Millions watching on television, 100 senators seated silently in the Capitol, one man in the Oval Office with a twitchy Twitter finger. President Donald Trump’s impeachment team will be trying to appeal to multiple audiences when it mounts a defense of the president in his Senate trial.
Proceedings in the staid Senate are expected to run cooler than the fiery partisanship that was on display in the House, which voted to impeach Trump in December.
People familiar with the White House legal strategy acknowledged that the tone of those making Trump's case in the Senate trial presided over by Chief Justice John Roberts would be more subdued than a typical Trump supporter's appearance on Fox News or written broadsides leveled against Democrats. But finding the right approach will be a moving target.
Different constituencies have diverging aims:
—The White House hopes to move past the months-long impeachment saga with a swift acquittal in the Senate.
—Trump personally is seeking vindication in the public eye and wants a spectacle around which to rally his base of supporters.
—And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants as little drama as possible, keen on protecting vulnerable incumbents facing reelection this fall.
The tensions of the competing priorities have already proved difficult to manage, particularly on the question of whether the trial should feature witnesses.
Trump has publicly called for the politically explosive testimony of the anonymous intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment probe and top Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman and lead impeachment manager who has emerged as Trump's chief antagonist.
But McConnell has declared witnesses unnecessary and has pushed off the matter until after the presentation of evidence in the trial. He is hoping to head off Democrats seeking potentially damaging testimony from the likes of former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, while also preventing a drawn-out trial from turning into a spectacle.
Senior administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the legal team’s thinking, on Wednesday reiterated their confidence in securing a swift trial without witnesses, looking to wrap it up before the State of the Union address scheduled for Feb 4.
But many on Capitol Hill dismiss that timeline as overly ambitious. Prospects are rising that Democrats will find enough Republican votes to eventually call witnesses, which would extend the length of the trial.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is expected to lead Trump’s defense team, has been no stranger to the deployment of blistering language against Trump’s political rivals. He wrote a December letter to Pelosi claiming she and her Democratic colleagues were “declaring open war on American democracy” by pursuing impeachment.
But Cipollone and Trump personal lawyer Jay Sekulow, a frequent Fox News guest and critic of Democrats on his own radio show, are expected to tone things down in the Senate, where they are likely to deliver most, if not all, of the president’s defense.
Two people familiar with the impeachment team's plans also said discussions about adding firebrand Republican House members like Jim Jordan and John Ratcliffe to the team have stalled in part over concerns about how senators would receive their rhetoric. Instead, Trump allies expect them to be vocal surrogates in amplifying the White House’s arguments on cable news. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations, and warned that Trump had yet to make a final decision on his defense team.
In their conversations over the last several months, McConnell and Cippollone counseled Trump to let the impeachment process play out in two phases. First, an all-out partisan brawl in the House, with an aim toward exacting political pain on the Democrats pursuing the inquiry and culminating in party-line votes on the articles of impeachment.
The Senate, they argued, requires a cooler approach, and allies have advised the president to leave some of his more abrasive tweets in the drafts folder once the Senate trial gets underway. Trump, the people familiar with his defense said, has thus far bought in.
The first formal salvo of the Trump response — an early indication of how the approach in the Senate will differ from that in the House — is expected to come in a formal brief submitted by the president's lawyers in response to the impeachment summons, said the two people. The Trump administration repeatedly refused to cooperate with the House impeachment probe, with Cippolone claiming at the time that "more due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials."
In preparation for the Senate phase, Trump and McConnell have personally kept in close contact, according to a person familiar with the situation but unauthorized to discuss it, and have tried to forge a multi-pronged strategy playing to each of their strong suits. That means allowing the Senate leader to structure the complex floor proceedings and navigate the personal dynamics of the chamber while the president sounds off through his tweets and rallies.
The Senate leader wants to ensure the trial unfolds in a way that draws the centrist senators on both sides of the aisle, who may vote to convict or acquit and who may control whether the Senate will hear from witnesses. They are Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine and Utah's Mitt Romney and moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Alabama's Doug Jones.
Still, Trump has indicated to aides and confidants that he is very concerned about how the impeachment trial will play out on television, according to a White House official and a Republican close to the West Wing, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Trump appears somewhat conflicted: He has expressed concern that even a short trial could dominate weeks of cable news coverage. But he also has privately expressed the wish for a showy trial in which his side is well-represented, believing that calling witnesses like Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, could exonerate him in the public eye.
On Wednesday, as the House voted to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate, the president oversaw a signing ceremony for a trade deal with China at the White House and milked the moment, happy to offer counter-programming to the historic proceedings on Capitol Hill.
As for the impeachment drama, Trump tweeted a terse advance review of the Senate proceedings: “Here we go again, another Con Job by the Do Nothing Democrats. All of this work was supposed to be done by the House, not the Senate!”