Senate rejects impeachment witnesses, setting up Trump acquittal
Senate Republicans rejected a mid-trial effort to call witnesses and documents on Friday, paving the way for President Trump’s acquittal on two articles of impeachment passed by the House.
Senators voted 49-51, with Republican Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Susan Collins (Maine) breaking ranks to join Democrats in voting for witnesses. Fifty-one votes were needed to approve witnesses.
The vote is a significant win for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Trump, letting them bypass a messy floor fight over hearing testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton and other witnesses.
The GOP leader has said publicly and privately that he did not want witnesses, warning that it set up a “mutually assured destruction” because both sides would call controversial witnesses.
“There is no need for the Senate to re-open the investigation which the House Democratic majority chose to conclude and which the Managers themselves continue to describe as ‘overwhelming’ and ‘beyond any doubt,'” McConnell said.
“Never in Senate history has this body paused an impeachment trial to pursue additional witnesses with unresolved questions of executive privilege that would require protracted litigation. We have no interest in establishing such a new precedent, particularly for individuals whom the House expressly chose not to pursue,” the GOP leader continued in his statement.
“Senators will now confer among ourselves, with the House Managers, and with the President’s counsel to determine next steps as we prepare to conclude the trial in the coming days.”
Whether or not witnesses would be called was the big wildcard of Trump’s trial, as the president’s acquittal has been all but guaranteed in the GOP-controlled body, where 67 votes are needed for conviction.
The witness fight reached a fever pitch in the days leading up to Friday’s vote as Republicans faced intense pressure to call Bolton after The New York Times reported that he will claim, in his upcoming memoir, that Trump tied Ukraine aid to the country helping investigate Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Bolton’s allegation threatened to upend McConnell’s plan for a quick trial, and Republicans threw out a range of potential responses from requesting that the White House send over a copy of the unpublished manuscript to subpoenaing Bolton himself, who has offered to testify.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chief GOP vote counter, declined to say as late as Thursday that he thought they had a lock on the votes.
Democrats wanted to call four witnesses and compel the administration to hand over documents related to the delayed Ukraine aid. In addition to Bolton they wanted to hear from acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney; Robert Blair, a Mulvaney adviser; and Michael Duffey, an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staffer.
The Senate’s Friday vote was on if it would be in order to consider new witnesses or documents. If Democrats had succeeded, which would have required the support of four GOP senators, both sides would have been able to make motions for specific individuals. The Senate would then have had subsequent votes on those requests.
But Republicans warned their colleagues that if they agreed to call Bolton, they were paving the way for a messy floor fight and likely a protracted legal battle that could leave the trial in limbo for months.
“I think people are just now beginning to understand that … it’s not just one witness and it could entail months of delay,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Pat Philbin, a member of Trump’s legal team, warned during opening arguments that the president had a “long list” of witnesses he wanted to call if Bolton was subpoenaed.
Trump had indicated he would invoke executive privilege to try to prevent Bolton from testifying, arguing that allowing his former adviser to testify could set him to discuss, or be asked about, sensitive national security matters.
McConnell had only three votes to lose in the battle, but after Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) late Thursday announced he would oppose new witnesses, it was clear he would win.
On Friday, Sen. Lisa Murkwoski (R-Alaska) said she would not vote to allow witnesses, ensuring there would not be a tie vote that might raise the question of involvement by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial.
“Given the partisan nature of this impeachment from the very beginning and throughout, I have come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate. I don’t believe the continuation of this process will change anything. It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed,” Murkowski said.
Alexander explained his decision by saying that while Trumps’s behavior was “inappropriate,” it was not impeachable. He said there was no need to hear more evidence on the matter.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) told reporters unprompted on Friday that Alexander “speaks for lots and lots of us.”
But some Senate Democrats panned Alexander on Friday. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) called his decision an “offense.”
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) railed against Republicans and Trump ahead of Friday’s vote.
“If my Republican colleagues refuse to even consider witnesses and documents in this trial, this country is headed towards the greatest cover-up since Watergate,” Schumer said.
“If my Republican colleagues refuse to even consider witnesses and documents in the trial, what will the president conclude? We all know: he’ll conclude he can do it again, and congress can do nothing about it. He can try to cheat in his election again, something that eats at the roots of our democracy,” he added.