McConnell opposes impeachment witnesses but supported them in 1999

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is arguing against witnesses giving testimony in the expected impeachment trial of President Donald Trump — but he had a different view in 1999 when he advocated for a request by Republican House impeachment managers to have witnesses testify in the case against then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

“There have been 15 impeachments in the history of the country. Two of them were cut short by resignations. In the other 13 impeachments there were witnesses,” he told CNN’s Larry King Live on January 28, 1999, as the Clinton trial played out in the Senate. The number included judges who were charged with impeachment.

“It’s not unusual to have a witness in a trial. It’s certainly not unusual to have witness in an impeachment trial,” McConnell said at the time.

He added: “The House managers have only asked for three witnesses. I think that’s pretty modest.”

But McConnell opposes witnesses now that Trump is up for impeachment. The Senate majority leader is pressing for a short trial and a vote on the articles of impeachment sometime soon after the trial gets underway.

Speaking to Fox’s Sean Hannity last week, McConnell explained why he opposes extending a trial by having witnesses even as he indicated no final decisions have been made and he would “take my cues” from Trump’s lawyers on the issue.

“If you know you have the votes, you’ve listened to the arguments on both sides and believe the case is so slim, so weak that you have the votes to end it, that might be what the President’s lawyers would prefer. And you can certainly make the case for making it shorter rather than longer since it’s such a weak case,” McConnell said.

A Republican aide said the circumstances were different in the Clinton matter because the House managers wanted to play videotaped depositions, not live witnesses as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded in a letter sent to McConnell Sunday. The aide also said McConnell would have been open to Clinton presenting witness testimony, too.

Several Republican senators have warned that live witnesses could lead to a circus atmosphere in the Senate. And they argue that Trump is on track to be acquitted in the Senate so there is no reason to risk having witnesses that could disrupt that expected path. Ultimately, the decision on witnesses will fall to a majority of senators who can decide the issue on 51 votes, regardless of what McConnell or the White House want.

Republican aides on the Capitol Hill Monday were focused on a different quote from 1999, this one uttered by Schumer who told CBS he was against witnesses during the Clinton trial, a contrast to his current push for witnesses in the Trump case.

“I wonder if the House managers aren’t a little more interest in political theatre that in actually getting to the bottom of the facts,” Schumer had said. “My view is we have heard from most of these witnesses over and over again. We’ve heard the same story.”

Schumer was asked about his 1999 comments at a news conference on Capitol Hill.

“The witnesses in ’99 had already given grand jury testimony. We knew what they were to say. The four witnesses we’ve called have not been heard from. That is the difference and the difference is totally overwhelming,” he said.