White House appears to abandon calls for a full impeachment trial

Seven weeks ago, Team Trump wanted "a full trial," of "some length," featuring a "factual affirmative defense on the merits." Now, it wants the opposite.
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The White HouseANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP/Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

The week before Thanksgiving, Senate Republicans huddled with a group of leading White House officials -- a contingent that included acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner -- to discuss impeachment strategy. There was no real ambiguity about what Team Trump wanted.

Politico reported soon after, "White House officials and Republican senators agreed the Senate should not immediately dismiss any articles of impeachment against the president." Participants in the meeting, held a few weeks before the formal floor votes in the House, reportedly agreed that it'd be in the president's interest to have "a full trial," of "some length," featuring a "factual affirmative defense on the merits."

Politico's report added that while some congressional Republicans had called on the Senate to "immediately dismiss" any articles of impeachment, the White House saw that as a mistake.

And at a certain level, that position made sense. In a Republican-led Senate, it stood to reason that Donald Trump had no reason to fear a conviction that would bring his presidency to a premature end. A full trial would offer an opportunity for Trump's allies to present their side of the story on the Ukraine scandal, and make the case for his innocence.

Seven weeks later, however, that confidence has been replaced with anxiety, and the White House's desire for a trial has been replaced with a president who's frantically called for the opposite. The New York Times reported:

President Trump on Sunday injected fresh instability into final preparations for the Senate's impeachment trial, suggesting that senators should dismiss the House's charges of high crimes and misdemeanors against him outright rather than dignifying them with a full tribunal.

That unexpected statement, arriving amid a flurry of tweets, not only appeared to put the president at odds with Republican Senate leaders moving toward a full trial but also contradicted Mr. Trump's own words from just hours earlier, when he argued for a trial that would include as witnesses Democratic House leaders who are prosecuting him.

As is always the case, I'd caution against assuming that Trump's tweet represents the White House's, or even his own, new position. He's likely to say or tweet the opposite at any moment, and it's possible the presidential missive was part of a fleeting thought, triggered by something random the Republican saw on television.

But the underlying point is that Trump's confidence and self-assuredness about the impeachment proceedings appear to be gone. Certainty that a trial would be good for the president has given way to uncertainty about how much worse the scandal may get.

Those concerns are rooted in fact. Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote an op-ed for USA Today last week, arguing that the case against Trump was solid when the House voted to impeach the president, but it's actually stronger now.

The senator's point was more than fair: new revelations have emerged in the wake of the House vote, and each of them have been damaging to the White House.

Is it any wonder that Trump appears to be second-guessing his support for a full, lengthy Senate trial? Can anyone even imagine what a "factual affirmative defense on the merits" might look like?

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