Impeachment trial endgame: Republicans hope for Friday vote to acquit Trump

Vote on considering witnesses, documents expected to fail, allowing McConnell to prevent further delays

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, arrives for the continuation of the Senate Impeachment Trial of President Donald Trump on Thursday. Collins is expected to vote with Democrats to consider witnesses but that vote may fail, leading to the trial ending Friday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, arrives for the continuation of the Senate Impeachment Trial of President Donald Trump on Thursday. Collins is expected to vote with Democrats to consider witnesses but that vote may fail, leading to the trial ending Friday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 30, 2020 at 6:07pm

The Senate impeachment trial could end Friday if Republican confidence translates to them blocking a motion to consider witnesses and they are then able to move to a final vote to acquit President Donald Trump.

A few senators on the fence about witnesses have yet to make their intentions clear, so there is still room for a surprise turn of events. But several Republicans and Democrats seem to think a vote to consider witnesses will fail and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will move immediately to votes on the two articles of impeachment.

The House has charged Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The Senate will vote separately on each article, deciding whether to convict or acquit Trump. A conviction requires a two-thirds vote, and it’s never been in doubt the final vote to convict on either charge will fall short of those 67 votes.

Democrats have tried to convince four Republicans to vote with them to subpoena witnesses and documents – a step they claim is necessary for a fair trial. Such motions require a 51-vote majority.

But on Thursday Democrats started to show signs of defeat, saying they remain “hopeful” but not projecting the sort of confidence displayed earlier in the week.

“We have always said this is an uphill fight,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said. “The pressure that Trump, who is a vindictive, nasty president, and McConnell place on them is large but we are still hopeful.”

Republicans, meanwhile, were confident Democrats’ hope was unfounded.

“The president will be acquitted in a bipartisan manner,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said, predicting Republicans will vote against considering witnesses. “We’re not blocking anybody’s witnesses. We’re just not going to legitimize the House not calling witnesses and dumping it in our lap.”

‘Pretty important numbers’

So far there are only two Republicans, Sens. Mitt Romney and Susan Collins, who have strongly indicated they’d vote to allow the consideration of witnesses. Two others, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, have expressed openness to it. A handful of other Republicans have not stated their intentions but are ultimately not expected to side with Democrats unless those other four do, guaranteeing the motion to consider witnesses will succeed.

Affirming that expectation, Indiana GOP Sen. Mike Braun told reporters Thursday that two, three and four “are pretty important numbers” in terms of whether Republicans would vote to allow witnesses.

Democrats already tried and failed to subpoena witnesses and documents before the trial started.

Republicans rejected Democrats’ pretrial motions seeking to call four witnesses: former national security adviser John Bolton; acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney; Robert Blair, a senior adviser to Mulvaney; and Michael Duffey, a senior Office of Management and Budget official.

The GOP also rejected Democrats’ attempts to subpoena documents from the White House, OMB and the State and Defense departments related to Trump’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine, an action that is at the heart of the abuse of power charge.

More telling, however, was the pretrial vote in which all 53 Republicans voted against a Democratic amendment to the trial rules that would have made individual motions to subpoena witnesses and documents in order.

McConnell’s rules resolution, which the Senate adopted  on a party-line vote, only makes in order the question of whether to consider and debate motions to subpoena witnesses or documents. If that motion is not adopted, Democrats would not be able to offer separate motions to subpoena testimony from Bolton, Mulvaney, Blair and Duffey or specific sets of documents.

That vote will come Friday immediately after four hours of arguments, split equally between the House managers prosecuting the case and Trump’s lawyers mounting his defense. McConnell’s rules ensure that senators cannot amend the motion on whether to consider witnesses and documents or offer other motions before that vote.

Senators could offer a motion to go into closed session, as was done in former President Bill Clinton’s trial, at any time. However, senators in both parties have expressed little interest in closed-door deliberations, noting they want the trial to be conducted transparently.

Potential scenarios

All 47 Democrats are expected to vote in favor of considering witnesses and documents, so the various scenarios on how the vote will play out only involve deviations in Republican votes.

The least likely scenario is that the aforementioned four Republicans — and potentially more — join Democrats on the overarching question: that is, opening up the Senate to a series of motions to consider new evidence.  

That leaves two other scenarios. One is that Romney, Collins and either Murkowski or Alexander vote with Democrats to consider witnesses, resulting in a 50-50 tie. Senators in both parties say it’s unknown whether Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who is presiding over the trial, would cast a deciding vote but most predict he won’t weigh in and thus the vote would fail.  

The final scenario has Romney and Collins voting with Democrats and the effort to consider witnesses fails, 49-51. (Either one of those senators or both could stay in the GOP fold as well, also dooming such a motion.)

One wildcard is whether any Republicans that vote against considering witnesses and documents may ultimately vote to convict Trump on one or both charges. This could be a politically appealing option for more moderate GOP senators because it would allow them to back the broader party desire not to prolong the trial while showing independence in the verdict — without changing the ultimate outcome.

Other motions?

McConnell’s trial rules say that “other motions provided under the impeachment rules shall be in order” following the disposition of the witness question. If that vote to allow witnesses fails, several Republicans think McConnell will offer a motion to immediately proceed to final votes on the two articles.

“I suspect there’ll be consideration about a vote to set a final vote,’ Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the former Republican whip, said.

The Senate impeachment rules allow for all motions to be debated for up to two hours, one per side.

If the witness vote fails, Democrats would likely want to offer other motions to show Republicans aren’t allowing evidence they think is critical to a fair trial. For example, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen said Wednesday he planned to introduce a motion requiring the chief justice to subpoena documents and witnesses, if he determines they are relevant to the impeachment articles.

But on Thursday, several Democratic senators said they weren’t sure they would have an opportunity to offer additional motions if the question on considering witnesses and documents fails — a nod to the fact that McConnell might thwart them with a motion to call the question on the impeachment charges.

Schumer declined to say whether there was anything his party could do to delay a vote on the articles, reiterating that their current focus is on witnesses and documents.

“The leader’s resolution doesn’t go past that,” he said. “The minority has rights and we will exercise those rights.”

Schumer could theoretically attempt to amend any motion McConnell makes to end the trial, as the impeachment rules say “any proposal of a senator during an impeachment trial is only amendable upon the motion of other senators.”

However, a dispute over whether to call for a final vote on the articles could be unprecedented. In past impeachments, senators adopted agreements — sometimes after debate in closed session — setting the date, time and method for considering the articles.

Sen. Tim Scott thinks McConnell may avoid moving for an immediate vote on the articles because Democrats could just amend his motion.

“You’re gonna have to give senators enough time to flesh out this issue before expecting a conclusion,” the South Carolina Republican said. “I think there’ll be hours of debate before we get to that question at all.”

Transition signs

One of the signs that Democrats are expecting the Senate to vote Friday to acquit Trump was messages they started sending Thursday about the validity of that result without the Senate having considered new evidence.

“He will not be acquitted,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who led the impeachment articles through the House. “You cannot be acquitted if you don’t have a trial. And you don’t have a trial if you don’t have witnesses and documentation.”

Across the Capitol, Schumer made a similar but less definitive declaration.

“A trial without truth, without key evidence, without witnesses and documents would render the president’s acquittal meaningless,” he said, noting there would be “a giant asterisk next to it because the trial was so rigged in his favor.”

Niels Lesniewski, Chris Marquette and Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.