The Senate Republican majority on Thursday raced toward an early end to what would be the fastest presidential impeachment trial in US history by half, fighting to block witnesses as Democrats sounded dire warnings about the imminent advent of a lawless presidency remade in the image of Donald Trump.
The disposition of a crucial vote expected on Friday on whether to call witnesses was unclear as the senators broke for dinner on Thursday. As many as three Republican senators appeared to be ready to vote in favor of witnesses, but the support of that trio was far from certain, and all three votes would only be enough to create a tie vote on the question, if Democrats hold ranks.
John Roberts, who is presiding at the trial in his capacity as chief justice of the United States, might break such a tie vote – or he might allow the vote to stand and declare the motion to be unsuccessful, meaning that the push for witnesses would fail.
The lead prosecutor in the case, the House manager Adam Schiff, warned that the Republicans’ unified determination to protect Trump instead of collecting evidence was paving the way toward a presidency unbound by congressional oversight or any other checks and balances.
“What we have seen in the past few days is a descent into constitutional madness, because that way madness lies,” Schiff said, comparing the Republican position to Richard Nixon’s infamous defense of his conduct in the Watergate scandal: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
“Watergate is now 40, 50 years behind us,” said Schiff. “Have we learned nothing in the last half-century? Have we learned nothing at all? We are right back to where we were a half-century ago, and we may even be in a worse place because this time that argument may succeed.
“That is the normalization of lawlessness.”
In a late-stage gambit for witnesses, Schiff offered to restrict witness depositions to a time window of one week, after the model of the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, when three witnesses were deposed on video outside the Senate chamber.
“Let’s use the Clinton model,” Schiff said. “Let’s take a week. Let’s take a week to have a fair trial.”
Democrats are pushing for the president’s former national security adviser John Bolton to testify, with what could be a damaging account of Trump’s “quid pro quo” strategy with Ukraine that has resulted in his impeachment, while Republicans are signaling they have the numbers necessary to shut down the attempt.
If Republicans successfully block witnesses, that could effectively trigger the beginning of the end of the impeachment trial, with the time for senators’ questions and final debate wrapping up soon and a final vote on whether to remove Trump from office or acquit him coming as early as Friday.
Such a trial would be about half as long as the previous shortest presidential impeachment trial in US history, that of Clinton, which lasted just more than one month.
This week, Trump’s lawyers have shifted their arguments away from the president doing nothing wrong to a position equating to: even if he did withhold aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigating his potential Democratic election rival Joe Biden, that doesn’t meet the standard needed for impeachment.
With the question of whether to bring in potentially explosive new witness testimony hanging over the Senate, the trial has been a tense affair.
The spotlight has been on Senators Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski – three of the more moderate Republican senators who conceivably could join with Democrats to bring on a motion to force new witness testimony at the Senate trial. Democrats need four Republican senators to join them and it’s still unclear, even if Romney, Collins and Murkowski backed the motion, who else would join them.
Ahead of the resumption of impeachment proceedings on Thursday, McConnell was asked by reporters if he had confidence that he had the votes necessary to block a motion on witnesses.
“I always do,” McConnell said. But the top Senate Republican was more unsure on other aspects of the trial. When asked if he had the votes for acquittal by Friday night, McConnell said: “We’ll see what tomorrow brings.”
Privately, Republican Senate staffers expressed confidence that they could block a motion for witnesses.
That prospect alarmed legal scholars and other observers.
“I don’t think people fully grasp the constitutional danger of this moment,” tweeted Susan Hennessey, executive editor of the Lawfare web site. “If the Senate were to refuse to call relevant witnesses with direct testimony of grave presidential wrongdoing then we can no longer understand impeachment to be a genuine check on executive overreach.”
Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College, tweeted: “The constitution wasn’t designed to deal with people who don’t give a shit.”
The rush for witnesses followed a report from a leaked version of Bolton’s upcoming book where he said Trump told Bolton to hold back on congressionally approved national security aid to Ukraine until officials there agreed to help investigate Biden, his family and other matters involving US Democrats.
Bolton’s book has been a persistent topic of discussion throughout the week in Washington. On Monday, the former Trump chief of staff John Kelly was asked about Bolton’s allegation in the book.
“If John Bolton says that in the book, I believe John Bolton,” Kelly said. “John’s an honest guy. He’s a man of integrity and great character, so we’ll see what happens.”
On Thursday, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, refused to fully respond to Kelly’s comments.
“I respect Gen Kelly enormously and like him personally,” Conway said. “I don’t know what he’s referring to so I can’t answer. I’ve not seen the manuscript.”
Thursday’s questioning portion of the hearings follows an eventful day in the impeachment trial. On Wednesday, Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz offered one of the most expansive and stunning arguments in Trump’s defense when he said the president could not be removed from national office over requesting political favors if he believed those favors were in the public interest of the country.
“If the president does something which he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” Dershowitz said.