WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump appeared headed for all-but-certain impeachment acquittal as senators prepared on Friday to reject efforts to call more witnesses and moved to start bringing a close to the third impeachment trial in American history.
The Senate gaveled open with four hours set for arguments on the question of calling more witnesses.
The outcome was increasingly clear after a key Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, announced he didn’t need to see or hear more testimony. He said the Democrats had proved their case, that Trump abused power and obstructed Congress, but he did not think Trump’s actions rose to the impeachable level.
As the Senate opened, another GOP senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced she, too, would oppose, saying the proceedings “degraded” the institution.
“I have come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate,” she 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.”
Separately, The New York Times reported Friday that a book manuscript by Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton describes a May meeting in which Bolton claims that Trump ordered him to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to encourage him to meet with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s private attorney.
Bolton never made the call, he writes in his account, which adds detail to the prosecutors’ contention that Trump pressured Zelinskiiy to help with investigations to help Trump politically while Trump was withholding U.S. military aid as leverage. This was two months before Trump’s now-famous phone call with Zelinskiiy which is a focus of the impeachment charges.
Trump denied making the statements.
Eager for acquittal, the president and his allies in the Republican majority are brushing the past new revelations from Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, as well as historic norms that could make this the first Senate impeachment trial without witnesses. They resisted any efforts by Democrats to keep the proceedings going for weeks.
Voting on the witness question was expected late Friday after hours of debate, with other votes stretching well into the evening. The timing was not set.
Democrats warned the outcome won’t mean a true acquittal for Trump but a cover-up.
“They’re about to dismiss this with a shrug and a ‘Who cares?'” said the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, Patty Murray of Washington. “The full truth will come out.”
The impeachment of the president is playing out in an election year before a divided nation. Primary voting begins Monday in Iowa and Trump wants action on his trial finished in time for his State of the Union address next Tuesday.
Protesters stood outside the Capitol as senators arrived on Friday, but few visitors have been watching from the Senate galleries.
Despite the Democrats’ singular, sometimes-passionate focus on calling witnesses after revelations from John Bolton, the former national security adviser, the numbers are now falling short. It would take four Republicans to break with the 53-seat majority and join with all Democrats to demand more testimony.
Chief Justice John Roberts, in the rare role presiding over the impeachment trial, could break a tie, but that seems unlikely.
Alexander said in a statement late Thursday there was “no need for more evidence,” giving the Trump team the likelihood of a Senate vote in its direction. Not that he accepted Trump’s repeated claim of “perfect” dealings with Ukraine.
Alexander told reporters at the Capitol that after “nine long days and hearing 200 video clips of witnesses … I didn’t need any more evidence because I thought it was proved that the president did what he was charged with doing.”
Said Alexander: “But that didn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense, so I didn’t I didn’t need any more evidence to make my decision.”
Asked whether Trump deserved reelection in the wake of such wrongdoing, Alexander said, “Everyone will have to make that decision for themselves.”
Trump was impeached by the House last month on two charges, first that he abused his power like no other president, jeopardizing Ukraine and U.S.-Ukraine relations. Democrats say Trump asked the vulnerable ally to investigate Joe Biden and debunked theories of 2016 election interference, withholding American security aid to the country as it battled Russia at its border. The second article of impeachment says Trump then obstructed the House probe in a way that threatened the nation’s three-branch system of checks and balances.
Before Alexander’s statement, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said late Thursday she would vote to allow witnesses in the impeachment trial, briefly raising Democrats’ hopes for a breakthrough.
But Alexander weighed in minutes later.
Democrats built pressure on senators for testimony, but Trump’s lawyers argued it would take too long as they sped forward, even after Bolton’s potential eyewitness account to Trump’s actions detailed in a forthcoming book brought uncertainty.
Bolton’s forthcoming book contends he personally heard Trump say he wanted military aid withheld from Ukraine until it agreed to investigate the Bidens. Trump denies saying such a thing.
Thursday’s testimony included soaring pleas to the senators-as-jurors who will decide Trump’s fate, to either stop a president who Democrats say has tried to cheat in the upcoming election and will again, or to shut down impeachment proceedings that Republicans insist were never more than a partisan attack.
“Let’s give the country a trial they can be proud of,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor for House Democrats. He offered to take just one week for depositions of new witnesses, sparking new discussions.
Trump attorney Eric Herschmann declared the Democrats are only prosecuting the president because they can’t beat him in 2020.
“We trust the American people to decide who should be our president,” Herschmann said. “Enough is Enough. Stop all of this.”
Senators dispatched more than 100 queries over two days. The questions came from the parties’ leaders, the senators running for the Democratic nomination against Trump and even bipartisan coalitions from both sides of the aisle.
Trump’s lawyers focused some of their time Thursday refloating allegations against Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine while his father was vice president. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., one of the managers, said the Bidens have little to tell the Senate about Trump’s efforts to “shake down” Ukraine for his campaign.
The White House has blocked its officials from testifying in the proceedings and objected that there is “significant amounts of classified information” in the manuscript. Bolton resigned last September — Trump says he was fired — and he and his attorney have insisted the book does not contain any classified information.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly, Laurie Kellman and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.