WASHINGTON ― A quick acquittal of President Donald Trump with no witnesses in his impeachment trial became an almost certain outcome after Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a key swing vote, announced his opposition to both on Thursday evening.
In a statement, Alexander said he believed there was “no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven,” referring to Trump’s pressuring of Ukraine to open investigations into a political rival.
But the retiring Tennessee Republican argued that Trump’s actions, though “inappropriate,” do not meet the bar for an impeachable offense and that the matter ought to instead be remedied in November’s presidential election ― the very same election Trump has tried to influence by seeking dirt his leading Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), also considered a potential vote for witnesses, announced Friday that she would also vote “no” ― putting a final nail in the coffin of the chance to hear from witnesses.
Democrats were hoping that they could expand the scope and length of the trial by getting four Republicans to join them in a key vote to allow witnesses that is expected to take place on Friday. But with Alexander opposed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) now likely has at least 50 GOP votes to block witnesses and end the trial by Saturday.
That means the Republican-controlled chamber will set a precedent in not allowing witnesses and other evidence to be admitted into the proceedings, as the Senate did during the impeachment trials of President Bill Clinton and President Andrew Johnson.
The Senate wrapped up 16 hours of questioning in the impeachment trial of Trump on Thursday much in the way the ordeal began: with Democrats urging consequences for the president and Republicans largely unified on protecting him.
During the proceedings on Thursday, the second day of marathon questioning by senators of both the House managers and Trump’s defense team, Republicans and Democrats shadowboxed over witnesses, the Ukraine whistleblower, foreign election interference, the legal standard for impeachment and the timing of Trump’s hold on Ukraine aid, among a number of other issues.
Republicans were mostly confident throughout the day that they had enough support to block the consideration of witnesses, although Alexander gave Republicans some heartburn Thursday afternoon. Most GOPers have dismissed the need to hear from individuals with firsthand knowledge of the president’s actions, including former Trump national security adviser John Bolton.
Bolton, a longtime figure in conservative politics, essentially confirmed the House impeachment managers’ case against Trump in the draft of an upcoming book, which alleges that the president told Bolton directly that release of congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine was being tied to the Ukrainian government announcing investigations into Biden and his son Hunter.
Two Republicans said they would vote for witnesses: Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine. But their votes won’t be enough to force the matter.
Murkowski waited until Friday soon after 1 p.m. to announce her opposition. She previously expressed an openness to calling witnesses, but the Alaska moderate has been tight-lipped about how she intends to vote. She met privately with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday, and the two were spotted deep in conversation on the Senate floor on Thursday.
In a possible hint of her position regarding witnesses, Murkowski asked Trump’s team on Thursday why Bolton shouldn’t be called to testify, noting specifically that the “dispute about material facts weighs in favor of calling additional witnesses with direct knowledge.” White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin argued that it would be “very damaging” for the Senate as an institution if it voted to seek information the House did not uncover.
Ultimately, Murkowski said she believed the impeachment had been “partisan” and that she had “come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate.” Therefore, she said she would vote against hearing from witnesses.
Democrats would have likely lose the vote on witnesses even if three Republicans voted with them, however. In that scenario, with 50 Republicans opposed and 47 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents and three of the GOP senators in favor, the Senate would reject a motion to call witnesses due to the chamber’s rules requiring 51 votes for passage.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, the presiding officer, could have needed to cast a tie-breaking vote in that event. In fact, he could point to precedent: The chief justice in the trial of President Andrew Johnson was allowed to cast a tie-breaking vote on two procedural motions. But Roberts, a conservative appointed by President George W. Bush, was not expected to interject himself into a messy political dispute, especially when Republicans could simply vote to overrule him.
“I would hope for the chief justice to break a tie. I don’t know that he will,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) acknowledged on Thursday.
A 50-50 tie would put the Senate into “uncharted territory,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
“If it’s two, the deal is over. If it’s three, we don’t know,” Braun said. “There’s not real certainty what the power of the presiding officer has.”
In one of the more dramatic moments of the day, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) attempted to ask a question that would have named a person suspected of being the Ukraine whistleblower, whose complaint led to the opening of the House impeachment inquiry against Trump. Roberts declined to read it, however, prompting Paul to storm out of the Senate chamber and then name the alleged whistleblower at a news conference, while insisting he wasn’t identifying the whistleblower.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House impeachment manager, urged Republicans to allow witnesses by suggesting limiting depositions of testimony to one week, following the model in the Clinton impeachment trial.
“Let’s take a week. Let’s take a week to have a fair trial,” Schiff said. “Is that too much to ask in the name of fairness?”
But Republicans argued that allowing witnesses in the trial would open a Pandora’s box, leading their members to call for the testimony of Biden, Hunter Biden, Schiff and others. They warned that Trump was likely to assert executive privilege over the testimony of witnesses such as Bolton and Mick Mulvaney, the director of Office of Management and Budget, tying up the matter in courts potentially for weeks, if not months.
Friday’s session is expected to go late into the night. After the Senate gavels in at 1 p.m. Eastern time, senators will debate for four hours on the issue of witnesses and other evidence, followed by a vote on whether to allow them at all. If the vote is rejected, which is all but certain, Republicans hope to move to a final vote to acquit the president. Before they can do that, however, they must defeat a series of motions expected to be offered by Democrats seeking to pressure Republicans before the trial ends.