McConnell struggles to maintain GOP unity post-Bolton

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellEverytown plans ad blitz on anniversary of House background check bill Kentucky state official says foreign adversaries 'routinely' scan election systems Don't let 'welfare for all' advocates derail administration's food stamp program reforms MORE (R-Ky.) is struggling to maintain control of President TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries MORE’s impeachment trial following news of former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonBolton on impeachment: 'My testimony would have made no difference to the ultimate outcome' Overnight Defense: Dem senator met with Iranian foreign minister | Meeting draws criticism from right | Lawmakers push back at Pentagon funding for wall We should listen to John Bolton MORE’s bombshell manuscript. 

McConnell on Monday deflected growing calls, including from fellow GOP senators, to allow testimony from Bolton and other potential witnesses, which could prolong the trial and deal a massive blow to Trump and Republicans.

Senate debate over whether to call additional witnesses was upended Sunday following a New York Times report revealing that Bolton claims in a draft of his forthcoming book that Trump told him directly he wanted to freeze U.S. assistance to Ukraine to spur an investigation of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden'Where's your spoon?' What we didn't learn in the latest debate Sanders nabs endorsement from Congressional Hispanic Caucus member Poll: Sanders holds 7-point lead in crucial California primary MORE.

ADVERTISEMENT

McConnell’s strategy all along has been to keep the trial as short as possible and avoid giving more political ammo to Democrats to use against Trump and vulnerable Republican senators in the November elections.

The GOP leader urged fellow Republicans at a lunch meeting Monday to keep their powder dry and not make a decision on the need to subpoena witnesses and documents until the end of next week, after Trump’s defense team has presented its arguments and senators have had a chance to ask questions on the Senate floor.

McConnell told colleagues that they don’t need to answer persistent media questions about additional subpoenas until phase one of the trial is complete, as outlined in the organizing resolution passed last week by all 53 Republican senators, according to senators at the meeting.

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTrump Fed nominee stirs controversy ahead of hearing Senators, bruised by impeachment, hunt for deals Plan to probe Bidens sparks GOP divisions MORE (R-N.D.), who attended the lunch, said McConnell told GOP senators to “remember we passed a rules package that gives us an opportunity to vote on this very issue of witnesses after we hear both sides and ask our questions.”

“He just reiterated that a couple times, as did some other people, just to remind us that we have dealt with this and we don’t have to deal with the next step of it until the end of phase one,” Cramer added.

“Take a breath, we’re going to vote on witnesses,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSenators to meet with Zelensky after impeachment trial GOP senators defend Sondland, Vindman ousters: They weren't 'loyal' What the impeachment vote looked like from inside the chamber MORE (Wyo.), noting that Trump’s lawyers have one more day of presentations followed by 16 hours for senators to ask questions.

ADVERTISEMENT

McConnell’s strategy has been working so far, but there’s little room for error, making the Bolton news all the more challenging for the Kentucky Republican.

Two key Republicans — Sens. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Trump looms as flashpoint in Alabama Senate battle MORE (Utah) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Susan Collins in statistical tie with Democratic challenger: poll MORE (Maine), who faces a tough reelection bid — on Monday indicated they are more likely to support additional witness testimony. Romney made a forceful case at the Republican lunch for calling Bolton to testify, but it didn’t appear to immediately change any opinions.

He told reporters earlier in the day that it’s “increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton,” but that statement was slapped down by newly appointed Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerOn the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Progressive group backs Senate candidates in Georgia, Iowa Overnight Health Care: Trump budget calls for cutting Medicaid, ACA by T | Trump proposes removing FDA authority over tobacco | Lawmakers frustrated by lack of emergency funds for coronavirus MORE (R-Ga.).

“Sadly, my colleague @SenatorRomney wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander @realDonaldTrump during their 15 minutes of fame. The circus is over. It’s time to move on!” Loeffler tweeted.

Separately, Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.) has floated the possibility of accepting Bolton’s testimony in exchange for a witness who could help Trump’s case, such as Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden. 

Other potential swing votes on subpoenaing more witnesses and documents include GOP Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP senators offering bill to cement business provision in Trump tax law Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law Bipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to combat cyberattacks on state and local governments MORE (Ohio), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' The 8 Republicans who voted to curb Trump's Iran war powers MORE (Kan.) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Ernst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices MORE (Colo.), a vulnerable Republican up for reelection this year. Four defections would allow Democrats to introduce new evidence in the trial through witness testimony and administration records.

But McConnell has declined to endorse the plan floated by Toomey, preferring instead to wait and debate the question of witnesses. Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocratic senators urge Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response Barr to testify before House Judiciary panel Graham won't call Barr to testify over Roger Stone sentencing recommendation MORE (D-N.Y.) has likewise ruled out any deal that would require the Bidens to testify in exchange for hearing from Bolton or acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyMulvaney calls out GOP for being 'a lot less interested' in deficits under Trump than Obama: report Overnight Health Care: Senate panel to hold hearing on US coronavirus response | Dems demand Trump withdraw religious provider rule | Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan backlash Democratic senators urge Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response MORE

Republican leaders last week expressed confidence they would have the votes to block the Democrats’ witness request, but that party unity appeared to be in serious doubt Monday morning.

One Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss the lunch said there was a lot of anxiety within the GOP conference immediately after news of Bolton’s manuscript.

But the lawmaker said McConnell was able to regain control of the situation at lunch.

“McConnell is a very wise old owl. His take was, ‘We’re going to have two more days of the president’s counsel making their case and then we have Q&A and we’ll see where we are,” the senator said.

By Monday evening, after Trump’s lawyers had spent the afternoon going on offense and raising questions about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine, GOP senators were feeling better.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Clearly we’re in a lot better frame of mind and a lot better shape than we were,” said a second Republican senator, who requested anonymity to talk about the views of colleagues.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneMcConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills Senate votes to rein in Trump's power to attack Iran As many as eight GOP senators expected to vote to curb Trump's power to attack Iran MORE (R-S.D.) last week indicated the vote on witnesses and additional documents would come in the middle of this week, but GOP leaders are now planning to hold the crucial vote on Friday, allowing more time for the arguments of Trump’s defense team to sink in and the uproar over Bolton’s manuscript to die down. 

Two potential swing votes — Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump budget includes proposal for US Consulate in Greenland Democrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (R-Alaska) and Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Trump administration's harmful and immoral attack on children Democrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (R-Tenn.), who is retiring at the end of this term — said Monday they would stick to their original plan of waiting until after phase one of the trial to decide on witnesses, as McConnell has urged. 

Murkowski said in a tweet Monday afternoon “there is an appropriate time for us to evaluate whether we need additional information,” adding “that time is almost here.” 

Alexander highlighted his effort to ensure a vote on witnesses by week’s end. 

"I worked with my colleagues to make sure we have a chance after we've heard the arguments, after we've asked our questions to decide if we need additional evidence, and I'll decide that at that time," he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Republican leaders spent much of Monday downplaying Bolton’s claim in hopes of keeping the number of potential Republican defections at two.

As of mid-afternoon Monday, they appeared to have held the line for another day.

Speaking to reporters after the lunch, Cramer said he thinks "it’s about the same as it’s always been” when asked whether sentiments are changing in the GOP conference. 

Barrasso said, “I didn’t hear anything new at lunch from any member other than what they’ve been saying all the way through the process.” 

Murkowski, however, also acknowledged she is "curious" to hear what Bolton has to say.

Democrats think GOP unity on the question of witnesses is starting to crack. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“This is getting to be a little bit, in this sense maybe, like Watergate. Every few days there’s another revelation and another revelation and another revelation. And the case gets stronger and stronger,” Schumer said Monday afternoon.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Republicans “are in a real twist,” adding, “They will be held accountable for putting their blinders on.” 

Jordain Carney contributed.