Mitch McConnell seeks to push Trump's impeachment trial to February

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is proposing to push back the start of Donald Trump's impeachment trial by a week or more to give the former president time to review the case.

House Democrats who voted to impeach Trump last week for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riots have signaled they want a quick trial as President Joe Biden begins his term, saying a full reckoning is necessary before the country — and the Congress — can move on.

But McConnell told his fellow GOP senators on a call Thursday that a short delay would give Trump time to prepare and stand up his legal team, ensuring due process.

Indiana Sen. Mike Braun said after the call that the trial might not begin "until sometime mid February." He said that was "due to the fact that the process as it occurred in the House evolved so quickly, and that it is not in line with the time you need to prepare for a defense in a Senate trial."

FILE - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leaves the Senate chamber on Jan. 19, 2021 in Washington, DC.

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The timing will be set by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who can trigger the start of the trial when she sends the House charges for "incitement of insurrection" to the Senate, and also by McConnell and new Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who are in negotiations over how to set up a 50-50 partisan divide in the Senate and the short-term agenda.

Schumer is in charge of the Senate, assuming the majority leader post after Democrats won two new Senate seats in Georgia and Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in Wednesday. But with such a narrow divide, Republicans will have some say over the trial's procedure.

Democrats are hoping to conduct the proceedings while also passing legislation that is a priority for Biden, including coronavirus relief, but they would need some cooperation from Senate Republicans to do that, as well.

Schumer told reporters Thursday that he was still negotiating with McConnell on how to conduct the trial, "but make no mistake about it. There will be a trial, there will be a vote, up or down or whether to convict the president."

Pelosi could send the article to the Senate as soon as Friday. Democrats say the proceedings should move quickly because they were all witnesses to the siege, many of them fleeing for safety as the rioters descended on the Capitol.

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"It will be soon, I don’t think it will be long, but we must do it," Pelosi said Thursday. She said Trump doesn’t deserve a "get out of jail card" in his historic second impeachment just because he has left office and Biden and others are calling for national unity.

Without the White House counsel’s office to defend him — as it did in his first trial last year — Trump’s allies have been searching for lawyers to argue the now-former president’s case. Members of his past legal teams have indicated they do not plan to join the effort, but South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told GOP colleagues on Thursday that Trump was hiring South Carolina attorney Butch Bowers, according to a person familiar with the call who was granted anonymity to discuss it. Bowers didn’t immediately respond to a message Thursday.

Prosecuting the House case will be Pelosi's nine impeachment managers, who have been regularly meeting to discuss strategy. Pelosi said she would talk to them "in the next few days" about when the Senate might be ready for a trial, indicating the decision could stretch into next week.

Trump told thousands of supporters to "fight like hell" against the election results that Congress was certifying on Jan. 6 just before an angry mob invaded the Capitol and interrupted the count. Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died in the mayhem, and the House impeached the outgoing president a week later with 10 Republicans joining all Democrats in support.

Pelosi said it would be "harmful to unity" to forget that "people died here on Jan. 6th, the attempt to undermine our election, to undermine our democracy, to dishonor our Constitution."

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Bowers has represented elected officials and political candidates in South Carolina on governmental and election law matters. He served as a special counsel on voting matters at the U.S. Department of Justice under President George W. Bush and has served as counsel to former Govs. Nikki Haley and Mark Sanford.

He guided Haley, Trump's former United Nations ambassador, through an ethics case and worked for Sanford when state lawmakers mulled impeaching him after revelations Sanford had left the state to see a mistress in Argentina in 2009.

Members of Trump's defense team are expected to be announced soon, the person familiar with Graham's comments said.

Graham would not answer questions about Trump's representation on Capitol Hill on Thursday. But he told reporters that "I think he’s going to get a legal team here pretty soon."

Trump was acquitted by the Senate in February after his White House legal team, aided by his personal lawyers, aggressively fought the House charges that he had encouraged the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden in exchange for military aid. This time around, Pelosi noted, the House is not seeking to convict the president over private conversations but for a very public insurrection that they experienced themselves and that played out on live television.

"This year the whole world bore witness to the president’s incitement," Pelosi said.

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Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said it was still too early to know how long a trial would take, or if Democrats would want to call witnesses. But he said "you don’t need to tell us what was going on with the mob scene, we were rushing down the staircase to escape."

McConnell, who said this week that Trump "provoked" his supporters before the riot, has not said how he will vote. He told his GOP colleagues that it will be a vote of conscience.

Democrats would need the support of at least 17 Republicans to convict Trump, a high bar. While a handful of Senate Republicans have indicated they are open to conviction, most have said they believe a trial will be divisive and questioned the legality of trying a president after he has left office.

Graham said that if he were Trump’s lawyer, he would focus on that argument and also the merits of the case, whether it was "incitement" under the law. He agreed with Pelosi that a trial should be quick.

"I guess the public record is your television screen," Graham said. "So, I don’t see why this would take a long time."

Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Jill Colvin in West Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.