Senate Republicans struggle to coalesce behind an impeachment strategy

Senate Republicans are casting about for the best strategy to defend President Trump 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.

Two of Trump's staunchest Senate defenders - Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rand Paul (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 Thune (S.D.), Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Shelley Moore Capito (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 Biden 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 Ingraham.

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 Risch (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 Menendez (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 Giuliani or the Bidens testify before the Judiciary Committee.

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 Cornyn (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 McConnell (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.