Trump impeachment trial heads toward critical vote Friday on witnesses and possibly acquittal

On Thursday, as the Senate concluded another day-long question-and-answer session with House impeachment managers and Trump lawyers, some Republicans said they hope the trial will be completed Friday.

“We still feel very positive about it,” said Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), the third-ranking Republican leader. “More and more members are saying, I’m ready to go to a final [vote]. . . . I’ve heard enough.”

One other possibility for Friday is that the Senate will deadlock on the question of calling witnesses. That would put Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in the position of breaking the tie — a role Democrats are urging him to play — unless Roberts decides that’s not his job.

Trump was impeached by the House in December — charged with abuse of power after being accused of soliciting the Ukrainian government’s help in undermining his political rivals and obstructing the House’s investigation into his actions.

The final outcome of Trump’s Senate trial has never been in doubt. It takes only 34 votes to acquit. The GOP has 53 seats. And, with Republican primary voters strongly supportive of Trump, these senators have shown little interest in crossing him.

Instead, the main drama has been about how much more Republican senators want to learn about what Trump may have done before deciding whether he should be convicted.

On Thursday, the answer appeared to be: not much.

“Even if you take everything else that is levied on him by others . . . is it an impeachable offense?” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who said she would not vote to call witnesses. “I don’t see that it rises to the level of being an impeachable offense.”

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a forthcoming book that Trump told him in August that he wanted to continue freezing military assistance to Ukraine until its leaders launched investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

That revelation provided a key firsthand witness to an alleged pressure campaign at the heart of the impeachment trial. Democrats accused Trump of pressuring Ukraine’s president into investigating Biden to gain an edge on his possible 2020 rival. Republicans have dismissed this account as being based on second- or third-hand witnesses.

But Bolton said he was told directly by the president about his reason for holding the aid in a book that will be titled “The Room Where It Happened.”

If all Democrats agreed, it would take four Republican votes to call Bolton, or anyone else, as a witness. Earlier this week, that seemed possible: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told other Republicans the vote was in doubt.

But since then, several Republicans seen as possible swing votes — Ernst, Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Martha McSally (Ariz.), all facing competitive election contests — rejected the idea of hearing more testimony.

On Thursday, it appeared that only four Republicans were left as possible votes for witnesses.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) are still viewed as the likeliest contenders to side with Democrats for more testimony, while Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) remain wild cards. For witnesses to be called, all four would need to say yes.

“If it’s two [voting for witnesses], deal is over. If it’s three, we don’t know, because we’re in uncharted territory,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).

That’s because three yes votes would create a 50-50 tie. Normally, tie votes are broken by the vice president. But in an impeachment trial, the presiding officer of the Senate is Roberts, not the vice president.

There’s not much precedent for what happens next: Ties are rare in the Senate, and impeachments are even more rare.

Could Roberts vote to break the tie? Would he?

“There’s no real certainty what the power of the presiding officer is,” said Braun, who added that Republicans consider it “unlikely” that Roberts would intervene.

Senate Republicans hope that Roberts, in such a situation, would not rule at all — which would have the same result as voting no. The motion to call witnesses would fail, for lack of a majority.

Democrats have mostly been solicitous of Roberts during the trial, but on Thursday Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tried to put the chief justice on the spot.

The presidential contender asked whether Americans would lose faith in the chief justice, the Supreme Court and the Constitution if Roberts presided over a trial where no new witnesses or evidence was allowed.

Roberts performed his duty and read the question aloud, after which House Democrats’ lead impeachment lawyer came to his defense.

“It reflects adversely on us,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told lawmakers concerning the lack of witnesses and new evidence being allowed. He added that Roberts has performed “admirably.”

Republican leaders said they want to move quickly toward the vote to acquit if the Senate decides not to hear new testimony Friday.

In the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, the Senate heard a combined five hours and 28 minutes of closing arguments. Then, the Senate entered four days of closed-door jury deliberations totaling nearly 26 hours, before voting to acquit Clinton on two articles of impeachment.

In this case, some Republicans said, they want to skip the closing arguments and the deliberations, and move ahead to the last step.

“If 51 [senators] say we’ve heard enough, we can move to that final vote,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the second-ranking Republican.

That would leave Senate Democrats with few cards to play. They could not stop an acquittal vote.

But they could delay it — and force Republican senators to take uncomfortable votes against hearing more evidence or allowing more debate.

One idea proposed by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is a motion to require Roberts to issue a subpoena for additional documents and witnesses if he thinks they are relevant to the trial.

It would likely fail, but the vote could be used against Gardner, Ernst and other Republicans facing reelection.

“The minority has rights, and we will exercise those rights,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday.

Schiff on Thursday proposed allowing for one week for deposing witnesses, a time during which the Senate could conduct legislative business, but Republicans are unlikely to agree to that.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has remained relatively quiet throughout the proceedings, previewed an attack on Republicans to come if no additional evidence is allowed to be presented.

“You cannot be acquitted if you don’t have a trial. You don’t have a trial if you don’t have witnesses and documentation,” she wrote on Twitter. “If Republican Senators choose a coverup, the American people and history will judge it with the harshness it deserves.”

Still, delays eventually end — even in the Senate. Even if Democrats force extra votes, the final vote to acquit Trump could come as early as Friday night or Saturday, unless leaders decide to move it to Monday, just one day before Trump’s State of the Union address.

On Thursday — on the last day of questions and answers in the Senate — the day was mostly devoted to softballs, lobbed by senators at their own side. At one point, Republican senators asked Trump’s lawyers to, in effect, recount Trump’s accomplishments in office.

Trump attorney Eric Hershmann said that, if Trump’s actions are “for his personal and political gain and not in the best interests of the American people then I say, ‘God bless him. Keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it.’ ”

Democratic senators asked Schiff who was paying the legal bills of Trump’s private attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani — who served as an intermediary to Ukraine.

“I don’t know who’s directly paying the freight for it, but I can tell you the whole country is paying the freight for it because there are leaders around the world who are watching this, and they’re saying the American presidency is open for business,” Schiff said.

At the start of the day’s session, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) submitted a question for Roberts to read aloud. The question contained the name of a person who conservative media have alleged is the intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint last year about Trump’s actions toward Ukraine sparked the impeachment inquiry.

Roberts didn’t read it.

“The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” Roberts said.

After that, Paul stood up, gathered his papers and walked out of the Senate chamber to address reporters. He then said the name that Roberts would not.

Rachael Bade, John Wagner, Colby Itkowitz, Felicia Sonmez and Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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