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Trump faces fight-or-flight moment in Senate impeachment trial

Analysis: With his legacy, his re-election and his movement on the line, it would be quite a retreat for the president to sidestep a full Senate trial.
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WASHINGTON — The closer Republicans get to a Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, the more it looks like an improvised political explosive.

The White House and the Senate Republican Conference are united in their desire to dispose of it, but divided over how to do that in the way that inflicts the most damage to Democrats and the least harm to them. The choice is between a show that gives Trump the chance to turn the tables on his accusers, or a quick dismissal that amounts to an exercise in self-preservation for him and GOP senators.

In other words, it's fight-or-flight time for Trump.

With his legacy, his re-election and his movement on the line — at a time when congressional Republicans are in lockstep defense of his actions — it would be quite a silent retreat for the chest-thumping, trash-talking Trump to slip away from the chance to have a made-for-TV trial befitting his reality-era presidency.

He sounds like he doesn't want to.

"I wouldn’t mind the long process, because I’d like to see the whistleblower, who’s a fraud, having the whistleblower called to testify in the Senate trial," he said Friday, referring to the anonymous intelligence community official who first accused him of wrongdoing in a complaint filed with the intelligence community inspector general.

He also noted that he believes that the House's impeachment process — the Judiciary Committee there approved two articles against him on Friday morning and the full House is expected to approve them next week — has benefited him.

"It's a very sad thing for our country, but it seems to be very good for me politically," he told reporters.

And yet he also signaled some willingness to listen to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and some White House advisers who prefer a trial with more "no" and less show.

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"I’ll do long or short," he said.

But while McConnell has kept power in the Republican conference for more than a decade by averting risk, Trump didn't get to the Oval Office by playing it safe. His instincts likely lean toward brawling.

The hope inside the GOP right now is that if he does want to brawl, it's with Democrats, not fellow Republicans. And so they're seeking a sweet spot of consensus that suits him.

"The president should have every right to put on the defense he wants," said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who is among a group of lawmakers that resisted McConnell's initial plan for a quick trial that would preclude witnesses. "And I have every confidence that [White House Counsel] Pat Cipollone and the rest of the president's defense team will give him the best advice to make the right decision."

The calculus is complicated by a set of instincts and interests shared by the president and some of his most aggressive allies in the Senate that are broadly at odds with those of McConnell, Republican senators in tough re-election bids, and White House officials who fear that a circus-like trial could result in unnecessary pain for everyone.

Like any leader of a party caucus in Congress, McConnell will place his first loyalty with his peers and keeping them in power. But what's perceived as good for Republicans in hard re-election fights — a quick trial that puts less of a spotlight on Trump's alleged misdeeds and the senators' handling of them — doesn't fit with Trump's apparent desire to present his case before the presidential election season heats up.

This Senate, a far more hospitable arena for Trump than the House, is the only remaining venue for him to litigate it.

"What’s interesting is they’re totally split on it right now," said Rachel Bovard, a former Senate Republican aide who keeps in close touch with GOP officials. Some "want to sail directly into the wind ... that's what the president wants."

The truth is that either option could backfire.

A speedy trial might make Trump look more guilty, because Democrats will argue he ran and hid behind Republican votes without defending himself. At the same time, a longer version might expose Trump and GOP senators to further revelations about the Ukraine scandal, or simply the humiliation of a public spectacle.

"Get it over fast is the best way," Bovard said, concluding that more time tends to lead to unforced errors for Senate Republicans. "Everything they touch goes sideways."

McConnell is clearly eager to avoid a bigger public split with Trump that could hurt Republican senators with Trump's base. On Friday, he spoke with Fox News' Sean Hannity about his efforts to coordinate with Cipollone, who may lead the president's defense on the Senate floor and who could, conceivably, be a witness in the trial.

But even in tying himself to Cipollone, he revealed that he remains favorable to a quiet trial that would be positively un-Trumpian.

"I'm going to take my cues from the president's lawyers," McConnell said. "But, yes, If you know you have the vote, 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 could certainly make a case for making it shorter rather than longer since it's such a weak case."

Of course, the president doesn't always do what his lawyers want — especially if they're telling him to shut up and take the win.