By The Washington Post · Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis, Josh Dawsey
Multiple senior congressional Democratic officials predicted that the House in the coming days will transmit to the Senate a pair of charges accusing Trump of abusing his power and obstructing Congress, though Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office says no decision has been made. But some privately worry that the timing will trigger GOP accusations that they're undercutting the commander in chief during a national security crisis.
After the House impeached Trump on Dec. 18, Pelosi, D-Calif., opted to hold on to the articles of impeachment over the two-week holiday break, a move aimed at giving Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.. more leverage in negotiating with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., over witnesses in a Senate trial. However, McConnell has refused to budge - and now, the articles are likely to be carried across the Rotunda during a tense and potentially dangerous standoff in the Middle East.
Pelosi, however, has signaled that she has no intention of backing down. On Friday morning, just hours after the attack, she emailed impeachment talking points to Democrats, encouraging them to "call on McConnell to commit to a fair trial in the Senate," then later issued a statement suggesting she would transmit the articles eventually, though the exact timing is unclear.
"Every Senator now faces a choice: to be loyal to the President or the Constitution," she said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are relishing the optics. In an interview Friday, top Trump ally Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., argued that Democrats were "playing politics" with impeachment while Trump was "taking out a general who has American bloodstains on his hands." House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., agreed, declaring that Trump was focused on defending the country amid Democratic "harassment."
"Clearly for the president, he's shown that he's been able to stay focused on the main job, and that's keeping Americans safe," Scalise said. "But it seems like Pelosi is just fixed with the obsession of impeachment of the president. . . . She can't let it go."
Without consulting Congress, Trump on Thursday ordered the U.S. drone strike that killed Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a war criminal who has hunted Americans for years. The president has since declared that the move was intended to stop, not start, a war. But experts argue that the attack will almost certainly heighten tensions in the region, if not lead to additional bloodshed.
Some Democrats openly speculated Friday that Trump was trying to bolster his reelection effort, noting that presidents typically receive an approval bump in times of conflict. Years ago, Trump even suggested that then-President Barack Obama would strike Iran to do just that before his 2012 reelection, an action Obama never took.
"The Occupant was JUST impeached for abuse of power for political gain & now he is leading us to the brink of war because he believes it will help his reelection," tweeted Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. "We are sick of endless wars. Congress has the sole authority to declare war and we must deescalate. #NoWarWithIran"
The Soleimani killing comes just days before Congress is slated to return from the December congressional recess, with all eyes on the Senate as the upper chamber prepares to begin the impeachment trial. Multiple Democrats said Pelosi will send the articles of impeachment to the Senate in the near term, though Pelosi's office declined to detail her plans.
Meanwhile, McConnell and Schumer bickered on the Senate floor Friday over impeachment, signaling a continued stalemate in negotiations over the trial process. McConnell jabbed Schumer for campaigning in 1998 on a promise to acquit President Bill Clinton and blasted Pelosi for holding on to the articles of impeachment in the House.
"The same people who just spent weeks screaming that impeachment was so serious and so urgent that it couldn't wait for due process now decided it could wait indefinitely while they checked the political winds," McConnell said. "No member of this body needs condescending lectures on fairness from House Democrats, who just rushed through the most unfair impeachment in modern history, or lectures on impartiality from senators who happily prejudged the case with President [Bill] Clinton and simply changed their standards to suit the political winds."
Schumer hit back at McConnell for refusing to commit to calling key witnesses, including former national security adviser John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
"If we don't get a commitment upfront that the House managers will be able to call witnesses as part of their case, the Senate will act as little more than a nationally televised meeting of the mock trial club," Schumer said.
Leading up to the strike against the Iranian commander, Senate Republicans had convinced Trump of the merits of their impeachment strategy, getting the president to back a trial with no witnesses, according to Republican lawmakers and Trump administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
The decision was a retreat for Trump, who had initially demanded that his GOP allies use the trial to go after potential 2020 rival Joe Biden, calling witnesses to explore the former vice president's actions in Ukraine while his son Hunter Biden was on an energy board there.
Now, however, Trump has been swayed by arguments from McConnell that a short trial is acceptable, senior aides and lawmakers say - and that it would be difficult to get the votes to summon the president's preferred witnesses.
"He wants it over with. He's going to let the Senate work its will," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who golfed and dined with Trump in Florida this week. "I have no desire to go down the Joe Biden/Hunter Biden/Ukraine issue in the impeachment process."
Still, the fight over witnesses is just beginning, as Democrats pressure McConnell to call White House advisers who spoke with Trump personally about his insistence that Ukraine investigate Biden. New revelations and reports over the holiday break only bolstered that argument, with polls showing even some Republicans wanting key witnesses to appear during Trump's trial.
Graham said that Republicans, however, were not going to allow that. And in the meantime, the GOP plans to mount a public campaign against Pelosi next week, accusing the speaker of being unfair to Trump by withholding the impeachment articles, said administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In the House, some Democrats argued that the attack on the Iranian leader only helped their case for impeachment. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a leader in the House Progressive Caucus, said the strike is "going to highlight the risk that the president continues to pose to our national security and keeping the country safe and keeping Americans safe."
"I think from the perspective of those who voted for impeachment, they're going to think it's even more urgent to restrict the president and hold the president accountable," Khanna said. "Frankly, the most impeachable offense that the president probably could commit is getting us into another war without a constitutional authorization. That would be devastating for the nation."
Other Democrats weren't so sure how the Iran situation would affect impeachment, even as they agreed they had no choice but to move forward. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA analyst and Shiite militia expert who served three tours in Iraq before working at the Pentagon, said the conflict doesn't change "our constitutional obligation."
"I think for as long as we've been a country, we've had to do multiple difficult things at once," she said. "We can keep the president accountable and hold him accountable at the same time that we execute really difficult things on the foreign policy side."
Deputy Whip Rep. Daniel Kildee, D-Mich., said: "It's important for the world to see that we are a country who believes in the rule of law - and that we're going to continue the defense of the rule of law no matter what else is happening in the world."