Senate Republicans struggle to coalesce behind an impeachment strategy

Senate Republicans are casting about for the best strategy to defend President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE from articles of impeachment and divided over several key questions, which has led to a disjointed defense of their party’s leader.

One controversial question for the GOP is how far to go in attacking Trump’s principle accuser, the anonymous author of a whistleblower complaint.

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Two of Trump’s staunchest Senate defenders — Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE (R-S.C.) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Trump: 'Everybody knows who the whistleblower is' Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE (R-Ky.) — are calling for the whistleblower to be publicly named and subjected to close scrutiny. Trump did the same Sunday when he urged media organizations to release the whistleblower’s name and declared it “would be doing the public a service if you did.”

But many Senate Republicans, such as Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Hillicon Valley: Twitter shares more details on political ad rules | Supreme Court takes up Google-Oracle fight | Pentagon chief defends Microsoft cloud contract House, Senate announce agreement on anti-robocall bill MORE (S.D.), Sens. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDeval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Ocasio-Cortez jabs 'plutocratic' late entrants to 2020 field Jon Huntsman expected to run for governor in Utah MORE (Utah), Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Senate confirms controversial circuit court nominee Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day Senators press FDA tobacco chief on status of vaping ban Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal MORE (Alaska) and Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoHillicon Valley: Facebook to remove mentions of potential whistleblower's name | House Dems demand FCC action over leak of location data | Dem presses regulators to secure health care data Senators introduce bill to create 'parity' among broadband programs Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump MORE (W.Va.), are balking at the idea. They say the identity should be protected unless the whistleblower chooses to step forward.

A couple of conservative media publications have revealed the suspected whistleblower’s name, but many media outlets including The Hill have chosen not to out of respect for the matter’s sensitivity.

Another question dividing the Senate GOP conference is whether to launch its own investigations to counter the growing number of damaging revelations emerging from the House probe.

Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the leading advocate for taking a more aggressive approach. On Monday he called for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to investigate whether 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenBudget official says he didn't know why military aid was delayed: report Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide READ: Foreign service officer Jennifer Williams' closed-door testimony from the House impeachment inquiry MORE and his son Hunter Biden may have abetted corruption in Ukraine.

“We need to look at whether or not Hunter Biden corruptly engaged in lobbying. Did Joe Biden ask the prosecutor to be fired because he was investigating his son?” Graham said in an interview Monday with Fox News host Laura IngrahamLaura Anne IngrahamSessions vows to 'work for' Trump endorsement Biden town hall on CNN finishes third in cable news race Ex-Virginia governor rips Laura Ingraham's 'racist kind of talk' about state demographics MORE.

Graham added he hoped the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “will open up an investigation about the role of the State Department in all this,” but the chairman of that panel, Sen. Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Senate Foreign Relations chair: 'Best' not to pass Turkey sanctions bill 'at this moment' Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators at White House MORE (R-Idaho), doesn’t seem too eager to go down that road.

In an Oct. 29 letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezGraham blocks resolution recognizing Armenian genocide after Erdoğan meeting Trump encounters GOP resistance to investigating Hunter Biden Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward MORE (D-N.J.), Risch made it clear that he doesn’t want to delve into the thorny topic of why U.S. assistance to Ukraine was held up by the Trump administration — an action connected to the president’s belief that Biden was tied to corrupt practices in Ukraine.

“It is important that the Senate reserve its judgment on these matters until the House formally completes its work on this inquiry,” Risch wrote, informing colleagues that he doesn’t want to act on the charged topic before the House brings articles of impeachment.

Republican lawmakers have also pushed back against Graham mulling the possibility of having Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGrowing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Top NSC aide puts Sondland at front lines of Ukraine campaign, speaking for Trump Bloomberg, Patrick take different approaches after late entries into primary race MORE or the Bidens testify before the Judiciary Committee.

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Graham last month invited Giuliani to appear before his committee and said he hadn’t yet decided whether to call Joe or Hunter Biden to testify. However, fellow Republican senators cautioned Graham against calling on the Bidens to testify.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Overnight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban MORE (R-Texas), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel should steer clear of a partisan food fight related to impeachment.

“It wouldn’t be my highest priority. We need limited bandwidth ... we need to try to focus on getting things done, not contributing to the sideshow,” Cornyn said when asked last month about a prospective investigation of the Bidens’ links to Ukrainian corruption.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are being hit with a steady barrage of damaging revelations from the House investigation.

The latest was the reversal by U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who now admits in four new pages of updated testimony that he told a senior Ukrainian official that Ukraine would not receive U.S. military aid unless it acquiesced to Trump’s demands for investigations.

Sondland previously testified that he was not aware of pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open a Biden probe, and testified that Trump told him during a phone call that there was no quid pro quo for aid. Sondland on Tuesday said his memory was “refreshed” by the testimony of other witnesses after House Democrats accused him of misleading the committee and weighed pursuing charges against him.

Senate Republicans face a dilemma on how far they should go to defend Trump on the central allegation against him. Democrats say their investigation shows he withheld military aide to pressure Zelensky to investigate Biden, Trump’s chief political rival.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy On The Money: Trump asks Supreme Court to block Dem subpoena for financial records | Kudlow 'very optimistic' for new NAFTA deal | House passes Ex-Im Bank bill opposed by Trump, McConnell Top House Democrats ask for review of DHS appointments MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday sought to sidestep the matter altogether by declaring he’s not going to comment on the day-to-day developments of the impeachment investigation.

“This issue is still in the House. They’ve only just last week voted to take it up,” he told reporters. “For myself, I’m not going to start commenting on all of these episodes that occur on a daily basis that are unfolding over in the House.

“We’ll wait until we get it here,” he said of likely articles of impeachment. “It looks to me like they’re hellbent to do it and we will end up in an impeachment trial at some point.”

At the same time, McConnell predicted Trump would be acquitted in the upper chamber: “I will say I’m pretty sure how it’s likely to end. If it were today, I don’t think there’s any question it would not lead to a removal.”

Sixty-seven votes are required to reach a conviction. 

Senate Republicans at a lunch meeting last week explored the legal arguments for defending Trump on the grounds that even if he demanded a quid pro quo of Zelensky, it would not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Cornyn, an adviser to the Senate GOP leadership team, argued Tuesday that Trump’s effort to use military assistance as leverage to push Ukrainian officials to investigate corruption was not improper.

“It is not uncommon for presidents to leverage foreign aid for changes in behavior, and in this case the corruption concerns that were previously undertaken by Vice President Biden and President Obama — those continue to be concerns,” he said, arguing that Trump had a legitimate interest as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer in pressing a foreign country to cooperate with the Department of Justice on a corruption investigation.

But Cornyn admitted he was made uncomfortable by the notion that Trump may have withheld the aid to press Zelensky to investigate a political opponent.

Graham, a loyal Trump ally, acknowledged it would be a significant problem if Trump demanded a quid pro quo specifically linking military assistance to an investigation of a political opponent.

“We put conditions on aid all the time but if you said I’m not going to give you money unless you investigate my political opponent to help me politically, that would be completely out of bounds,” Graham said, although he added that it is also “problematic” if Biden used his office as vice president to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son from a corruption probe. 

 

Jordain Carney contributed.