As the House made Donald Trump become the third U.S. president in history to be impeached, a battle waged between leaders of Congress’ upper chamber over how his trial will play out.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has so far batted down demands by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to subpoena documents and witnesses, signaling he will instead ram through a White House–friendly trial that leads to a speedy acquittal.
But Schumer has indicated he will force a vote to compel the appearances of four witnesses, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton. The move would cause all eyes to shift to Republican Senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—the chamber’s most likely GOP members to rebuke the president. They are considered toss-ups on whether they’ll back Trump’s removal.
However, it remains to be seen if any of those three will break with McConnell to approve Schumer’s demands, as they hold their cards close. The Kentucky Republican can afford to have only four of his members succumb to the New York Democrat’s wishes, presuming Chief Justice John Roberts would cast a tie-breaker vote. Schumer has expressed confidence that perhaps GOP members might defect. Attention could also turn toward senators such as Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who’s retiring and considered more moderate, and Cory Gardner (R-CO), who faces a tough re-election.
“That’s something I’ll give consideration to after I’ve had discussions with other members and my legal team,” Romney told Newsweek. He said McConnell’s position—to consider having witnesses after House impeachment managers make opening arguments—is “a reasonable position…. I would have to look at what gets proposed.”
Murkowski reiterated her desire for Schumer and McConnell to hash out a deal among themselves. As of Wednesday afternoon, a Schumer aide said a meeting between the two leaders had yet to occur or be scheduled. The opportunities for them to meet in person this year are dwindling as the Senate prepares to start Christmas recess at week’s end. During the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, McConnell’s and Schumer’s positions on the appearance of witnesses were reversed.
“I am in that group that’s saying I want Leader McConnell and Leader Schumer to come together, figure out what the rules of operation are going forward, and we’ll figure out how we deal with witnesses,” Murkowski said.
Earlier this week, Collins labeled it “unfortunate” that Schumer chose to blast McConnell to the press and take his case for witnesses to the public.
“It seems to me that Senator Schumer should have sat down with Senator McConnell to discuss how to proceed [as senators did during Clinton’s impeachment], rather than releasing a letter to the press,” she said.
As a whole, Senate Republicans responded unenthusiastically to Schumer’s demand to hear from Mulvaney, Bolton and others. Meanwhile, Democrats argue that hearing crucial evidence from witnesses regarding Trump’s dealings with Ukraine would better fulfill their quest to act as impartial jurors and determine whether he should be removed.
“I don’t know how you have a trial without witnesses,” Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a moderate considered a toss-up on impeachment, told Newsweek. “I don’t know how you get evidence without witnesses and people who have firsthand knowledge and were involved.”
Republicans rebutted those claims by saying Democrats in the House missed their opportunity to hear from more witnesses during its impeachment inquiry. The White House blocked Mulvaney and Bolton from testifying, just as they did for Robert Blair, a senior adviser to Mulvaney, and Michael Duffey, an official at the Office of Management and Budget. Schumer also wants to hear from Blair and Duffey.
But Republicans have said if they were such crucial witnesses, House Democrats should have taken the White House to court to force their compliance, something Democrats were unwilling to do because of lengthy court proceedings.
“The House can’t decide not to go to court, send us a half-baked case and then say, ‘now you make something out of it,'” Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of Senate leadership, argued Monday. “I don’t think you can approach this based on what the House should have done.”
Senator Joni Ernst, a conservative Iowa Republican, offered a similar sentiment, saying it’s not “up to us to call additional witnesses.”
“If the House wanted to do more, they should have done more. We don’t need to clean up their sloppy job,” she said Monday. “It’s been a political exercise from the start.”
Schumer has suggested there are Republicans whom he believes would cross the aisle to support his bid for witnesses. And Romney, Murkowski and Collins may soon be put to that test.
“We will have votes on whether these people should testify and whether these documents should be made public and part of the trial,” Schumer said Tuesday. “And the American people will be watching. They will be watching. Who is for an open and fair trial?”
This story was updated to include that President Trump was impeached by the House.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Vice President Mike Pence would cast a tie-breaker vote. During an impeachment trial, Chief Justice Roberts would cast such votes.