Democrats Growing Nervous About Next Week's Vote On Trial Witnesses

They're not confident about winning enough Republican support to subpoena witnesses and new documents in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

WASHINGTON ― Impeachment managers this week have presented an “overwhelming” body of evidence on President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign against Ukraine, but as their opening arguments in Trump’s Senate trial come to a close, Democrats are growing increasingly anxious about winning enough Republican support to subpoena witnesses and other documents.

“I’m less confident today than I was last week. I feel like the walls are closing in on Republicans. I don’t understand it. I think they will rue the day they have turned this trial into a cover-up,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Friday, the final day of presentations by House impeachment managers charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of congressional investigations.

“I don’t know whether it’s having the same impact on my Republican colleagues as it is on me,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is friendly with senators on the other side of the aisle, added of the proceedings so far. “I haven’t seen or heard anything to me that suggests significant movement.”

In order to subpoena new witnesses in the trial, Democrats need to convince at least four Republican senators to support an initial vote on including additional evidence next week. Three GOP senators have expressed some level of interest in doing so and are considered the likeliest votes in favor: Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Finding at least one more Republican senator to join that effort will be difficult given broad opposition within the GOP to increasing the scope and length of the trial. Republican leaders have warned their members that a subpoena for witness testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton or acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney could mean a protracted legal fight over executive privilege, dragging out the process for weeks or even months.

But Democrats maintain a dispute over executive privilege ― which Trump is expected to assert over witness testimony ― could be resolved relatively quickly given that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is presiding over the proceedings.

“If it’s signed, the subpoena, by the chief justice, I think it’ll whip through the courts very, very quickly. Much different than the House situation,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Friday.

Still, Republicans are expressing confidence that they’ll prevail next week. Asked Friday how much support there is in his caucus at the moment for calling witnesses, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said, “Not a lot.”

The North Carolina Republican, who is facing reelection this year, said that Democrats’ rhetoric about how undeniable the case is against Trump has been “somewhat discounted by how much time they’re spending singing about all the new information they need.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is thought to be one Republican who may be willing to vote in favor of subpoenaing witnesses i
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is thought to be one Republican who may be willing to vote in favor of subpoenaing witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

One possible vote for calling witnesses could be Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a quiet institutionalist with bipartisan credibility who is retiring this year. Alexander is not close to Trump and doesn’t emulate the president’s rhetoric like some of his colleagues do. But he is a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and he has rarely voted against the party line since Trump was inaugurated in 2017 ― save for a vote to revert the president’s national emergency on the border. 

The Tennessee Republican was one of several senators who pushed for giving the House managers more time to put on their case this week, contrary to the wishes of McConnell and Trump’s defense team. While he has emphasized the need to give the public at least the appearance of a fair trial, Alexander has kept his thoughts about witnesses and evidence to himself, at least for now.

“We’ve done a good job of letting the House managers present their case,” Alexander told reporters on Thursday. “The managers have said they’ve offered a mountain of overwhelming evidence, so we have a lot to consider. And I think if the American people are watching, they’ll see the Senate taking this very seriously, allowing a fair trial, and we’ll see what the result is at the end.”

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), who is also retiring this year, was also tight-lipped about the notion of including witnesses and new evidence.

“I’m just a juror trying to get all the facts that I can,” Roberts said Friday.

The House impeachment team will conclude its case Friday evening, and Trump’s defense team will launch its defense during what is expected to be a short session on Saturday. Following the conclusion of Trump’s defense next week, and a period of questioning by senators from both sides, the Senate will take a vote on whether to consider witnesses and other evidence.

Public polling is overwhelmingly on the side of Democrats as they press the need for witnesses. Per a new ABC News/Washington Post poll released Friday, two-thirds of Americans said the Senate should do so, including 45% of Republicans, and 65% of independents.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who observed on Twitter that Republicans looked “shook” by the House managers’ closing arguments Thursday, warned that senators who vote against including witnesses would have trouble explaining their vote to the American public.

“Anyone who stakes a claim to being reasonable, moderate and open-minded is going to have a devil of a time explaining why this is the only trial in American history to lack witnesses and documents,” Schatz said Friday. “It’s not just that it will lack witnesses and documents, it’s that they’re affirmatively voting to shut it down without getting all of the information.”