Biden argued against witnesses in 1999 impeachment trial memo

In January 1999, then-Sen. Joe Biden argued strongly against the need to depose additional witnesses or seek new evidence in a memo sent to fellow Democrats ahead of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.

Biden circulated the four-page document, titled “Arguments in Support of a Summary Impeachment Trial,” on Jan. 5, 1999. In his memo, obtained by POLITICO, Biden cited historical precedents from impeachment cases going back to the establishment of the Senate and asserted “The Senate need not hold a ‘full-blown’ trial.

“The Senate may dismiss articles of impeachment without holding a full trial or taking new evidence. Put another way, the Constitution does not impose on the Senate the duty to hold a trial,” Biden wrote at the time.

The Delaware Democrat added later: “In a number of previous impeachment trials, the Senate has reached the judgment that its constitutional role as a sole trier of impeachments does not require it to take new evidence or hear live witness testimony.”

Along with his son Hunter, Biden has become a primary target for Republicans in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. Biden is also a frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Biden’s comments from 1999 are at odds with current Democratic talking points that additional witnesses must be called to get to the bottom of Trump’s actions in the Ukraine saga. Republicans, of course, now oppose witnesses in Trump’s trial and argued strongly for them in Clinton’s.

In 1999, Biden also said senators should take into account the impact drawing out the impeachment proceedings would have on the country.

“In light of the extensive record already compiled, it may be that the benefit of receiving additional evidence or live testimony is not great enough to outweigh the public costs (in terms of national prestige, faith in public institutions, etc.) of such a proceeding,” Biden said. “While a judge may not take such considerations into account, the Senate is uniquely competent to make such a balance.”

Biden and other Clinton allies — including now-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — lost the witness fight during that 1999 trial. The Senate agreed to depose former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, whose affair with Clinton led to just the second presidential impeachment in history, as well as two other witnesses.

Despite those interviews, Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999. Clinton’s administration cooperated more with the special counsel, leading to a more voluminous record of evidence in his trial. The Trump White House has refused to make officials available for interviews or key documents to House investigators.

The Biden campaign declined to comment.

Biden’s arguments from two decades are being echoed by Senate GOP leaders and the White House now as the Senate prepares to vote Friday on the critical issue of whether to subpoena former national security adviser John Bolton and other witnesses. Bolton has asserted in an unpublished manuscript that Trump told him in August 2019 that U.S. military aid to Ukraine would be withheld unless Ukrainian officials "helped with" investigations into the Bidens, according to The New York Times.

Republicans have threatened to subpoena Joe and Hunter Biden in the trial, arguing that Hunter Biden’s role at Ukraine energy firm Burisma is what sparked Trump’s interest in fighting corruption there. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens and Democrats argue they are simply not relevant to Trump's trial. The Democratic House impeached Trump over charges he abused his power by pushing Ukraine to investigate Biden, a 2020 rival.

Biden — who at one point suggested he might not comply with a subpoena for the Trump trial before backtracking — has said that Senate subpoenas should be sent to the White House, not him and his son.

“I am just not going to pretend that there is any legal basis for Republican subpoenas for my testimony in the impeachment trial … this impeachment is about Trump’s conduct, not mine,” Biden tweeted on Dec. 28. “The subpoenas should go to witnesses with testimony to offer to Trump’s shaking down the Ukraine government — they should go to the White House.”

The Trump trial has often found Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other veteran senators arguing against the very positions they held 21 years ago.

Schumer argued against allowing new witnesses to be deposed in that case, while McConnell was all for it. Now the two leaders have completely reversed their positions, showing politics is as much as matter of timing as principle.

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Trump finds nearly unwavering loyalty from Republicans after Dem case

Senate Republicans spent three days listening to the House impeachment managers present a comprehensive case for removing President Donald Trump from office — an elaborate, multimedia narrative laying out a wide array of offenses allegedly committed to benefit the president’s personal political fortunes at the expense of the nation.

Yet few Republicans will publicly admit they’ve heard anything done by Trump that was wrong or unethical or inappropriate at all, let alone impeachable.

A small minority of GOP senators may ultimately end up mildly criticizing the president’s behavior in requesting investigations into Joe Biden and delaying military aid to Ukraine. But any expressions of disapproval are muted, or explained away as an honest mistake by a frustrated president who just wanted to fight corruption in Ukraine.

“I do things every week that are inappropriate. So no, I’m not going to go down that road,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “This is a constitutional remedy that was designed for the most extreme of cases and we’re just not anywhere in that [ball] park.”

It’s a reminder of the unyielding grip Trump has on his party and the lack of a middle ground that exists for Republicans when it comes to the president.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) stood on the floor Friday passionately exhorting senators to remove Trump from office, warning them that a president who solicits a foreign government to investigate a political rival would do it to them if they got in Trump’s way. “It shouldn't matter that it was Joe Biden because I'll tell you something, the next time it just may be you,” Schiff warned. “It just may be you.”

However, it is very unlikely that more than one or two Republican senators are even considering a vote to convict Trump and remove him from office, far from the 20 needed to reach the 67-vote threshold required by the Constitution. GOP leaders and aides privately doubt any Republican will cast such a vote, especially after they hear from Trump’s defense team over the next few days, and particularly if a key procedural vote on hearing witnesses is defeated next week.

Graham: 'Somebody outside of politics' should look into Bidens

A small group of Republicans that includes Rob Portman of Ohio, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have said that the president’s behavior was not appropriate yet not impeachable. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have not tipped their hands and are viewed as possible votes to convict, although not probable.

“It’s a very serious matter and I’m listening in a respectful way,” said Collins, who has already signaled that she may vote for additional witnesses to be called. “I’ve filled up 25 pages of notes on my legal pad and I pay very close attention.”

But for the rest of the party there’s almost no interest in even inching toward a rebuke of Trump. There’s definitely no attempt to censure the president or propose some other formal condemnation short of impeachment. To Republicans, there’s no point trying to concede Trump did anything wrong — a far cry from Democrats’ denunciation of President Bill Clinton’s behavior during his 1999 impeachment trial.

“Our job is not to evaluate in great detail what happened. Our job at this point is to evaluate whether it’s impeachable or not,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “And I don’t see minds changing on that, including mine.”

For Trump, party loyalty is paramount and opposing him is deadly in Republican primaries — ask former Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.). Few Republicans won in 2016 after abandoning him, and since then, few have really even tried. These days the only Senate Republican running for re-election without hugging the president is Collins.

In other swing states, GOP senators have made the calculation that anything resembling a split with the president is a mistake that could encourage a primary challenge or depress the conservative base in a general election.

“The question is, whether or not what they’ve presented — which could basically fit into the first hours of the debates on Tuesday — does it rise to the level of removal? And I say no,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who is up for reelection this November. “Are there stylistic differences between maybe the way I’d do it and the president? Possibly. But stylistic differences aren’t enough for me to vote to remove.”

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who has occasionally complained about the president’s tweets and incendiary rhetoric, said Trump is never going to be like other presidents and can’t be evaluated the same way his predecessors were.

“As everybody sort of knows, he’s very unconventional,” Thune said of Trump. “And I think a lot of people when they voted for him, that was baked in and they knew what they were getting. That’s why there hasn’t been that huge public reaction to this, except for the partisans on both sides.”

“Sure,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said when asked if he had any concerns about the president’s behavior. “There are things that I’m taking notes on, I’m waiting to be able to hear the other side of it.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), vice chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus who also serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, urged Trump in late August to release the aid only to be temporarily rebuffed. Johnson has stated Trump denied any link between the aid cutoff and the need for Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden.

“I didn’t agree with the president. I was trying to change his mind. But I also could see the fact that his concerns were legitimate,” Johnson said. “I told him this doesn’t look good politically. It just ties into the whole Russia mantra. But I also freely admit his concerns are legitimate, the corruption” in Ukraine.

Of course, the Democratic impeachment managers pointed out again and again that all the evidence available shows Trump had no interest in Ukrainian corruption and was solely focused on a potential 2020 foe.

And then there are Republicans who portray Trump as a victim or see a “deep state” conspiracy to remove him from office and seize power in Washington.

“The one thing I would say that is sharp and in focus for me is that the bureaucracy is clearly against this guy,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “The rift between the elected branch and the political branch from the bureaucratic branch demonstrates why there’s such a big problem today.”

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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McConnell makes strategic retreat to keep firm grip on Trump trial

Mitch McConnell blinked. At least for a moment.

After last-minute pushback from centrist GOP senators, the Senate majority leader slightly eased off his push Tuesday for a compressed calendar during President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. But McConnell still ran all over Democrats on the Senate floor, winning a series of party line votes on the resolution that will govern the trial.

The developments on the first real day of the trial are sure to please Trump, who is eager for Republicans to dispense with impeachment. And it highlighted the brute force McConnell deploys against the minority party, as well as the need to deftly handle his own rank-and-file senators during just the third presidential impeachment trial in history.

“Listen, you’re not going to get any kind of dissent from me. It’s not easy herding a bunch of a cats, so he’s got a difficult task here in terms of organizing everybody,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who has criticized McConnell’s tactics in the past but backed him on the impeachment battle. Johnson even argued for providing less debate time during the trial's opening phases, yet he still sided with McConnell.

Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who spent years in the Senate as a conservative agitator, praised the move to keep the caucus together by making a minor compromise.

"We saw Democrats lighting their hair on fire: 'This is an outrageous effort. A cover-up, to have 24 hours of arguments over two days,'" Cruz said. "Senate Republicans did something wise and right which was to say: 'OK we'll make a concession.'"

In the organizing resolution he released on Monday night, McConnell had called for allowing only two days for House managers to present their case against the president, raising the specter of exhausted senators sitting in the chamber until well after midnight. Democrats also charged McConnell with trying to bury the trial in the dead of night, long past when most Americans would have stopped watching.

But a few key Republican senators objected, and McConnell agreed to allow three days — 24 hours in floor time total — for both the House managers and Trump’s defense team to present their opening arguments. The organizing resolution was also revised Tuesday so that the House’s evidence is allowed to be used in the Senate trial, although Trump’s lawyers will still be able to challenge what’s allowed under consideration by senators.

McConnell defends impeachment rules: 'Finally some fairness'

These were concessions, but only the slightest of ones — and the shift gave McConnell further license to ignore Senate Democrats’ broader complaints. With all 52 of his GOP senators united behind him, McConnell was able to defeat a series of Democratic amendments calling for more documents from the White House and other federal agencies caught up in the Ukraine scandal.

On the biggest issue — whether to call additional witnesses now, including former national security advisor John Bolton and others — McConnell refused to yield. At the Kentucky Republican's urging, the Senate postponed a decision on that question until after the opening arguments, despite vehement objections from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

It’s McConnell 101. The Senate majority leader plays by the rules, but he uses them as a weapon to help his cause as much as a restriction on what he can do. The only limits are based on what his members will agree to. And it’s nothing new to his adversaries.

“One thing about McConnell is he’s ruthless at what he wants. He’s ruthless,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). “He changes the rules with 51 votes to get what he wants. He changes the rules because he can.”

“The total disinterest in talking to Schumer for months was a clear indication he was going to railroad us,” noted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It’s perfectly consistent with the way he’s managed the Senate up until today. If anybody expected anything different from the way he was going to approach impeachment, shame on them.”

McConnell puts both Republicans and Democrats on the spot by applying maximum pressure. There’s no place for anyone to hide in a McConnell-run Senate.

As the impeachment trial opened on Tuesday afternoon, McConnell spoke extensively on the need for “fairness,” declaring that Trump will finally get a chance to defend himself. McConnell portrayed Trump as a victim of an unfair process in the House, an argument that the president has made passionately for months.

McConnell even presented himself as a defender of the House and bipartisanship itself, a claim that Democrats would surely ridicule.

“Here in the Senate, the president’s lawyers will finally receive a level playing field with the House Democrats, and will finally be able to present the president’s case. Finally, some fairness,” McConnell said. “On every point, our straightforward resolution will bring the clarity and fairness that everyone deserves — the president of the United States, the House of Representatives, and the American people.”

McConnel also repeated a mantra he’s employed for months in saying he wants to use the “Clinton precedent” for the Trump trial: “Fair is fair.”

Schumer objected furiously to McConnell’s resolution, using dramatic language that shows the stakes for Senate Democrats in this fight. The New York Democrat is aware that McConnell is trying to set up a final verdict within two weeks, possibly by the time Trump gives his State of the Union address on Feb. 4.

“On something as important as impeachment, the McConnell resolution is nothing short of a national disgrace,” Schumer said. “This will go down, this resolution, as one of the darker moments in the Senate history. Perhaps even one of the darkest.”

McConnell ignored the comments and kept his focus on his own caucus, where he was trying to maintain GOP unity. In fact, his resolution was changing so fast it left some senators’ heads spinning: As he headed to a party lunch Tuesday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said he hadn’t even been able to review McConnell’s initial version, let alone the revised one.

Ultimately, GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Rob Portman (Ohio), among others, said they couldn’t support the timeline that McConnell was trying to set for the trial. They wanted three calendar days for both sides to present their cases, rather than two. The party debated the matter at the lunch, and only when McConnell’s resolution was read on the Senate floor was it clear that he had backtracked.

Because the objections were from Republicans — and McConnell was relying only on GOP votes to pass the resolution — he had to agree to the change, which could add two days to the proceedings.

The modest retreat also raises questions about whether McConnell will be able to keep all his rank-and-file members in line for the crucial vote on witnesses next week. So far, three Republican senators have expressed openness to hearing from witnesses, but Democrats need one more. And crossing the president and the powerful majority leader would be a tough decision for any GOP senator.

McConnell’s deputies scoffed at the notion that he’d done anything more than give some ground on the cosmetics of the trial.

“The majority leader was correct that nowhere near that amount of time will be taken. But I think as a visual it just seems fairer to spread the 24 hours over [three] days,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who serves on the GOP leadership team.

“I think it probably took some people probably by surprise in squeezing the time constraints,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) before the resolution was altered. “I think he’s got a difficult task in front of him, there’s just no question about it. He’s done an excellent job of listening to us, and I’m sure he’s going to continue do that.”

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