Senate Votes Against Calling Witnesses in Trump Impeachment Trial
WASHINGTON — The Senate voted narrowly Friday to bring the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump to a close without issuing subpoenas for witnesses or evidence, rejecting Democrats’ principal demand and clearing the way for an all-but-certain acquittal to take place likely next week.
The vote, 49-51, was sharply partisan with only two Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah — breaking ranks to join Democrats in their push to issue subpoenas for former national security adviser John Bolton and perhaps others.
While the vote opens the way for Trump’s acquittal, it came amid two setbacks for the White House. One was logistical — the final vote will not happen as quickly as Trump had wanted and might not take place until after Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, meaning Trump would not be able to use that prominent forum to declare himself exonerated.
The second — more significant — setback involved the tone of Republican senators, as several began saying that while they will vote to keep Trump in office, they believe the evidence has proved that he committed misconduct.
Bolton had offered to testify in the Senate trial about allegations, detailed in his upcoming book, that Trump withheld U.S. aid to Ukraine in an attempt to pressure that country to announce investigations into Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden. Those claims were at the heart of the House’s “abuse of power” article of impeachment of Trump. A second article of impeachment charged Trump with obstructing Congress by blocking his administration from participating in the House probe.
The vote on whether to call witnesses provided the only real suspense in the third presidential impeachment trial in American history.
But that ended Friday morning when Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, announced she would not vote for subpoenaing witnesses. She was seen as Democrats’ last hope of mustering four Republicans to join their effort.
In a blistering statement, Murkowski heaped blame on all sides for what she described as a poorly handled impeachment, from start to finish.
“The House chose to send articles of impeachment that are rushed and flawed,” she said in a statement. “I carefully considered the need for additional witnesses and documents, to cure the shortcomings of its process, but ultimately decided that I will vote against considering motions to subpoena.”
She added that due to the partisan nature of the impeachment proceeding, she has concluded 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.”
Initially Republicans hoped to move immediately after the witnesses vote to a final vote on Trump’s guilt. With 67 votes required to convict Trump, his acquittal is assured.
But GOP leaders found that wrapping up the trial was more difficult and time-consuming than expected. Lawmakers want time to explain their votes publicly and Democrats are planning to force several votes to challenge Republicans on witnesses. With the Iowa caucus on Monday and the State of the Union on Tuesday, the acquittal vote may not take place until next week.
Meanwhile, cracks in the loyalty of some Senate Republicans are showing. Several GOP lawmakers have suggested that Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine were wrong, even if they didn’t warrant removal from office.
“It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “But the Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate.”
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who had made it a point to not speak with reporters during the trial, broke that public silence Friday to make clear he agreed with Alexander. “Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us,” he said.
Democrats expressed outrage over the vote to reject witnesses, insisting that subpoenaing former and current Trump administration officials — as well as documents — was the only way to ensure a fair consideration of the House’s claim. Without that, Trump’s acquittal will be forever tainted, they said.
The trial — with nine full days of arguments and questions from senators — will amount to the shortest impeachment trial of a president and will be the only one without witnesses testimony.
“He cannot claim a true acquittal if this has not been a fair trial,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. “In every impeachment hearing, be it for a judge or a president, that has gone through completion, witnesses have been presented at the trial.”
Republicans blasted that claim, arguing that House Democrats rushed through a weak case and failed to subpoena the witnesses it now wanted the Senate to bring in. Video of several of the House witnesses played throughout the arguments.
Trump’s Republican allies, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, warned early in the trial that agreeing to subpoena witnesses would open a Pandora’s box. They said that if Democrats were able to hear from Bolton, Republicans would issue several subpoenas, including to Biden, possibly extending the trial for weeks.
The witness vote came perilously close to an even 50-50 split. It is a possibility that would have likely led to Democrats asking Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to weigh in on the issue to break the tie.
Democrats say Roberts, as presiding officer, had the power to break a tie, just as Vice President Mike Pence does when he presides over the Senate. Republicans say the chief justice does not have the power to vote, and under Senate rules, a tie means the motion fails.
Murkowski indicated that one reason she considered was that she did not want to be the cause of a constitutional debate over whether Roberts had the power to break a tie.
“It has also become clear some of my colleagues intend to further politicize this process, and drag the Supreme Court into the fray, while attacking the chief justice,” she said. “I will not stand for nor support that effort. We have already degraded this institution for partisan political benefit, and I will not enable those who wish to pull down another.”
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