WASHINGTON - Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Republican senators Wednesday to be ready for an impeachment trial of President Donald Trump as soon as Thanksgiving, as the Senate began to brace for a political maelstrom that would engulf the nation.
An air of inevitability has taken hold in Congress, with the expectation that Trump will become the third president in history to be impeached - and that Republicans need to prepare to defend the president. While McConnell briefed senators on what would happen during a Senate trial, House GOP leaders convened what they expect will be regular impeachment strategy sessions.
In their closed-door weekly luncheon, McConnell gave a presentation about the impeachment process and fielded questions alongside his staff and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was a manager for the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Impeachment is the first step to remove a president, with the House voting on formal charges and the Senate holding a trial in which it either convicts or acquits him.
McConnell said the Senate would likely meet six days a week during the trial, lawmakers said.
"There's sort of a planned expectation that it would be sometime around Thanksgiving, so you'd have basically Thanksgiving to Christmas - which would be wonderful because there's no deadline in the world like the next break to motivate senators," Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said.
During the meeting, Graham lobbied his colleagues to consider a public declaration in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., which would describe Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seeking an investigation into a domestic political rival as "unimpeachable." Some senators, however, pushed back against that idea, arguing that Trump would assume that those who did not sign the document would be persuadable on a vote to oust him.
Meanwhile, Trump has continued to lash out at Democrats over their impeachment inquiry. During a Wednesday afternoon White House meeting on Syria and the Turkish attacks on the Kurds, Trump called Pelosi a "third-rate politician," according to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Pelosi later clarified that Trump actually called her a "third-grade politician."
It was the two party leaders' first face-to-face meeting since Pelosi launched the impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24, arguing that Trump betrayed his oath of office by pressuring Zelensky to dig up dirt on former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
"He couldn't handle it," Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol, speculating that an overwhelming bipartisan House vote earlier Wednesday condemning Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria had set him off. "He just couldn't handle it. . . . So, he just kind of engaged in a meltdown."
The GOP's internal reality check on Trump's impeachment comes as House Democrats have had success securing damaging testimony from current and former State Department and National Security Council officials, many of whom are voicing long-held concerns about Trump's actions on Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Michael McKinley, the former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, testified that he resigned from his post of more than 25 years last week because State Department officials were being mistreated - and because he disapproved of using foreign policy to advance political prospects.
"I was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents," he told lawmakers in an opening statement. "I was convinced that this would also have a serious impact on Foreign Service morale and the integrity of our work overseas."
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union - who is described in testimony as one of the "three amigos" designated to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Bidens - is scheduled to testify Thursday.
Republicans have been trying to coalesce around an impeachment strategy for weeks, lawmakers and aides say. In the House, they have decried the process as unfair and secretive - even as GOP members of the investigative committees have fully participated in deposing the witnesses.
On Wednesday, Trump allies showed up to McKinley's deposition and tried to enter the private meeting room. They were denied entry, as they are not members of the House panels - and then they raced to the TV cameras to accuse Democrats of hiding investigative work from the public.
"If this case was so strong, why aren't we doing it in front of the American people instead of behind closed doors?" asked Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who took part in the proceedings.
The House GOP criticism has unnerved some moderate Democrats, who began asking leaders about whether Republicans were being treated unfairly. In a letter to colleagues Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., sought to dispel those notions, pointing out that Republicans on the relevant committees have been included in the probe and questioned witnesses.
"The special counsels in the Nixon and Clinton impeachments conducted their investigations in private and we must initially do the same," Schiff wrote. "It is of paramount importance to ensure that witnesses cannot coordinate their testimony with one another to match their description of events, or potentially conceal the truth."
In the Senate, Republicans have been more blunt about their concerns over the impeachment process. During the Senate GOP lunch, for example, one lawmaker questioned how the party was going to stay on the same page throughout the process, according to people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe the session.
Trump's top allies moved to punish those who have questioned the president's actions. On Wednesday, the conservative Club for Growth announced plans for a 30-second ad targeting Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has called Trump's actions "wrong and appalling."
The ad accuses the 2012 Republican presidential nominee of "plotting to take down President Trump with impeachment" and being a "Democrat secret asset."
Timing was a looming question in the Senate GOP meeting. McConnell said that he expected Pelosi to hold an impeachment vote by Thanksgiving and that the Senate should try to dispose of the issue by Christmas. But he also noted that motions of dismissal of the charges in an impeachment trial are handled at the discretion of the chief justice, who presides over the trial.
In this case, John Roberts would have the final word on how quickly the Senate could move, potentially complicating the GOP's effort to short-circuit what could become a lengthy trial.
Republicans also expressed concern about an even more partisan Washington during a trial. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., remarked that impeachment could be "nastier than Kavanaugh," referring to the divisive confirmation fight last year over Justice Brett Kavanaugh, according to two Republicans who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.
"There was probably as much talk as anything about what will our lives be like through that trial," Cramer said.
One issue that came up, Cramer noted, was the fine line Republican senators walk between criticizing the House-led impeachment inquiry and maintaining neutrality ahead of the likely Senate trial. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was in office for Clinton's impeachment, said members should not weigh in at all since they will be jurors in the process.
"The question becomes: How do we as a conference remain strongly united and open-minded should it come to trial, while at the same time, in the meantime, standing up for obvious injustices between now and then?" Cramer said.
Graham later crossed the Capitol to brief members of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise's, R-La., team and deliver a simple message: "Stick to your guns, and insist on a fair process," he said.
Graham said the Senate, following the expected release of an inspector general report on the origins of the FBI's Russia investigation, would pick up where House Republicans left off in probing alleged bias at the agency that took place in the 2016 election. Republicans have argued that the Trump campaign was a target.
Graham has also promised to invite Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to testify about allegations against the Bidens in Ukraine, which have not been substantiated.
- - -
The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.