WASHINGTON – Congress was paralyzed Thursday over President Donald Trump’s impeachment as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delayed acting to initiate the Senate trial that will determine whether Trump remains in office – a dramatic procedural move that places the two chambers at a bitter standoff.
One day after the House voted to impeach Trump, Pelosi, D-Calif., announced she would refrain from transmitting the articles of impeachment to the Senate until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sets rules for the trial that are accepted by Senate Democrats.
The House voted Thursday to adjourn for the holidays until Jan. 7, throwing into doubt when the Senate might be able to begin its trial, potentially pushing it further into an election year and threatening to deny Trump the satisfaction of a swift acquittal.
Pelosi’s maneuver underscored her eagerness to maintain control over the process rather than turning over the reins to McConnell. It was also part of a Democratic effort to pressure Senate Republicans to allow testimony from key Trump administration officials who had defied subpoenas during the House’s inquiry.
“We ask, is the president’s case so weak that none of the president’s men can defend him under oath?” Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said.
Trump, McConnell and other Republicans cried foul, accusing Pelosi and the Democrats of having a weak case against the president for abuse of office and obstruction of Congress and effectively withholding those charges from Senate scrutiny.
“A political faction in the House of Representatives has succumbed to a partisan rage,” McConnell said. He argued that Pelosi has produced “the most rushed, least thorough and most unfair impeachment inquiry in modern history.”
It’s still possible the Senate trial could move ahead relatively quickly if the two sides resolve their disputes in coming weeks. At the White House on Thursday, Trump was unbowed and predicted that he eventually would be acquitted.
“It doesn’t feel like impeachment,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “And you know what? It’s a phony deal. And they cheapen the word’impeachment.’ It’s an ugly word, but they cheapen the word ‘impeachment.’ That should never happen to another president.”
Asked about his strategy for the Senate trial, Trump emphasized his partisan advantage in that chamber: “We think that what [House Democrats] did is unconstitutional and the Senate is very, very capable.”
Sixty-seven senators out of 100 would have to vote against Trump for him to face removal, and the Democrats and their allies have just 47 seats in the chamber.
The skirmishes over procedure were just one front in the political war that erupted with Wednesday’s impeachment vote.
Trump taunted Democrats by showcasing the party switch of Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, who opposed Trump’s impeachment as a Democrat and officially joined the GOP on Thursday. As he and Van Drew sat in yellow armchairs in the Oval Office, Trump cast the Democratic Party as inhospitable to moderates, while Van Drew pledged his “undying support” to Trump.
The president also ignored calls to apologize for attacking Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and her late husband, John, a World War II veteran and the longest-serving congressman in history. Onstage at a rally Wednesday in Michigan, Trump suggested John Dingell was “looking up” from hell.
Most Republicans in Congress stopped short of condemning Trump for the remark, and White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham defended her boss.
“As we all know, the president is a counterpuncher,” Grisham said on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” although Dingell died 10 months ago.
Democrats did not hold back from assailing Trump’s character over the remark. Rep. Daniel Kildee, D-Mich., called it “the definition of evil,” and Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, added, “He’s mentally ill.”
“What the president misunderstands is that cruelty is not wit,” Pelosi said. “Just because he gets a laugh for saying the cruel things that he says doesn’t mean he’s funny. It’s not funny at all. It’s very sad.”
The impeachment deliberations remained fluid – riven by acrimony, partisanship and debates over constitutional norms. There is no precedent for leaders to follow. Trump is the third U.S. president to face trial, but in the previous cases – including that of Richard M. Nixon, who resigned before he could be impeached – the House and Senate were controlled by the same party, making for more unified proceedings.
During President Bill Clinton’s impeachment two decades ago, Senate leaders Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) designed Clinton’s trial on a bipartisan basis so that the parameters would pass with unanimous support from all senators.
On Thursday afternoon, McConnell and Schumer spoke privately but failed to reach any agreement on the procedures for a Senate trial. McConnell later described the discussion as “cordial” but said the two sides “remain at an impasse.”
He suggested House leaders were reluctant to present their case in the Senate because it was so weak, saying, “We’ll see whether House Democrats want to ever work up the courage to actually take their accusation to trial.”
Democrats noted that McConnell said this week he does not intend to be “impartial . . . at all,” saying that raises questions about the likely fairness of the proceeding.
The House recessed for the holidays Thursday without voting on a resolution appointing impeachment “managers,” the House members who will act as prosecutors, an action that all but assured that articles of impeachment would not be delivered to the Senate until January.
Pelosi sought to tamp down suggestions that she intends to hold onto impeachment articles indefinitely to keep Trump from being acquitted, an idea that circulated among liberal lawmakers all week. The speaker said she was simply taking time to be deliberate about the next steps, including deciding whom to appoint as managers.
“We don’t know the arena that we are in,” Pelosi said at a news conference, referring to the current lack of a plan by the Senate. She added, “We’d like to see a fair process. But we’ll see what they have, and we’ll be ready for whatever it is.”
Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) summed up the strategy by likening Pelosi to a basketball coach picking which players to put on the court.
“It’s like a sports team,” Heck said. “The people that you have on the court or on the field depend on the circumstance, right? Who is the opposition? If you’re in basketball, are you playing a tall lineup or a short, fast lineup? We don’t know what the ground rules are yet, so how can we select our personnel?”
Senate Republicans, however, were contemptuous of the delay. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Pelosi’s move “shows what a farce the entire impeachment process has been,” and he argued that Democrats “failed to make the case” and are looking for a way out.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said, “To put it politely, it’s not her job, according to the Constitution, to tell the Senate how to try an impeachment. The Constitution says that the House has the sole power of impeachment. We respect that. And the Constitution also says the Senate has the sole power of how to try an impeachment.”
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, argued that the uncertainty over timing could cause scheduling conflicts for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., who is expected to preside over the trial while juggling arguments before the high court.
Even some House Democrats voiced discomfort with the delay.
“I think it’d be better if we just move things along a little bit,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., a centrist from a competitive district. “There’s been all this speculation about trying to leverage some opportunities over there. I don’t see that being likely with Mitch McConnell.”
But Republicans have their own disagreements about the contours of a trial. Trump is continuing to push his Senate allies to call a range of Republican-approved witnesses because he believes their testimonies could damage the Democrats’ case, according to White House officials and informal presidential advisers.
Trump has long been eager for Senate Republicans to mount a full and vigorous defense of his conduct, even if the trial takes on a circus-like atmosphere.
But McConnell has reminded the president and his team that every witness request would need to be approved by a majority vote, saying that could put some Senate Republicans in a difficult political spot and that Democrats could also unearth embarrassing information with their questioning, according to several people familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, have seized on McConnell’s recent comments that he is closely coordinating with the White House to argue that Republicans do not plan to conduct a fair proceeding.
“I don’t know how you have a trial without witnesses,” Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., said. “You have to look at evidence. You’ve got to have witnesses. I can’t just have hearsay.” He added, “I want to make an intelligent decision. I want to be able to look people in the eye.”
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The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Mike DeBonis, Seung Min Kim, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner contributed to this report.