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McConnell struggles to maintain GOP unity post-Bolton

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellWhat the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats MORE (R-Ky.) is struggling to maintain control of President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden prepares to confront Putin Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting Senate investigation of insurrection falls short MORE’s impeachment trial following news of former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonJohn Bolton: Biden-Putin meeting 'premature' Republicans request documents on Kerry's security clearance process Trump pushes back on Bolton poll 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 BidenBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE.

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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 dismisses climate change, calls on Biden to fire joint chiefs Putin says Nord Stream 2 pipeline nearing completion Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Army secretary after snafu | Afghanistan withdrawal 'slightly' ahead of schedule 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 BarrassoSenate passes long-delayed China bill OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm Republicans grill Biden public lands agency pick over finances, advocacy MORE (Wyo.), noting that Trump’s lawyers have one more day of presentations followed by 16 hours for senators to ask questions.

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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 RomneyPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals What the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship Eugene Goodman to throw out first pitch at Nationals game MORE (Utah) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals Collins says infrastructure bill won't have gas tax increase or undo 2017 tax reform bill What the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship 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 LoefflerHerschel Walker skips Georgia's GOP convention Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock 9 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2022 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 ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote 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 PortmanPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals What the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain MORE (Ohio), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranOvernight Health Care: Moderna says COVID-19 vaccine is 100 percent effective in 12- to 17-year-olds | US achieves full vaccinations for half of adults | Trump on Wuhan lab: Now everyone agrees 'I was right' Senate confirms Biden pick to lead Medicare, Medicaid office Bipartisan Senate bill introduced to give gyms B in relief MORE (Kan.) and Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 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 SchumerChuck SchumerIt's not just Manchin: No electoral mandate stalls Democrats' leftist agenda DOJ to probe Trump-era subpoenas of lawmaker records Democrats demand Barr, Sessions testify on Apple data subpoenas 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 MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' 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.

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“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 Thune'The era of bipartisanship is over': Senate hits rough patch Bipartisan talks sow division among Democrats Senate passes long-delayed China bill 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 MurkowskiPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals What the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill MORE (R-Alaska) and Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderAuthorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate The Republicans' deep dive into nativism Senate GOP faces retirement brain drain 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.

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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. 

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“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.