Swing votes steal spotlight in marathon Trump impeachment Q&A

A key group of Republican senators stole the spotlight on Thursday, using a marathon session of the Senate impeachment trial to challenge both President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE’s legal team and House managers. 

Senators asked more than 80 questions during the nine-hours-long session with controversial figures ranging from the whistleblower whose report helped spark the impeachment inquiry to Trump’s personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiNunes declines to answer if he received information from Ukraine lawmaker meant to damage Biden Democratic attorneys criticize House Judiciary Democrats' questioning of Barr Swalwell: Barr has taken Michael Cohen's job as Trump's fixer MORE to former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence Senate-passed defense spending bill includes clause giving DHS cyber agency subpoena power Bolton defends Cheney amid clash with House conservatives MORE getting name checks.

While many senators offered easy, leading questions to those defending their party’s interests, the most intriguing moments came from a core group of undecided senators in both parties, sparking a round of attempted tea leaves readings ahead of Friday’s crucial vote on whether to call additional witnesses.

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Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOn The Money: Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock | Meadows, Pelosi trade criticism on stalled stimulus talks | Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock Overnight Energy: Official says protesters not cleared from Lafayette Square for Trump | Trump administration blasts banks refusing to fund Arctic drilling | 2019 coal production hit lowest level since 1978 MORE (R-Alaska) immediately captured headlines when she asked the White House defense team why the Senate should not call Bolton to testify after The New York Times reported that he will claim, in his forthcoming memoir, that Trump tied Ukraine aid to the country helping investigate Democrats, including former Vice President Joe BidenJoe Biden2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program Don't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency Abrams: Trump 'doing his best to undermine our confidence' in voting system MORE and his son Hunter Biden. 

“This dispute about material facts weighs in favor of calling additional witnesses with direct knowledge. Why should this body not call Ambassador Bolton,” Murkowski asked in a question posed to the White House defense team.

Murkowsi and Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinHouse-passed spending bill would block Pebble Mine construction The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - At loggerheads, Congress, White House to let jobless payout lapse Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding MORE (D-W.Va.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Frustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Shaheen, Chabot call for action on new round of PPP loans MORE (R-Maine) also took veiled shots at Giuliani. Collins and Murkowski are undecided on impeachment witnesses, while Sinema and Manchin are viewed as potential Democratic votes to acquit Trump. 

“Will the president assure the American public that private citizens will not be directed to conduct American foreign policy or national security policy unless they have been specifically and formally designated by the president and the State Department to do so?” they asked.

Giuliani, Democrats say, led the effort to oust former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchMarie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Cheney clashes with Trump Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November MORE and then push Ukrainian representatives to open two investigations that would benefit Trump politically.

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Collins was also part of a group of Republican senators who questioned if it was ever appropriate for a president to ask for a foreign country to investigate a U.S. citizen, including a political rival. Trump, in a July 25 phone call, asked Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky to help “look into” the Bidens. 

Murkowski and Collins were spotted having a lengthy, animated conversation with a top McConnell staffer late Thursday night. Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP GOP fears Trump attacks on mail-in vote will sabotage turnout Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection MORE (R-Colo.), an endangered GOP incumbent who has announced he will vote against allowing witnesses, hovered nearby. 

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderChamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection Pelosi huddles with chairmen on surprise billing but deal elusive Senate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag MORE (R-Tenn.), who is expected to announce a decision on witnesses imminently, caught the attention of reporters he chatted with McConnell’s top floor staffer and delivered a note to the GOP leader in the middle of Thursday’s session. 

Murkowski and Alexander also joined with Sens. Ted Cuz (R-Texas), Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyDunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy NSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show MORE (R-Pa.), Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanLincoln Project targets Senate races in Alaska, Maine, Montana with M ad buy Overnight Energy: Official says protesters not cleared from Lafayette Square for Trump | Trump administration blasts banks refusing to fund Arctic drilling | 2019 coal production hit lowest level since 1978 Trump administration blasts banks that refuse to fund arctic drilling MORE (R-Alaska) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamNavarro: 'Don't fall for' message from TikTok lobbyists, 'puppet CEO' Graham defends Trump on TikTok, backs Microsoft purchase The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - At loggerheads, Congress, White House to let jobless payout lapse MORE (R-S.C.), all four of whom are expected to vote against witnesses, to ask that even if Bolton did testify “isn’t it true that the allegations still would not rise to the level of an impeachable offense and that therefore for this and other reasons his testimony would add nothing to this case.” 

The question caught the attention of reporters because it mirrors the argument echoed by several Republicans in recent days: that even if Bolton is telling the truth that it still wouldn’t warrant removing Trump from office and so it wouldn't change the outcome of the trial. 

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Alexander was spotted chatting and joking with Sens. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Mike Roman says 3M on track to deliver 2 billion respirators globally and 1 billion in US by end of year; US, Pfizer agree to 100M doses of COVID-19 vaccine that will be free to Americans Overnight Energy: Supreme Court reinstates fast-track pipeline permit except for Keystone XL | Judge declines to reverse Dakota Access Pipeline shutdown OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog accuses Commerce of holding up 'Sharpiegate' report | Climate change erases millennia of cooling: study | Senate nixes proposal limiting Energy Department's control on nuclear agency budget MORE (D-Wash.) and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerMini-exodus of Trump officials from Commerce to lobby on semiconductors Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding Virginia governor, senators request CDC aid with coronavirus outbreak at immigrant detention facility MORE (D-Va.) during the Senate’s last break of the day. Pat Philbin, a member of Trump’s legal team, briefly wandered over to say hello, prompting Sen. John CornynJohn CornynFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection Mini-exodus of Trump officials from Commerce to lobby on semiconductors MORE (R-Texas) to make an apparent joke about Alexander’s well known “Lamar!” campaign slogan. 

“It’s like Bono. It’s like Cher,” Cornyn could be overheard saying on the floor. “Lamar!” 

Alexander also spent several minutes thumbing through a copy of “Impeachment: An American History” by John Meacham. McConnell also read the book to help him prepare for the impeachment trial. 

There were also tense moments during the question-and-answer session, like when Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMultiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert Gohmert tests positive for COVID-19 Republican senators revolt over coronavirus proposal MORE (R-Ky.) tried to get Chief Justice John Roberts to read a question related to the whistleblower at the center of the House impeachment inquiry. 

"The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” Roberts said after being handed the slip of paper by a Senate page. 

The two men had been engaged in behind-the-scenes haggling over the contents of the question, which names the individual alleged to be the whistleblower. 

Roberts indicated privately on Wednesday that he would not read the question, which would put him in the position of publicly outing the whistleblower on the Senate floor. Paul’s Republican colleagues had also publicly signaled they wanted him to back down, but to no avail. 

"We’ve been respectful of the chief justice’s unique position in reading our questions,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP scrambles to fend off Kobach in Kansas primary Meadows: Election will be held on November third Don't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency MORE (R-Ky.) said at the start of Thursday’s session. “And I want to assure him that that level of consideration for him will continue.” 

The question-and-answer session comes as the Senate is prepared to vote Friday on whether or not to call new witnesses. 

As of Thursday night several Republican senators have not said how they will vote on an up-and-down question about allowing new witnesses and documents to be requested as part of the Senate trial. 

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McConnell can lose three GOP votes and still block new witnesses, as long as Roberts doesn’t step in to break a tie. He could lose two GOP senators and win the vote outright.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats exit briefing saying they fear elections under foreign threat Nunes declines to answer if he received information from Ukraine lawmaker meant to damage Biden Hillicon Valley: House panel grills tech CEOs during much anticipated antitrust hearing | TikTok to make code public as it pushes back against 'misinformation' | House Intel panel expands access to foreign disinformation evidence MORE (D-Calif.) made a pitch to GOP senators that if they allowed witnesses Democrats would agree to limit closed-door depositions to one week. The offer appeared aimed at undercutting the Republican argument that calling in witnesses would eat up weeks, if not months, of time. 

“Are we really driven by the timing of the State of the Union? Should that be our guiding principle? Can we take one week to hear from these witnesses? I think we can. I think we should. I think we must,” he said. 

Schiff added that if there is any dispute over whether a witness is “relevant or probative” to the issues, or if there are objections over claims of executive privilege, Roberts would be able to make the ultimate call on the matter.

Jay SekulowJay Alan SekulowDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Trump complains of 'political prosecution' after SCOTUS rulings on financial records Appeals court rejects Trump effort to throw out emoluments case MORE, a lawyer on the White House defense team, dismissed the idea out of hand, saying that under such a format, they would not be able to call any of the witnesses they want, like the Bidens or the anonymous whistleblower who first brought forward the allegations about Ukraine.

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“I think the irony of this,” Sekulow said, is “that we can call anyone we want except the witnesses we want.”

Still, Republicans are projecting cautious optimism that they’ll be able to defeat the witness vote and move quickly to decide whether to convict and remove Trump from office.

Trump is expected to be acquitted in the GOP-controlled chamber, with Democrats needing 20 Republican senators to flip to their side to successfully push Trump out of the Oval Office.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoLatest Trump proposal on endangered species could limit future habitat, critics say Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election Barrasso nuclear bill latest GOP effort to boost uranium mining MORE (Wyo.), the No. 3 Republican senator, said that the caucus was prepared to go late Friday if Democrats try to use procedural delaying tactics to drive a final vote late into the night.

“Sen. Schumer would be able to amend that. The question is does he try 11 [times],” Barrasso said. “Once he realizes how it’s going to turn out.”