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Politics & Government

GOP Sen. John Kennedy Discusses How The Senate Will Handle Impeachment

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

All 100 senators will serve as jurors in that trial. According to Senate rules, they'll swear to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws. One of the people who will take that oath is Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana. When we spoke earlier, I asked Kennedy to respond to something Majority Leader McConnell said a couple days ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: I'm not an impartial juror. This is a political process. There's not anything judicial about it. Impeachment is a political decision. The House made a partisan political decision to impeach. I would anticipate we will have a largely partisan outcome in the Senate. I'm not impartial about this at all.

CORNISH: Why should the public believe this is going to be a fair process or an impartial one when the Senate majority leader says it will not?

JOHN KENNEDY: You'll have to ask Mitch that question. I can only give you my point of view. The House proceedings were rigged.

CORNISH: But this is why I'm asking this - because you've said this before. So if you're on the one hand saying the House system was rigged and then your own majority leader is saying, I'm not going to be impartial at all, what are we looking at here coming up in the Senate?

KENNEDY: Well, if you'll allow me to finish, I will explain. I believe that the House proceedings were rigged. In fact, I think I have said they were rigged as a carnival ring toss. And you can't beat a rigged game. When we received the articles, my objective is to be fair to both sides, both the prosecution and the defense. And I think most senators feel that way. I want people to walk away, whether they agree or disagree with what the Senate has done, by saying, well, it was a fair process. It was a level playing field. Both sides showed respect for the rule of law and were afforded procedural and substantive due process.

CORNISH: Let's talk about the procedures. Senator McConnell has also said he wants no witnesses in this trial. Senator Cornyn has said he'd be open to closed depositions during the process. I think this also happened during the Clinton impeachment. Where are you on how the Senate should treat the prospect of witnesses?

KENNEDY: We're working our way through it. The rules will be set either by agreement between Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer.

CORNISH: Can it be a legitimate trial if there are no witnesses?

KENNEDY: But even if Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer agree, 51 members of the Senate have to agree. And we haven't started talking about it yet. We're going...

CORNISH: So you're saying it's early right now.

KENNEDY: We're going to allow Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer to try to reach an agreement. If we all agree with it, we'll support it; if we don't, we'll have other votes.

CORNISH: Do you have a preference?

KENNEDY: I want to give both sides - I mean, it's their case and, of course, President Trump's defense. And I want to treat both sides equally.

CORNISH: I want to play you something that Trent Lott, the former Republican senator from Mississippi who was majority leader during the Clinton impeachment, told us this month about the importance of bipartisanship in making sure the Senate fulfills its constitutional responsibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TRENT LOTT: I did reach out to the Democratic leader, the minority leader at the time, Tom Daschle, my good friend, and said, in effect, Tom, this is in our lap, whether we like it or not, and we've got to see if we can find a way to work together to make it bipartisan - nonpartisan, if you will. I think we achieved that.

CORNISH: Do you think those days are gone?

KENNEDY: No. I mean, I can just tell you the way I approach things, Audie, in the Senate. I don't hate anybody in the Senate or otherwise. Now, I may disagree with you, and I try to constantly test my assumptions against the arguments of those who disagree with me, and sometimes I change my mind. But on the other hand, sometimes you have to grab a principle and hang on.

CORNISH: So this idea that the processes somehow can be bipartisan, can be nonpartisan, to you it's still possible?

KENNEDY: Those are pretty words. And I wasn't there. I don't know the context in which Trent said them. But at the end of this, I don't think anybody would look at what happened in the House and say it was bipartisan. I mean, it was clear to me from the day that Trump was inaugurated that Speaker Pelosi intended to give the president, first chance she had, fair and partial firing squad.

I mean, no fair-minded person can watch what happened in the House and conclude other than that Chairman Schiff and Chairman Nadler's judicial philosophy was guilty. I hope that doesn't happen in the Senate. But make no mistake about it, Audie, at the end of the process, we're going to have a vote, and that will be a partisan vote.

CORNISH: Based on what you have seen from the House, as you've described, do you believe President Trump did nothing wrong in his handling of Ukraine and in his request for a favor from its president?

KENNEDY: I believe that if the vote were held today, the president would be acquitted.

CORNISH: But do...

KENNEDY: Having said that...

CORNISH: ...You have a personal belief at this point?

KENNEDY: Having said that, I think most people, myself included, we take our job seriously, and we're going to keep an open mind.

CORNISH: That's Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana.

Thank you for your time.

KENNEDY: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.