Mar-a-Limbo: With Senate trial on hold, Trump faces uncertainty during Florida vacation

Despite likely acquittal, presidential scholars see an executive office likely changed forever

President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House before speaking to members of the media in Washington on Oct. 10. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House before speaking to members of the media in Washington on Oct. 10. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 23, 2019 at 9:00am

Mar-a-Lago? For President Donald Trump this holiday season, his South Florida resort likely will feel more like Mar-a-Limbo.

As Trump mulls becoming only the third sitting president to be impeached during rounds of golf in the sun and dinners chatting with members at his swanky West Palm Beach digs, his next moves remain unclear. That’s because they will be dictated by who blinks first in a game of high-stakes impeachment chicken: Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But as Trump waits, some who closely study the presidency suggest the office under his watch is undergoing fundamental changes — especially with regard to the executive branch cooperating with Congress.

“Certainly, if Trump wins reelection, I think we can say that the changes he’s made in the presidency will persist,” said Bruce Schulman, a Boston University history professor. “If he were to lose in a huge landslide and be rejected by voters, and the next president then signs new laws that restrict the powers of the presidency that would be a different story. But that, to me, seems highly unlikely.”

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The president, senior White House aides and outside surrogates for weeks have been gearing up for a Senate trial after concluding House Democrats would, as they did Wednesday night, impeach him on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Those plans, at least for now and likely until sometime in the new year, are on hold after California Democrat Pelosi said she will hold onto the impeachment articles until Kentucky Republican McConnell describes what she deems a “fair” Senate trial on removing Trump.

[Essay: For White House press pool on Trump’s impeachment day, the silence was deafening]

White House aides do not dispute that Pelosi finds new ways to get under the president’s skin; he has remarked in the past she is more than a worthy foe. That means the commander in chief’s Twitter account almost inevitably will be very active as Washington breaks for the yuletide and New Year, eager to catch what’s left of its collective breath after the third drama-filled year of Trump’s presidency.

“So after the Democrats gave me no Due Process in the House, no lawyers, no witnesses, no nothing, they now want to tell the Senate how to run their trial,” Trump tweeted on Thursday evening.

“Actually, they have zero proof of anything, they will never even show up,” a ranting president added. “They want out. I want an immediate trial!”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a Trump-critic-turned-ally, confirmed the presidential mood that seemed on display in the fiery tweet.

“I just met with the president and he’s demanding his day in court. Every American accused of a crime or wrongdoing gets their day in court,” the South Carolina Republican told Fox News minutes before the tweet posted. “Apparently, except Donald Trump. And if you believe that the [Bill] Clinton impeachment trial was fair, that’s exactly the same type of trial that would happen in the Senate with President Trump.”

Congress left Washington on Thursday night after what amounts to, these days, as a whirlwind of legislative dealmaking. Both chambers passed a government shutdown-averting spending package and a Pentagon policy bill Trump signed into law Friday night. The House also handed the president a win by approving his proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a sweeping trade pact that Pelosi and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer spent months adjusting to assuage a list of Democratic concerns on issues like labor provisions.

So what’s next for the president when he returns to Washington early next year?

Beyond a Senate trial, and despite a tough election campaign ahead, Trump and White House aides plan to lay out a 2020 legislative agenda, the official said, noting most details are on ice until the State of the Union speech, which Pelosi extended him an invitation to give Feb. 4. But some clues came in a September interview Eric Ueland, director of the White House’s Office of Legislative Affairs, did with CQ Roll Call.

Left unfinished from the fall and pre-holidays agenda Ueland described are the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact that the Senate will take up following any trial and a bill aimed at lowering prescription drug prices. White House aides are eager for a bipartisan Senate drug measure Trump has endorsed to gain traction; it would have to be reconciled with a House-passed version — if it can even get a Senate vote.

‘Pressure will mount’

But first things first.

“Obviously, we have to get past a Senate trial — if Pelosi ever allows us to have one,” a White House official said Friday. “I think the pressure will mount and that will happen next month.”

[Officially impeached, Trump must learn to live with ‘black mark’ on his presidency]

Trump said Thursday that once it does, he will leave it up to McConnell, Graham and other top Republicans to shape the framework of the trial. “I’m going to let them decide what to do,” he said alongside New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who used an Oval Office visit to formally announce his switch from Democrat to Republican after opposing the impeachment articles.

“I am somewhat confident, however, that it will proceed,” former Senate leadership aide G. William Hoagland said Friday of a Senate trial. “I believe that McConnell may come under pressure from Collins, Gardner, Murkowski, and Alexander to at least vote on whether the Senate should call witnesses,” he said.

The Bipartisan Policy Center senior vice president was referring to GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado, both up for reelection next year; moderate GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; and retiring Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander.

“McConnell will be under real pressure to get the trial started the week of Jan. 6, hoping to finish in two weeks before the president gives his State of the Union address,” Hoagland added.

About that typically late-January ritual, the White House official said Friday “the date is really up to the speaker.”

A Trump-Pelosi fracas over the annual presidential address has happened before. A sequel could be ahead.

“Can you envision the president giving the State of the Union address to the Democratic-controlled House members who had just voted to impeach him with no resolution in the Senate? Wow,” Hoagland said. “My guess is the White House would need to decide if he should actually even appear, if this were the case.”

Is Trump considering asking for a delay? The White House official said with a shake of the head, “He’s not there yet.”