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GOP threatens to weaponize impeachment witnesses amid standoff

Republicans are threatening to weaponize a fight on Senate impeachment witnesses amid growing concerns that moderates within their caucus could help Democrats call former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonTrump offered North Korea's Kim a ride home on Air Force One: report Key impeachment figure Pence sticks to sidelines Bolton lawyer: Trump impeachment trial is constitutional MORE to testify. 

After weeks of pledging that they would hold a quick trial with no witnesses from either side, Republicans — from Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump at CPAC foments 2022 GOP primary wars Hawley gets boisterous ovation at CPAC for Electoral College objection   Why Congress must invoke the 14th Amendment now MORE (R-Ky.) on down — are sending public warning shots that if their GOP colleagues open the door to Democratic witnesses they’ll respond in kind, forcing votes on a slew of controversial individuals.

The pressure tactics are the latest shift in strategy as Republican leaders try to navigate the factions in their caucus, where moderates want to leave the potential for witnesses on the table and conservatives are anxious to quickly acquit President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE

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Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Health Care: 50 million coronavirus vaccines given | Pfizer news | Biden health nominees Rand Paul criticized for questioning of transgender health nominee Haley isolated after Trump fallout MORE (R-Ky.) said if GOP senators support calling people “who are unhappy about being fired," a reference to Bolton, "then I think the president should get to call his [witnesses] and we should have votes on those.” 

“The president gets to call anybody he thinks would be good for his defense, the prosecution can call who they want, but I don’t think we should selectively call witnesses that don't like the president,” Paul said. 

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) stressed that he hasn’t made a decision on calling witnesses but said he expects that if Democrats and moderate Republicans open the door then Trump’s team will be able to call individuals like Hunter Biden and a controversial former Democratic National Committee contractor. 

“I assume that if we're going to be fair ... that if we get into having witnesses and evidence that both the prosecution and the defense will be able to weigh in as well,” Kennedy said. “I feel pretty confident, though I don’t know it for a fact, that the defense team is going to want to call its witnesses, including but not limited to the Bidens, [and] as a fact witness the whistleblower.” 

The threat, Republicans hope, could help dissuade Democrats, and a handful of their Republican colleagues viewed as swing votes, from agreeing to subpoena Bolton or one of the other witnesses being requested by Democrats. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds House Rules release new text of COVID-19 relief bill Budowsky: Cruz goes to Cancun, AOC goes to Texas MORE (D-N.Y.) declined to weigh in on Thursday about if he would be willing to engage in a trade where Democrats could call Bolton in exchange for Republicans calling Hunter Biden, who has emerged as a prime fixation for Trump and his allies over his work on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. 

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“I’m not going to negotiate out here,” he told reporters. “They haven’t made any offer about any witnesses or any documents.” 

The trade off is an idea being floated by conservatives, including Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTomi Lahren says CPAC attendees clearly want Trump to run in 2024 OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden returns to Obama-era greenhouse gas calculation | House passes major public lands package | Biden administration won't defend Trump-era relaxation of bird protections Cruz hits back at Boehner for telling him to 'go f--- yourself' MORE (R-Texas), who is pitching his colleagues on the idea of “witness reciprocity.” 

“If they are going to bring witnesses in, we’re not going to do what the House did of a one-sided show trial, and I think it should be at a bare minimum one-for-one,” Cruz told Fox News’s Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityCruz blames criticism of Cancun trip on media 'Trump withdrawal' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Tanden's odds plummet to lead OMB Former Trump officials eye bids for political office MORE. “So if the prosecution brings ... John Bolton, then President Trump can bring a witness. He can bring Hunter Biden.” 

Cruz’s idea has garnered attention among conservative media figures including Hannity who told Cruz that he “loved your proposal” and that he hopes Democrats want four witnesses so “I get the four I want”: the Bidens, the whistleblower and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Democrats demand Saudi accountability over Khashoggi killing US intel: Saudi crown prince approved Khashoggi killing MORE (D-Calif.), who is leading the team of House impeachment managers.

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerOn The Money: Manhattan DA obtains Trump tax returns | Biden nominee previews post-Trump trade agenda | Biden faces first setback as Tanden teeters OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate confirms former Michigan governor Granholm as Energy secretary | GOP bill would codify Trump rule on financing for fossil fuels, guns | Kennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' GOP bill would codify Trump rule on financing for fossil fuels, guns MORE (R-N.D.) referenced Cruz’s idea, adding that he expects there could be a back-and-forth on the Senate floor to call witnesses. 

“I suspect we’ll have one witness at a time that we’ll vote on. And Ted of course has floated the idea of witness reciprocity. Whether it’s one-for-one, or two-for-two or four-for-four,” Cramer said. 

“I guess I would be surprised if there weren’t witnesses,” he added, while noting his preference would be that there are no witnesses.

McConnell has maneuvered behind the scenes to try to keep his caucus united as the impeachment trial begins, including closed-door meetings recently with moderates like Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMedia circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden Why the 'Never-Trumpers' flopped Republicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars MORE (R-Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGraham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Senate ref axes minimum wage, House votes today on relief bill Republicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars MORE (R-Alaska), while also hearing pitches from Paul and Cruz. 

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntPartisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Microsoft, FireEye push for breach reporting rules after SolarWinds hack MORE (R-Mo.), the No. 4 GOP senator, credited McConnell with getting Republicans in line behind the strategy of punting a decision on witnesses until after the trial begins and recognizing that various Republicans have different considerations than other GOP colleagues. 

“I think he’s done a good job listening and trying to understand that everybody has their own unique set of considerations here as to how they move forward,” Blunt said. “By doing that [he] has all of us in the same place on the rules that we’ll vote on next Tuesday. That’s a good way to start.” 

The fight over impeachment witnesses is expected to come to a head in roughly two weeks. Though Democrats are expected to force votes on witnesses and documents next week, the vote to watch will be after the first phase of the trial. 

The rules resolution, according to senators who have seen it, includes a built-in vote after opening arguments and questions from senators on whether there needs to be additional witnesses called or documents compelled. 

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That was a victory to a group of moderate senators who publicly urged McConnell to include the provision in the rules resolution. 

Murkowski acknowledged that if they open the door to witnesses it could turn into an “unstructured” and “somewhat chaotic,” but that the concession would help put a “solid structure” in place. 

“I understand that this process will set that up for later on, and that’s why I think it’s so important that we have some structure. That we have given the courtesy for both sides to present their case, that we have allowed the senators to ask questions ... before we go into this back-and-forth,” Murkowski said. 

Though only Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump at CPAC foments 2022 GOP primary wars Democrats scramble to rescue minimum wage hike Media circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden MORE (R-Utah) has specifically said that he wants to hear from Bolton, a handful of other Republican senators have specifically said they want to leave the door open and make a decision on witnesses after phase one. 

Collins in a statement on Thursday evening said that she was “likely” to support calling witnesses after the initial phase of the trial but stressed that she had not made a decision yet on any particular individual. 

Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderCongress addressed surprise medical bills, but the issue is not resolved Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Tenn.), a retiring senator who is viewed as close to McConnell, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he was open to additional witnesses and that he had wanted “guaranteed the right to vote” of if more “evidence” is needed after the initial phase of the trial. 

"Evidence could be witnesses,” he said. “It could be documents.”