussed the next time the secretive panel would gather.

Less than 24 hours later, Burr was publicly under FBI investigation, authorities seized his cellphone and he relinquished his chairmanship. The next time the committee meets, someone else will be at the helm.

“We met just yesterday in the SCIF for hours. And there was no indication at that time,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Thursday of the surprise decision by Burr to step down from his post temporarily amid FBI scrutiny. “So I feel bad … I have no idea what the investigation is going to find, but I certainly hope it turns out well for him.”

After bubbling for nearly two months, the Senate’s stock-trading practices exploded into a full-blown scandal in the past 24 hours. And even senators not currently under a microscope are actively trying to shed the perception that they’re trying to cash in on their elected office.

On Thursday alone, the Intelligence Committee’s two previous chairs, Burr and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), both said they had answered questions from federal investigators about stock trades made in the early stages of the pandemic. (Feinstein said the questions were basic, unlike Burr, who was served with an FBI search warrant for his cellphone.)

A third senator, Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), refused to say whether she’d been contacted by the FBI about her stock transactions. But she said the FBI did not serve her a warrant. Meanwhile, Burr has been telling people close to him he intends to fight all accusations of wrongdoing. Publicly, he said he’d serve out the rest of his term.

And the Senate as a whole faced a reckoning over whether some of the nation’s most powerful politicians should be trading stocks at all, amid claims of insider trading and self-enrichment. The STOCK Act prohibits lawmakers and aides from buying or selling stocks based on information gleaned as part of their official duties. A member of Congress has never been successfully prosecuted under the 2012 law.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., departs after the impeachment acquittal of President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“Maybe the bottom line is, if you’re going to be in the Senate you can’t own any stock. Or at least own mutual funds. Who knows, people could say you’re gaming an index fund,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Part of the joy of serving in public office.”

Burr sold hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks earlier this year around the time he was receiving closed-door briefings on the coronavirus pandemic, which eventually sent the stock market into a tailspin. His brother-in-law reportedly sold thousands in stocks at the same time, ProPublica reported. Feinstein, meanwhile, voluntarily recently turned over documents to the FBI relating to her husband’s stock trades. And Loeffler similarly sold off large sums around the time she received briefings on the virus. All three senators have denied any wrongdoing.

Several senators have made anti-corruption a hallmark of their campaigns. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for example, has proposed legislation banning members of Congress from owning or trading individual stocks. And she said her time on the presidential campaign trail reinforced that voters are incensed by even the perception of corruption among their elected representatives.

“The American people should never wonder whether or not the top officials in this government are working for them or are working for their own personal financial gain,” Warren said in a brief interview. “I think we ought to change the law. And I’m going to keep pushing.”

Still, Warren declined to criticize Burr specifically. And the chummy Senate is an awkward place for scandal. The body of 100 is a back-slapping old-school institution where it’s rare for senators, even of opposing parties, to publicly pressure one another to step down from prominent positions or resign from office. No sitting senator has called on Burr to resign.

The laid-back Burr, a quirky North Carolinian who often doesn’t wear socks and brings his own lunches to GOP party meetings to save a few bucks, is generally well-liked by Democrats and Republicans. During the 2008 financial crisis, he told his wife to withdraw as much money as possible from an ATM.

So in the 90 minutes before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that Burr would step aside from chairing the panel, Republicans defended the North Carolina Republican and Democrats declined to lean on him to step down. When McConnell put out his statement around noon on Thursday, several senators were informed of the news by reporters asking for their reaction.

“I didn’t see this coming,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said of the quick turn of events.

Every few years, at least one of the chamber’s members stumbles publicly. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) was indicted in 2015, and eventually acquitted, on corruption charges. Before that, in 2011, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) resigned amid an ethics investigation of his attempts to hide an affair.

It’s been several years since a senator has found themselves in legal hot water like Burr. But to some of the Senate’s newer members, facing reporters’ questions about their colleagues’ alleged misconduct seemed all too familiar after more than three years of President Donald Trump.

“It all just adds to the kind of perception people have of this place in general. And sadly, it was just due to misjudgment,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who was first elected in 2018. Many voters “have almost become steeled to it … I don’t think it was as shocking as it might have been, say, 10 years ago.”

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who is in his first term, said he was “disappointed” to learn that the FBI served a warrant on Burr, and he echoed his GOP colleagues in saying the law-enforcement process should “play out.”

“If there was no investigation, then people would say there was a cover-up,” Rounds said. “This clearly shows there was no cover-up.”

The Senate Ethics Committee “severely admonished” Menendez in 2018 but never publicly threatened to expel him, so Burr’s ethics investigation may not have much teeth, either. And given the high bar for a conviction of insider trading, Burr’s problems may be more political than legal.

“I don’t trade individual stocks. But I think there would have to be a pretty high bar to prove that you’re trading on information that isn’t available to the public,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who like many senators has attended closed-door briefings on coronavirus. “There’s often a lot of information that we have here that is publicly available.”

Burr isn’t running for reelection in 2022 when his term expires. Yet his snap decision to step away from a committee that oversees the very FBI that’s investigating him showed some deference to party leaders eager to avoid any cloud over their attempts to defend their majority this fall.

At the end of the day, the mood in the Senate was subdued.

“I’m saddened by this turn of events. I know that he was being full cooperative, so I don’t understand yesterday’s events,” Collins said of the FBI action. Burr’s decision to step back, she added, was “certainly not something he consulted with committee members about. I’ve talked with several, and we were all surprised.”

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Grassley seeks explanation of Trump’s firing of Atkinson

Sen. Chuck Grassley is working on a bipartisan letter addressed to President Donald Trump demanding an explanation for the firing of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, according to aides in both parties.

The Senate Finance Committee chairman is still working to secure cosponsors for the letter, a Republican aide said. The letter will focus on Atkinson's Friday firing amid a broader purge by the president of inspectors general.

The letter is supported by Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Trump said recently that he fired Atkinson for doing a "terrible job" with a whistleblower report that kicked off the president's impeachment. Atkinson said he was likely fired for "having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial inspector general."

The letter was first reported by Bloomberg.

Grassley's office did not comment other than to point to a Tuesday statement reiterating his support for inspectors general and urging the president to use them. Grassley also said he would seek more explanation from Trump in the immediate aftermath of Atkinson's firing. He's also been a longtime advocate for inspectors general and whistleblowers.

“Inspectors general provide a critical check on an otherwise unaccountable bureaucracy. In other words, they help drain the swamp. Their duty is to provide nonpartisan recommendations and remove politics from the inner workings of our federal government. The White House should empower inspectors general so they’re able to do their job," Grassley said, citing recent IG work on surveillance of the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.

He also hinted that Trump owes the public more information.

"President Trump must prioritize filling inspector general vacancies with permanent nominees so this important congressional oversight function can occur," Grassley said.

Trump fired Glenn Fine, a Defense Department watchdog, on Monday. Grassley thanked "Fine for his service to his country" in his statements.

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