Senators fret over prospect of Trump trial

The launching of a House impeachment inquiry against President TrumpDonald TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 MORE is raising the prospect of a Senate trial — unnerving senators already anxious about an election-year battle where the Senate majority could be up for grabs.

The worries cut both ways for Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

Senators in both parties predict impeachment will further polarize the electorate, a troubling development for Republicans running in states won by Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden must wait weekend for State Department pick Texas Supreme Court rejects Alex Jones request to toss lawsuits from Sandy Hook parents Paris Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing MORE in the 2016 presidential race such as Sens. Cory GardnerCory GardnerOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs denounce Capitol attack | Contractors halt donations after siege | 'QAnon Shaman' at Capitol is Navy vet Lobbying world Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Colo.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBiden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds GOP senators say only a few Republicans will vote to convict Trump MORE (R-Maine).

Yet for GOP candidates running in states where Trump has a higher approval rating, such as Sens. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenators introduce bill to award Officer Goodman the Congressional Gold Medal Schumer becomes new Senate majority leader Democrats see Georgia as model for success across South MORE (N.C.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official Democrats torn on impeachment trial timing MORE (Iowa) and Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop Harry Reid 'not particularly optimistic' Biden will push to eliminate filibuster Senators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial MORE (Ky.), the polarized electorate could help drive Republicans to the polls.


And impeachment proceedings could spell doom for Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat up for reelection in Alabama, one of the nation’s most pro-Trump states. 

Jones told The Hill on Wednesday that he’s not thinking about the impact on his reelection.

“It’s not a good day for the country when any impeachment inquiry is opened but the fact is we have to get facts out. That’s the main thing I pushed for,” Jones said. “The transcript is very troubling."

“This is not about an election,” he added. “This needs to be talked about [in terms of] the security of the country.”

Senate Republicans publicly defended Trump on Wednesday after the White House released a readout of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, but a number are also privately concerned about his efforts to pressure Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenFive examples of media's sycophancy for Biden on inauguration week Drastic measures for drastic times — caregiver need mobile health apps Boycott sham impeachment MORE.

Very few are willing to challenge Trump publicly or criticize him behind closed doors with fellow GOP lawmakers.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden officials hold call with bipartisan group of senators on coronavirus relief plan Five examples of media's sycophancy for Biden on inauguration week Romney: Total figure for Biden coronavirus stimulus is 'pretty shocking' MORE (Utah) was the only Senate Republican to speak up at a lunch meeting of the Senate GOP conference Wednesday. He said he was troubled by the White House’s call record, according to colleagues in the room.


“Clearly what we’ve seen from the transcript itself is deeply troubling,” Romney told reporters earlier in the day.

Romney was rebutted at the closed-door meeting by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair MORE (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally.

“I said I’m underwhelmed. I’m not troubled. I don’t think there is anything remotely quid pro quo,” Graham said, summarizing his remarks in the meeting defending Trump.

He described the mood by other Republicans in the room as “relief” when they saw the details of transcript.

Graham, who was given a preview of the Trump-Zelensky transcript from Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTrump pressed DOJ to go to Supreme Court in bid to overturn election: report Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Two-thirds say the election was fair: poll MORE on Tuesday, said he had no intention of pursuing the matter.

“I don’t want to turn the Senate into a circus,” he said. “I think there’s a belief among Republicans [that] Democrats have lost their minds when it comes to Trump.”

Other Senate Republicans were less vocal than Romney but indicated more unease than Graham.

“Any time you’re talking to a leader about a subject like, yeah, those are sensitive matters,” said Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Senate chaos threatens to slow Biden's agenda NRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers MORE (S.D.).

But Thune added that he didn’t think it would change most people’s minds or justify the House impeachment push.

Republicans in recent days have given themselves some daylight with Trump.

McConnell, the majority leader, told reporters Tuesday that he pressed Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperTrump administration official Norquist sworn in as acting Pentagon chief Watch Out: Progressives are eyeing the last slice of the budget Biden needs to fill the leadership gaps on Day One MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoWhite House installs new leadership at federally-funded international broadcasters US carrier group enters South China Sea amid tensions between China, Taiwan Biden can hold China accountable for human rights abuses by divesting now MORE over the summer about the delay in sending foreign aid to Ukraine but didn’t receive an explanation for the holdup.  

Also on Tuesday, Republican leaders did not object to a sense-of-the-Senate resolution proposed by Democrats calling on Trump to release the complaint filed by an anonymous whistleblower with the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson.

Democrats were convinced the readout of the Trump-Zelensky call offered clear evidence that Trump abused his power to achieve personal gain.

“In this telephone conversation, the president of the United States made an extraordinary request to the president of Ukraine, to investigate Trump’s political opponent and aid President Trump’s reelection campaign,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCapitol insurrection fallout: A PATRIOT Act 2.0? Schumer calls for DOJ watchdog to probe alleged Trump effort to oust acting AG Student loan forgiveness would be windfall for dentists, doctors and lawyers MORE (D-N.Y.) said. “Does anyone think this conversation was in the national interest? Or was it in the president’s personal political interest?”

Some Republicans agreed the contents of the transcript made them uncomfortable.  

Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' MORE (R-Ohio) said he would have preferred Trump not to have discussed a prominent political rival with Zelensky but he also criticized House Democrats for launching an impeachment inquiry before knowing the contents of the transcript.

“Would it have been better if he hadn’t brought up Biden’s name? Yes, I agree with that. But the rush to judgment by the other body I think is totally unwarranted,” he said.

Collins, a top Democratic target in 2020, said the transcript “raises a number of important questions” but added that she would not draw any conclusions on Trump’s conduct at this point.

“If there are articles of impeachment I would be a juror, and as a juror I think it’s inappropriate for me to reach conclusions about evidence or to comment on the proceedings in the House,” she told reporters.

Gardner was on his phone and unavailable to comment at a vote shortly before lunchtime. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

A Republican senator who requested anonymity expressed concern that the transcript will fuel the Democrats’ fervor to impeach Trump and blow up progress on bipartisan legislation.

“I’m concerned about the transcript because I want to get nutrition assistance done,” the lawmaker said.

Other senators staunchly defended Trump.

Tillis called the House impeachment inquiry “another pathetic attempt by Democrats to destroy President Trump with falsehoods to overturn the results of the 2016 election.”

Ernst dismissed the transcript as lacking incriminating evidence.

“The fact that House Democrats dove head first into an impeachment inquiry before seeing this transcript shows exactly what we’ve known all along: They are determined to impeach President Trump. I’ve looked at the transcript; I don’t see anything there,” she said.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who faces reelection next year, said there was “nothing” in the transcript that backed up the whistleblower’s complaint.  

“I just am embarrassed, almost, that the Speaker would take this document, having not seen it, and take it to an impeachment conversation,” he said.

A moderate Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity to The Hill said it would have been better if Pelosi had waited until after the transcript was made public but noted she was under tremendous pressure.

“I think it would have been smart to wait until she saw the transcript,” the senator said, adding, “I don’t think Speaker Pelosi had a choice.”

Jordain Carney contributed.