Senate Republicans are keeping their impeachment trial options open — officially, at least.
The party is uniting around a strategy that could quickly acquit President Donald Trump of articles of impeachment while also giving them the opportunity to call witnesses later in the trial if Republicans and the president are not satisfied with how things are going, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Republican senators on Thursday.
Heading into the trial, Republicans’ plan would be to call no witnesses and simply allow House Democrats and then the president’s attorneys to make their case before the public. After that, the Senate would consider calling people either for live testimony or closed-door depositions.
It’s a plan they believe will insulate the Senate GOP from pressure to call a host of controversial witnesses — which the caucus would struggle to do for political and procedural reasons alike — while putting Trump on track to be cleared before the end of January.
“The direction we appear to be headed is to let the House managers present their prima facie case which would mean no witnesses, to let the president’s counsel do the same thing,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of leadership. “And then to decide if there’s a reason to go forward from there.”
House Republicans and Trump have repeatedly urged the Senate GOP and its slim majority to summon the likes of Hunter and Joe Biden before the chamber in a spectacle they believe would bolster the president’s case. Senate Republicans have resisted the idea, warning they couldn’t cobble together the 51 votes needed to do so under Senate rules. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also repeatedly cautioned his members against votes that divide the party ahead of a tough election year.
Already Senate Republicans have received a taste of what could come if they preemptively dismiss the idea of calling witnesses: conservative Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) complained to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Wednesday to “fight fire with fire” and “rethink” his strategy. GOP senators are also loath to risk the president and his allies’ ire over the holiday break as both sides prepare for the trial.
“I don’t think anybody wants to foreclose the possibility that additional witnesses would be called,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is close to McConnell. “Whatever 51 senators want, they’re going to get.”
With that approach, Trump’s trial is looking more and more like what President Bill Clinton experienced. Clinton’s opened with a bipartisan agreement over the broad parameters of a January trial, with senators reserving the more divisive witness debate for later. In Clinton’s case, the Senate called Monica Lewinsky and two other witnesses to give depositions on party-line votes. For Trump, it seems more likely no witnesses appear at all.
Essentially, Republicans are aiming to set up a fork in the road and defer the painful topic of whether to call witnesses. A real divide is already being exposed in the party over whether to bring in witnesses, though it’s a dynamic that could fade once the trial actually starts.
“At the end, they can ask for witnesses to be called. You need 51 votes to get a witness called. I’m definitely not [backing any request for witnesses]. Not with my vote. But I’m just one, there are 99 more out there,” Graham said in an interview.
“I’d vote to call Hunter Biden,” countered Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “He’s relevant, material.”
The White House has sounded closer to Hawley. And some Republicans are eager to show deference to Trump and White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who met privately with McConnell on Thursday afternoon to continue to discuss strategy.
“We should let the White House counsel have latitude,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who would prefer closed-door depositions to live witness appearances. “The White House counsel probably does have some witnesses they’d like to depose.”
Then there’s the 47 Senate Democrats, who could counter with demands to call people like acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney or former National Security Adviser John Bolton. With just 51 votes winning the day and a handful of more independent Republicans potentially amenable to joining with Democrats in order to secure the most thorough account, the witness showdown could accelerate quickly.
“If there’s a trial, there should be witnesses. Every side should be able to be called who they want to,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). “I never heard of a trial without witnesses. So I don’t understand. Maybe there’s something different, some secret sauce here they do differently in the Senate than any place in the world.”
With sentiments like that, it’s easy to see why Senate Republicans want to hit pause on the witness debate. And their strategy is gaining some currency with the president’s most vocal defenders.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a close Trump ally, said in an interview that he trusted McConnell’s judgment and wouldn’t “second-guess” the Senate.
“The president is talking about wanting witnesses to make sure that at least our witnesses get heard to tell the other side of the story,” Meadows said. “That being said, if the leader and my Republican colleagues in the Senate think it’s best to be expeditious with it… the quicker we can get on with this and get on to real business, I’ll applaud.”
It’s also becoming quite clear that many of Trump’s allies in the Senate simply want to rip off the Band-Aid and go as quickly as possible. They realize a long, drawn-out trial may not be to anyone’s benefit. Sure, it would sidetrack the five Senate Democrats running for president from competing in Iowa, but it would also keep the Trump-Ukraine scandal in the headlines and potentially fuel a messy divide in the Senate GOP.
“The president has to have his day in court because he’s not been allowed that yet in the House,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.). “If that can be done with the two presentations then I’m all for getting this vote on and getting it done.”
No final decisions have been made. And the trial is in approximately three weeks, an eon in politics.
But it’s clear where the consensus is heading in the Republican Party: Acquit Trump and then move on.
“It’s gonna be shorter than longer,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “That’s been my opinion now for two days in a row. It’s amazing.”
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