ROBERT COSTA: Full speed ahead for Senate Republicans. Friday’s critical vote on summoning witnesses fails after key GOP senators stand down.
SENATOR JOHN BARRASSO (R-WY): (From video.) I don’t think there’s a need for additional witnesses.
MR. COSTA: Democrats cry foul.
SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) No witnesses, no documents in an impeachment trial, it’s a grand tragedy. America will remember this day, unfortunately.
MR. COSTA: We go inside the impeachment trial, next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. We begin tonight with the latest on President Trump’s impeachment trial. It remains a fast-moving story, and we have gathered five of the best reporters on the beat to discuss the developments just days before the Iowa caucuses and the State of the Union address.
Here is what you need to know. First, the Senate debate over witnesses was jolted on Thursday when retiring Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander declared that the president’s conduct was inappropriate, but he decided to not push for witnesses.
SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER (R-TN): (From video.) I agree that he did something inappropriate, but I don’t agree he did anything akin to treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeanor. I think that’s a big gap there.
MR. COSTA: His decision left Democrats struggling to find four Republicans to support their effort to summon former National Security Adviser John Bolton and others. And by Friday afternoon Democratic hopes were dashed when the remaining holdout, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced that she too would not support calling witnesses. She criticized House Democrats for sending over, quote, “articles of impeachment that are rushed and flawed.”
Second, the New York Times reported early Friday that Bolton’s upcoming book accuses the president of directing Bolton to, quote, “help with his pressure campaign to extract damaging information on Democrats from Ukrainian officials.” And by Friday night, right now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held his members in line, and the vote to call witnesses, it did fail with only two Republicans voting in favor, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah and Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Joining us tonight from Capitol Hill in the center of the action, Karoun Demirjian, congressional reporter for The Washington Post; Jake Sherman, senior writer and co-author of POLITICO Playbook; Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times; and here with me at the table Ayesha Rascoe, White House reporter for National Public Radio; and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
Let’s start with the dean of Senate reporting, Carl Hulse. Carl, there has been an agreement tonight about the timing of the final vote on the articles of impeachment. What can you tell us about the politics and negotiations behind that decision?
CARL HULSE: A lot of – a lot of wrangling going on here, Jake, trying to get to an endgame here. So what has happened is that there’s been a decision that was cleared with President Trump to have a final vote on Wednesday, I think at 4 p.m. Now, that’s important because the State of the Union, of course, is on Tuesday, so the impeachment will still be going on, the trial. So first on Monday you’ll have closing arguments from the defense and the House managers, then the floor will be open – the chief justice won’t be in the chair – for speeches by senators, and that can go on for a few days. What happened was there was – there was pushback from moderates, Republicans who didn’t really like the rush to finish up today, so Mr. McConnell, as he usually does, found a way to keep his people united and move forward – over Democratic objections, of course.
MR. COSTA: Jake, when you look at Leader McConnell able to keep that conference united, what explains his ability to do so? How did he do it, get those 51 Republicans together?
JAKE SHERMAN: It’s a very important question, Bob. I think he is a master at knowing the mood of his conference and he knows where people are going to land before they land there. And I think it’s also important to realize that everybody kind of agreed to the endgame. They knew that the president would be acquitted and they had to figure out the path of least resistance to get there. But Mitch McConnell is a very adept operator. He is able to stay patient and calm and not blink in the face of adversity. His opponents, Democrats and some Republicans, that frustrates them, but it’s what makes him so successful is his ability to navigate these very choppy situations. And frankly, Democrats didn’t have much power here. They were – they’re in the minority and they stuck together, but we’ll see. I mean, there’s a very real possibility that Democrats at the end of the day are voting to acquit Donald Trump, so that will be a big victory for the president at the end of this impeachment effort.
MR. COSTA: Susan, what are you hearing about that point, about possibly seeing Senator Manchin of West Virginia and other moderate Democrats vote to acquit President Trump?
SUSAN PAGE: I think it is likely that there will be at least some Democratic support for the president on this, Joe Manchin being the most obvious possibility. He’s sided with Trump on some previous things. His state went by 42 percentage points to Trump in 2016, so understandable. But Democrats did hold together on this vote today on witnesses, and it will be – it’ll be a victory for Trump to be able to be say he was cleared in a bipartisan way; it’s not the timing he wanted to have. He wanted to be able to stand up there at the State of the Union and claim vindication, and he’ll be short; he won’t be able to do that on Tuesday night as this timetable calls for.
MR. COSTA: Ayesha, to that point about the White House’s perspective as they watch everything unfolding at the Senate, what’s their aim now for the State of the Union, knowing that this vote will not happen until Wednesday, the day after?
AYESHA RASCOE: Well, they’re saying that they’re going to have this very optimistic speech that’s going to be, you know, looking at America as the comeback kid, and it’s going to be – the president is going to be – you know, take that to do some victory laps, all the things that he has been able to accomplish, and there are things: the trade deal with Canada and Mexico. He’s had some victories and he wants to be able to show that, but he’s not going to be able to have this victory over impeachment, not that day. But he knows that he’s going to ultimately get the acquittal, but the question is, is that going to be enough for President Trump? He’s someone that likes to hold a grudge; he’s not someone who just lets things go. And I think this idea that he will always be an impeached president is something that’s going to be hard to have that hanging over him and then also to try to come together and say we should all come together as a country. That’s not exactly Trump’s style, but I’m sure you’ll hear a little bit of that.
MR. COSTA: Karoun, thinking about holding a grudge, you see conservatives, some Republicans tonight outraged about Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, Senator Collins supporting the call for witnesses. Why were there only two Senate Republicans, at the end of the day, who ended up supporting that push to summon Bolton and others? What stopped Senator Alexander and others from joining that group?
KAROUN DEMIRJIAN: Well, it was always a small group of Republicans that were in play, and Collins and Romney seemed to be sounding the most – in the questions that they asked and the statements that they were making as if they wanted to hear more of what people like John Bolton had to say. We were watching, obviously, Lisa Murkowski and Lamar Alexander as well, but it seems that people like Senator Alexander took the argument that Alan Dershowitz basically gave them when he first came forward, which is that even if all of this is true and even if everything Bolton says corroborates the case that the House is making, so what, that’s not worth removing the president from office. And that’s basically what Alexander said in his lengthy statement last night and Murkowski kind of alluded to in certain ways, even though she was expressing more frustration at basically the process that had gone on in her statement today. And so we see that that argument worked to kind of be the framework that a lot of Republicans voiced over the last few days, and that that’s what ended up convincing Alexander, who would have, frankly, had to join – be one of two additional Republicans to join Democrats for them to have the votes to actually carry the motion for the witnesses across the finish line. And it seems that they found that a compelling reason to say we don’t need to keep this going any longer.
MR. COSTA: Carl, were other Senate Republicans watching Senator Alexander on Thursday night? Were others prepared to maybe think about crossing that line? But was that the key moment Thursday night when Senator Alexander made that decision?
MR. HULSE: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I think that some of the senators let Senator Alexander speak for them. I met with the senator today. He was very thoughtful about his decision. A big thing with him was the fact that the caucuses are on Monday. He thinks there would be a bad public reaction to trying to remove a president right now and he wanted nothing to do with it. He did talk a lot about the fact that he thought the public would not accept this decision at this time. I think that weighed heavily in his deliberation.
MR. COSTA: Susan beyond those considerations, what about President Trump’s influence on how Republicans voted? Is this totally his party at this moment?
MS. PAGE: Yeah, this is – this is Trump’s party. Even senators – Republican senators running in competitive states in places like Arizona and Colorado stuck with the president on this because they have made the calculation that they want to get reelected in November. They need to be on the president’s side. There are risks of standing with Trump with voters who may not like Trump – with suburban women, with college-educated voters. But it is a dangerous place for a Republican to be.
Just this evening Mitt Romney, who didn’t vote, by the way, to convict President Trump he only voted to listen to some witnesses, was disinvited by the American Conservative Union to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference that is a big deal next month here in Washington, as a sign that it is unacceptable even to say, you know, I’d like to hear from John Bolton.
MS. RASCOE: Yeah, I mean, at this point Republicans are with Trump. And if you’re not with Trump, you’re not in good standing with the Republicans. Like – and you’re certainly not in office. You look at former Senator Bob Corker, former Senator Jeff Flake. They’re looking at this from the sidelines. That’s because they decided to speak out against Trump. And so if you don’t want that to happen, you have to stay – you have to stay that line. You cannot go and cross him. And he’s not someone who – as I said, he’s not going to let it go. They’re going to make sure – even though there was that whole big thing over, you know, the heads on a pike and all of that. But you don’t have to – the White House doesn’t have to put pressure on these senators. They know what the repercussions are if they go against the president.
MR. COSTA: Jake, what are the options now for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer between now and Wednesday? Is it all about trying to peel off some Republican votes against President Trump? Is it about making a case to the nation? What’s going on tonight at the Capitol?
MR. SHERMAN: Yeah. He doesn’t have any options. He has to – he basically has to cry uncle. I mean, he’s out of options. So on Monday and Tuesday there will be a lot of talking, but not a lot of action. And then on Wednesday is the final vote. So I don’t see much opportunity for him. And Democrats politically have to rely on the fact that they believe they’ve created a compelling narrative that this president exists outside of the bounds of the law, and is not lawful, and has conducted himself in a way that’s not befitting of the presidency, and that Republicans in the House and the Senate are complicit in that behavior.
I’m skeptical, based on my reporting and talking to people on Capitol Hill and at the party committees, that any of this will matter in November. I can’t imagine in Colorado that people are going to be asking about Cory Gardner’s vote to not call witnesses. Instead, they’re going to be talking – if past is precedent and if our reporting is correct – they’re going to be asking him about health care, about how to make people’s jobs better, how to give them higher wages in Colorado. I don’t imagine, based on my reporting, that they’re going to be asking about the witnesses.
Now, Democrats cite polling that witnesses are very popular. I don’t doubt that. But what I do doubt is that it’s very high on the list of people’s priorities as they go to the ballot box literally nine months from now in November in a presidential year. I just – and absent some sort of event outside of what we know, I can’t imagine it’s going to be a massive motivating issue across the board in November.
MR. COSTA: Let’s take a look, closer look, at the arguments made by the Trump legal team and House Democrats.
ALAN DERSHOWITZ: (From video.) Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest. And if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.
JAY SEKULOW: (From video.) You are being asked to remove a duly elected president of the United States, and you’re being asked to do it in an election year.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) If you say you can’t hold a president accountable in an election year where they’re trying to cheat in that election then you are giving them carte blanche.
MR. COSTA: Karoun, no one covers Chairman Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, better than you. You stake out his committee room day-in, day-out. He began his argument today by talking about the explosive reporting by The New York Times about John Bolton’s upcoming book. How vexed is he and other House Democrats about the inability of all these Bolton stories to move Republicans?
MS. DEMIRJIAN: Pretty vexed. I mean, look, it’s – half of the articles of impeachment have to do with the obstruction of Congress. The House wanted to have more of the first-hand witnesses who were close to Trump come in, talk to them during their inquiry, corroborate what they found, and make the case that they brought to the Senate stronger. And this has been kind of a central point of the tension between the House and the Senate in the course of this trial because the senators in the GOP have been saying: Well, you should have brought us a better case. But, no, we’re not going to subpoena the first-hand witnesses who could corroborate your case, that is otherwise potentially convincing.
And so this has been a real push and pull there, of if these witnesses had been allowed to come forward, if Bolton had been allowed to come forward by the – by the administration before this, would he have made such a stronger case that some of the Republicans would have to have voted with Democrats to convict the president. That’s going to be a question that we can’t answer, because we’re probably not going to hear from John Bolton. But as a result of that, we’re in this situation where there is a greater debate happening over whether the case is too much based on hearsay, and whether anybody can really speak to what the president’s motives were if they weren’t necessarily getting their cues directly from the president.
And that’s why you see a lot of the back and forth between the two legal teams looking at the exact same conversations, exact same documents, exact same sets of evidence, and coming up with two completely different explanations for it because they disagree about what the president’s intentions were, whether they were legitimate in trying to – you know, whether the Bidens represented corruption to the president and that was a legitimate thing for him to ask for the investigations into them to be announced, or if it was illegitimate and him putting his personal interest over the national interest. And we really didn’t come to a final conclusion of what that is or any sort of a consensus of what really went on there because both sides never really got to meet in the middle or hear from the people who might have weighed in that were closer to Trump.
MR. COSTA: Ayesha, you wanted to jump in?
MS. RASCOE: Yeah. I think this is why – that point about what these first-hand witnesses and what Bolton would have said – I think that’s why Alan Dershowitz – his arguments were so important for Republicans, because it gave them something to kind of hang their decisions on, because he also said that even if everything that Bolton says is true, that doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. And so I don’t think that they needed Alan Dershowitz to give them that idea. But they have Alan Dershowitz saying that. So now they can say: We have a constitutional lawyer, this respected lawyer, and he says this doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. And that’s essentially what you had Lamar Alexander saying. The president did do something improper. He said he believes that Democrats did make their case. So he’s, like, we don’t need any more witnesses. I agree. He did something improper. But it shouldn’t be – he shouldn’t be impeached over it.
MR. COSTA: Susan.
MS. PAGE: You know, we’re not going to hear from John Bolton in front of the Senate. We’re going to hear from John Bolton. We’re going to hear from John Bolton with his book and perhaps in other ways as well. And I think there is no – it is not a surprise that we’re ending up with the Senate voting largely along party lines to acquit the president. What’s been a surprise in this period is the amount of evidence that has tumbled from the sky that goes to this point, and that will, I think, continue to be – to be emerging through the – through the next months and weeks.
MR. COSTA: Jake, what is next for House Democrats? Speaker Pelosi, Chairman Schiff, do they try to subpoena Bolton now in the House, or do they just move on and look toward November?
MR. SHERMAN: House Democrats have been cagey on this. They say they leave the opportunity, the option on the table. I think, I would imagine, if I’m reading the tea leaves, that it’s going to tempting for them to subpoena Bolton. But remember, his book comes out in about six to eight weeks or so. So it’s doesn’t – it’s not going to take that long for us to understand what he knew. And I would argue, and a lot of sources have argued this to me, the House looks silly by not subpoenaing John Bolton if he has all this stuff in a book that he’s saying. They have an obligation, some Democrats say.
But there’s another line of thinking, which is the House should not reinsert itself into this mess. It should move into other areas, other – perhaps other areas of oversight, perhaps other areas of legislating. They have closed the chapter. Impeachment is done. The president’s been acquitted. They now risk – in some Democrats’ points of view they now risk looking obsessed with taking down the president, and that is not in their – some people’s view a good look for some of the moderate and Trump-district Democrats that are their so-called majority makers, the people that put the gavel in Nancy Pelosi’s hands.
MR. COSTA: Carl, when you step back and look at the institution of the Senate, what have you learned over the past couple of weeks about where it is in January 2020 and what that tells us about politics today?
MR. HULSE: Yeah, I think it’s a very troubled institution, and I go to your earlier points. This is really sort of completing President Trump’s takeover of Senate Republicans. If you remember, at the beginning there were a lot of people nervous and reluctant about him, but they have fully bought in now. They know this is the way they have to go into the future. So I think you’re going to have a lot of clashes between the Republicans and the Democrats trying to bring out the Republican commitment to Trump. I think the Senate everyone recognizes has big problems going forward. Senator Alexander said that today, that it’s very tense. They still manage to do a few things like the trade deal, a black historical college funding bill, but I don’t see much cooperation going forward. These kind of things leave a mark, and I think people will be processing this for quite a while.
MR. COSTA: Carl, real quick, on Tuesday Leader McConnell told Senate Republicans he didn’t have the votes to block witnesses. Then, by Wednesday morning, Wednesday afternoon, it was clear he had whipped them together. What happened?
MR. HULSE: Well, that was all part of his tactic. He wants them to know, hey, look, we don’t have the votes; you folks need to start coming out and saying what you’re going to do. So he played that card, pushed everybody in that direction. I do think that one of the big factors here was those senators hated sitting on the floor without their phones. They knew what the ultimate outcome was going to be, so let’s not have witnesses.
MR. COSTA: Susan, on Leader McConnell?
MS. PAGE: It’s Trump’s Republican Party; it is Mitch McConnell’s U.S. Senate, and when was the last time we had a leader with as much control? You know, he’s not so popular with the public, he’s not – his approval rating in his home state isn’t that great, but he has a sense of his caucus and a control of his caucus that is historic.
MR. COSTA: Karoun, thinking about institutions, Carl just commented on the Senate, but what about the House and its consideration of the executive branch? Do they feel like they’re stymied each and every step of the way?
MS. DEMIRJIAN: I think that you heard the – you heard Schiff make several arguments in which he was basically saying, look, if you can’t even let us have a trial here that’s a legitimate trial, then basically the Constitution’s a paper tiger and we can’t really stand up to the executive when they want to say no, we won’t give you any witnesses, no, we won’t give you any documents; that this is basically giving a thumbs-up to a practice of stonewalling by the Trump administration, that he said – basically, the House Democrats have been arguing will create consequences for the Senate, too, when it comes time for them to want to conduct oversight over a White House that they are not particularly fond of. So I think that there is a lot of people drawing conclusions about what this means in terms of the systematic legacy of this experience and what it means going forward for, you know, investigations that don’t rise to the level of impeachment but are just kind of the basic practice of how the interplay between the legislative branch and the executive branch goes. And we’ll have to see as things go forward if the warnings of either side are borne out here because there is the House making the point that Congress needs to be stronger, whereas there were a lot of Senate Republicans that were basically saying you’re trampling on the executive branch’s rights and the president’s rights to do things here and that’s not OK. And that’s another debate that wasn’t completely resolved, and so we will see. It seems unlikely that the White House will totally change its approach to congressional oversight after this, but it depends, as Jake was saying a minute ago, where they decide to go from here and what they decide to look into now that we’re nearing the end of the Ukraine chapter.
MR. COSTA: Ayesha, any tea leaves on the State of the Union? I know you said the president’s going to talk about his accomplishments. What about the market drop on Friday because of fears about coronavirus around the world and in China?
MS. RASCOE: I think you see the administration taking steps to try to address – to look like they are being very busy in trying to address this coronavirus, because even as all this stuff is going on you have this very potential – this virus that could be a very potential global issue and could affect the economy, which is President Trump’s strength. And so I think you’ll probably hear some talk about that, them trying to say that they’re on top of it. This is another example where Trump can also say that he wants to be better than former President Obama, who had to deal with Ebola. He had a lot to say then, that he didn’t – that he didn’t approve of it, so he can show now he can deal with this.
MR. COSTA: That’s all the time we have tonight. I really appreciate Ayesha here at the table, Susan Page – Ayesha Rascoe from NPR, Susan Page from USA Today, and our friends on Capitol Hill. I can’t believe on a busy night we were able to do this. I really appreciate it. Jake Sherman, Karoun Demirjian, Carl Hulse, thank you so much.
And on the Washington Week Extra we will discuss the upcoming Iowa caucuses. Can’t believe we didn’t do it on the show. It’s coming up next week. And we’ll be joined by veteran Iowa political reporter O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa. It’ll be on our website and social media.
But before we go a note about Gwen Ifill. Our late friend and Washington Week moderator was honored this week by the U.S. Postal Service. They introduced a forever stamp dedicated to her. It’s a special honor for a special person.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night.