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 Trump’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 Giuliani to former national security adviser John Bolton 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.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (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 Biden 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 Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Susan Collins (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 Yovanovitch and then push Ukrainian representatives to open two investigations that would benefit Trump politically.
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 Gardner (R-Colo.), an endangered GOP incumbent who has announced he will vote against allowing witnesses, hovered nearby.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (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 Toomey (R-Pa.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Lindsey Graham (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.
Alexander was spotted chatting and joking with Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Mark Warner (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 Cornyn (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 Paul (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 McConnell (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.
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 Schiff (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 Sekulow, 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.
“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 Barrasso (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.”