Senate rejects proposal to call witnesses in Trump's impeachment trial

Steven T. Dennis, Laura Litvan and Erik Wasson

The Senate voted against seeking new evidence in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, sending the process into the final stages that’s all but certain to end with acquittal of the president.

The 51-49 vote, one of the most consequential of the trial, fell mostly along party lines. Two Republicans– Maine Senator Susan Collins and Utah Senator Mitt Romney– joined all 47 Senate Democrats and independents in voting for additional testimony and documents. Two Republicans who had considered voting for witnesses – Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski – voted against the motion.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, walks with reporters as in the basement of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

Even with that crucial vote over, and the Senate in recess, the timing of the trial’s conclusion is still in question. The White House, Senate Republicans and Democratic lawmakers said it might continue for several more days before a verdict is rendered. That would mean the proceedings would still be lingering when Trump delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday from the House chamber where Democrats adopted the articles of impeachment six weeks ago.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are trying to negotiate a deal on a resolution spelling out how to end the trial. If that’s unsuccessful, McConnell would need just 51 Republican votes to close down the trial on his own terms.

Democrats want to ensure that all senators get the chance to publicly declare on the Senate floor the rationale for their votes before the final tally on Trump’s guilt or innocence. With 67 votes needed to convict Trump in the GOP-led chamber, the president is expect to be easily acquitted.

“We feel strongly that this needs to be a fair trial and that each member gets an opportunity to say how they feel and say how they came to their decision,” Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, a member of Democratic leadership, said.

That would add to an already complicated schedule for next week. On Monday, Iowa holds its caucuses, where four Senate Democrats are seeking the party’s presidential nomination. The next day, Trump is scheduled to deliver his annual address to a joint session of Congress.

No 'fair trial'

The outcome of the vote on witnesses was sealed when Murkowski announced Friday that she would vote against bringing in new evidence. She was one of the last Republicans who remained publicly uncommitted.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., pauses as he speaks to reporters to criticize the process in the Republican-controlled Senate as the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, resumes in Washington, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020.

“I have come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate,” Murkowski said. “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.”

The vote on witnesses came on the same day the New York Times reported that former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote in an unpublished manuscript that the president directed his aides in May to help pressure Ukrainian officials to dig up damaging information on a Democratic rival.

That was two months before Trump asked Ukraine’s president in a phone call to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. And one of the officials present during the May discussion, according to Bolton, was White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who is leading the defense team.

Bolton was one of the main witnesses Democrats wanted to call in the trial, and he had said he’d be willing to testify under subpoena. An earlier revelation from his manuscript – that Trump directly linked the release of military aid for Ukraine to help with digging up dirt on Democrats – had GOP leaders scrambling to head off the chance that Democrats would get four Republican senators to agree with them.

Final appeal

Representative Adam Schiff, who is leading the House impeachment managers, cited the Times report in his final appeal to Republicans to call new witnesses in the trial. He said the presence of Cipollone in the meeting made him a fact witnesses to the events at the heart of the impeachment charges.

“There is a new fact which indicates that Mr. Cipollone was among those who were in the loop, yet another reason why we ought to hear from witnesses,” Schiff said Friday.

The vote may have political ramifications for senators up for re-election in 2020. Democrats accused Republicans of attempting to “cover up” Trump’s alleged crimes, and they have vowed to remind voters in November of how their senators voted on the matter.

A Quinnipiac University poll published this week found that 75% of respondents favored witnesses in the Senate trial, including 49% of Republicans.

Four Republican senators facing tough re-election campaigns this year – Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina – all voted against calling new witnesses.