Struggling to shrug off extraordinary, late-stage entries in the growing body of evidence against Donald Trump, the Republican Senate majority pressed ahead on Friday to hold a vote to stop witnesses from appearing at the trial – with the aim of acquitting Trump.
“I think we can all agree this is a big day,” the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said on Friday before the 1pm proceedings began.
A vote on witnesses, expected some time on Friday, has the potential to lead to an abrupt end to the trial and acquit for Trump, in only the third presidential impeachment trial in American history. As one key senator came out on Friday opposing witnesses, it seemed that vote was likely to succeed in ensuring no further testimony.
However, the Republican senator John Cornyn said the Senate might not hold a vote on acquittal until next week, if the senators cannot agree to hold such a vote directly after the vote on witnesses.
The basic order of the day seemed vulnerable to upset, however, by major twists outside the chamber, including the revelation that the lead lawyer who for days has denied on the Senate floor that Trump was involved in a Ukraine scheme was himself privy to the scheme, according to a new report on a forthcoming book by the former national security adviser John Bolton.
Democrats have called for weeks for the Senate to subpoena Bolton’s testimony. Even as the Republican majority moved to stifle that call – probably successfully – a newly leaked excerpt from Bolton’s book supported the central charge against Trump: that he conditioned military aid for Ukraine on the receipt by him personally of political favors.
Trump asked Bolton in a May meeting to contact the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and tell him to meet with Rudy Giuliani, Bolton’s book says, according to a New York Times report. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, was in charge of the effort in-country to make the Ukrainians understand what Trump wanted and to deliver it.
In a further bombshell, Bolton wrote that the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, was among the attendees of the May meeting. Cipollone is the leader of Trump’s impeachment defense team. If Bolton’s account is true, Cipollone has hidden his knowledge of the Ukraine scheme while ridiculing the notion there was ever such a scheme and simultaneously accusing the House managers of concealing evidence.
Trump denied Bolton’s account.
“I never instructed John Bolton to set up a meeting for Rudy Giuliani, one of the greatest corruption fighters in America and by far the greatest mayor in the history of NYC, to meet with President Zelensky,” he said in a statement. “That meeting never happened.”
The lead House manager, Adam Schiff, pounced on the denial as the Senate began debate on Friday on the question of calling witnesses. “Here you have the president saying John Bolton is not telling the truth,” Schiff said. “Let’s find out. Let’s depose John Bolton under oath. Let’s find out who’s telling the truth.
“As Mr Cipollone said, let’s make sure that all the facts come out.”
On Thursday night, Republican senators Lamar Alexander and Susan Collins announced how they would vote on witnesses. Alexander, a retiring senator, said he would vote against while Collins, who is up for re-election this year, said she would vote in favor.
Alexander’s announcement effectively closed the door on any possibility that congressional Democrats would be able to force the Senate to bring on witnesses to testify in the trial.
Trump’s conduct was inappropriate but did “not meet the US constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense,” Alexander said.
“The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did.”
It would take four Republicans to break with the 53-seat majority and join with all Democrats to demand more testimony.
Mitt Romney, another moderate Republican senator, and Collins were two of the four and it appeared that Lisa Murkowski might join them, but the Alaska senator on Friday announced her decision to oppose the calling of witnesses, probably derailing the effort and ensuring a speedier resolution .
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida announced on Friday that he opposed convicting Trump despite his belief in Trump’s guilt. “Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office,” Rubio said in a statement.
Democrats continue to contend that what the president did is key to determining the verdict on the two articles of impeachment he faces – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The announcements on witnesses came after the final day of questioning from senators. The questioning segment did not seem to sway a significant swath of Democratic or Republican lawmakers.
The trial was set to resume with four hours of debate on Friday afternoon divided between Trump’s defense lawyers and the House managers leading the impeachment efforts for the Democrats.
On Sunday, the New York Times reported that in the manuscript of Bolton’s upcoming book he said Trump told him to withhold $391m in aid to Ukraine until Ukrainian officials agreed to help investigate Trump’s political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Democrats had hoped that would further sway Republican senators or at least motivate enough of the chamber to extend the trial.
Since those allegations, Democrats have strongly argued that Bolton should come forward to testify while the White House and Republicans have argued that he should not.
At a rally in Iowa on Thursday night, Trump derided what he called “impeachment-lite”.
“While we’re proudly creating jobs and killing terrorists, congressional Democrats are consumed with partisan rage and obsessed with a deranged witch-hunt hoax,” Trump said, eliciting boos and thumbs-down gestures from supporters in Des Moines. “We’re having probably the best years we’ve ever had in the history of our country – and I just got impeached!”
David Smith contributed to this report