McConnell proposes delaying impeachment trial until February so Trump team can prepare

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi puts down the gravel as she presides the US House of Representatives vote on the impeachment of US President Donald Trump at the US Capitol, January 13, in Washington, DC. By Manu Raju, Lauren Fox and Jeremy Herb, CNN

(CNN) -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is proposing that the Senate give former President Donald Trump's legal team two weeks to prepare for the upcoming impeachment trial once the Senate receives the article and delay its start until mid-February.

McConnell's proposal to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer throws the timing of the trial further into doubt, though it remains to be seen if Democrats would go along with the plan. House Democrats could still send the impeachment article over to the Senate and start the trial the next day.

Asked if he had heard a response from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, McConnell told CNN Wednesday, "Not yet but we continue to talk about it."

Negotiations between Schumer and McConnell over the impeachment trial are directly tied to the efforts to get President Joe Biden's nominees confirmed and the Senate's power-sharing agreement finalized, per sources with knowledge of the matter.

Schumer and Democrats haven't ruled out the idea of delaying the trial as long as they try to get a deal to lock in votes on Cabinet nominees and finalize a deal on the power-sharing agreement that would allow Senate committees to organize.

Without a deal on the power-sharing resolution, the GOP will still control the committees under the rules of the last Congress, when the GOP maintained a majority in the chamber -- something that gives McConnell leverage in the talks.

In a statement, McConnell said he wants to structure the trial so that the ceremonial functions, like the formal reading of the impeachment article, would occur next week on Thursday, January 28. Trump would have another week under McConnell's plan to answer the article by February 4, and the following week Trump's team would submit a pre-trial brief, before the trial would begin. The House would also submit briefs over those two weeks before the trial gets underway in mid-February.

McConnell told Republicans on a conference call Thursday he's in no rush to begin the trial. The Republican leader's point was the House moved quickly on impeachment but the Senate needs time to prepare for a full trial, according to sources on the call.

"At this time of strong political passions, Senate Republicans believe it is absolutely imperative that we do not allow a half-baked process to short-circuit the due process that former President Trump deserves or damage the Senate or the presidency," McConnell said in a statement.

While the decision on when to start the trial is up to Democrats, there are reasons congressional Democrats -- and the Biden White House -- may be amenable to a delay in the trial, as it would give the Senate a chance to confirm more of Biden's Cabinet nominees.

"I think Democrats will be open to considering a delay that allows former President Trump time to assemble his legal team and his defense for the impeachment trial, if we are making progress on confirming" Biden's nominees, Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room."

Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said Thursday, "We received Leader McConnell's proposal that only deals with pre-trial motions late this afternoon. We will review it and discuss it with him."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at a news conference Thursday that the House was "ready" to begin the trial but would wait until the Senate was prepared before formally transmitting the impeachment article, the step that would trigger the start of the trial the following day.

"They have now informed us they are ready to receive, the question is other questions about how a trial will proceed, but we are ready," Pelosi said of the Senate.

Asked about a delay to the trial, White House communications director Kate Bedingfield reiterated that the White House will "leave timing mechanics to Senate leadership."

She noted that Biden has spoken previously with both Schumer and McConnell, and it is his hope that Congress can "focus on a Covid package simultaneously."

"The articles could be walked over Friday," one source told CNN.

House Democrats were in discussions to send over the article of impeachment to the Senate as early as Friday, two sources say, though one complicating factor was that Trump's legal team remained a question mark on Thursday morning.

But it appears Trump now has at least one lawyer for the trial. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and ally of the former President, said in a conference call with Senate Republicans Thursday that South Carolina lawyer Butch Bowers will represent Trump at his impeachment trial, according to a person on the call.

Trump's campaign spokesman, Jason Miller, confirmed on Twitter that Bowers would represent Trump for the trial. CNN has reached out to Bowers for comment.

Graham told reporters that he would urge Trump's legal team to "focus on the unconstitutional argument" that a former president cannot be convicted by the Senate.

"They didn't present any evidence in the House, so I don't know if you can present evidence in the Senate that you didn't present -- I guess you could -- but we'll make our own decisions about did the President go too far, was this incitement under the law, what's the right outcome there? So it should be a quick trial really, quite frankly," Graham said.

Republicans have urged Democrats to abandon the Senate impeachment trial of Trump, arguing both that it's unconstitutional and that it directly undercuts Biden's inauguration message of unity in the first days of his presidency.

Pelosi rejected those calls on Thursday.

"No, I'm not worried about that," she said. "The fact is, the President of the United States committed an act of incitement of insurrection. I don't think it's very unifying to say, oh, let's just forget it and move on. That's not how you unify. ... You don't say to a president 'Do whatever you want in the last months of your administration, you're going to get a get-out-of-jail card free.'"

Senate Democratic leaders say they don't know when the trial will begin, though Schumer pledged there would be a vote on whether to convict Trump on the House's charge of "incitement of insurrection."

"Leader McConnell and I are trying to come up with a bipartisan agreement on how to conduct the trial," Schumer said Thursday. "But make no mistake about it. There will be a trial, there will be a vote up or down on whether to convict the president. I believe he should be convicted. And we'll have to wait to see when she sends the articles over to figure out how to do all that."

Asked when the articles might be sent, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said it was still unresolved.

"Whether or not it's going to be a full blown trial with evidence and witnesses, or 'expedited' -- whatever that means -- that final decision isn't even close," Durbin added.

During Trump's 2020 impeachment trial, House impeachment managers focused much of their case on the need to have witnesses in the trial to corroborate their charges that Trump sought Ukraine's help to undermine Biden ahead of the 2020 campaign. That push ultimately failed, as Republicans voted against hearing witnesses before Trump was acquitted.

This time around, Democrats are eyeing a quick trial, given the fact that the Senate is likely to be stalled while the trial is ongoing -- meaning Biden's Cabinet nominees would be delayed in getting confirmed.

Democrats have yet to say whether they will seek witnesses for this trial, but Pelosi hinted Thursday they might not need to do so, saying the decision would be up to the managers.

"I do see a big difference between something we all witnessed versus information you might need to substantiate an article of impeachment based in large part on a call the President made and described as perfect," Pelosi said. "This year, the whole world bore witness to the President's incitement, to the execution of his call to action and the violence that was used."

House impeachment managers are meeting and preparing to make their case to the Senate, and Democrats remain hopeful they can convince 17 Republican to convict Trump, especially given the fact that McConnell has indicated he is keeping an open mind and will listen to the argument.

A faction of Senate Republicans, however, are warning McConnell that his backing will quickly wane in the Senate GOP conference if he votes to convict Trump.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments Thursday.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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