Trump Protected by Republicans Who Adopted Defense Team’s Logic

(Bloomberg) -- Republican senators protected Donald Trump, and each other, from confronting fresh evidence in the president’s impeachment trial by embracing arguments made by his lawyers about why the trial had run its course.

The vote against seeking new documents and testimony was a razor-thin 51-49, and came only after a handful of wavering Republicans took some rhetorical leaps to avoid prolonging the election-year trial.

The vacillating lawmakers lined up behind the various, and sometimes competing, rationales for blocking witnesses and opposing conviction offered to them by the president’s team as it evolved over the course of the trial. Trump’s lawyers had argued that the House had failed to prove Trump did anything wrong -- but even if they had, that his actions weren’t impeachable anyway, and should be judged by voters in November.

Above all, they warned senators that seeking new evidence would lead to weeks or months of delays and set a precedent that would tie the Senate in knots.

Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said he believed the House had proved Trump improperly sought an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and son Hunter Biden, and withheld millions of dollars of Congressionally-authorized military aid to do so, but said he shouldn’t be removed for that, nor was there a need for additional evidence.

Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said the Senate started with a “flawed product” and she became “frustrated and disappointed and angry at all sides.” And Marco Rubio of Florida argued it would damage the country to remove Trump even if the allegations against the president were correct.

The vote forced a replay of an unwelcome dance for a handful of holdout Republicans. They were forced to defend presidential actions that make them uncomfortable because they’re afraid to draw Trump’s ire -- even after bristling in the past few weeks at suggestions such a dynamic was at work.

Democrats accused their GOP colleagues of being unable to carry out their oath to do “impartial justice” because of their desire not to cross the president. And Democrats said they’re concerned Trump will now feel empowered to cheat in an election just nine months away.

The Senate will continue debating impeachment next week, but the endgame is clear: the president will be acquitted on a largely party-line vote on Wednesday at 4 p.m., one day after Trump delivers the annual State of the Union address.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had sought to hold a swift trial and block fresh evidence from the start, arguing the House’s impeachment was a partisan, shoddy mess. But it wasn’t always clear he would get his wish, especially after reports that former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton contradicted the heart of Trump’s defense in his upcoming book manuscript.

Any doubt about the outcome was erased when Murkowski issued an extraordinary, melancholy statement Friday.

‘Congress Has Failed’

“Given the partisan nature of this impeachment from the very beginning and throughout, 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.”

Alexander, a retiring McConnell ally who’s occasionally clashed with the president, issued a statement of his own on Thursday that other senators said reflected the private sentiments of many.

Alexander said the House proved its case -- that Trump abused his powers and undermined equal justice under the law -- but that he shouldn’t be removed from office for doing so. “Let the people decide,” Alexander said.

Another Republican, Rob Portman of Ohio, chose a similar rationale. He said Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate Biden as he withheld military aid was “wrong and inappropriate.” But Portman said Trump shouldn’t be removed from office. He echoed the president’s lawyers’ argument that seeking new evidence would set a “dangerous precedent” making future impeachments more likely.

Rubio, a rival of Trump’s in the 2016 Republican race, issued a lengthy, qualified statement that didn’t address whether the underlying case had been proven.

“Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office,” he said.

Such reasoning veers from Trump’s long-standing position that his July 2019 call with Ukraine’s president was “perfect” and that he deserved full vindication. It also differs from his lawyers’ initial arguments that the articles of impeachment make accusations “contrary to the facts.”

Rubio also said the Senate had no need to seek further witnesses after the House failed to go to court to challenge the president’s efforts to block them from testifying.

Democrats argued that earlier impeachment trials included witnesses who had not testified in the House, and said it the Republican Senate was setting a precedent by holding a trial without any.

On Saturday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said McConnell had humiliated Chief Justice John Roberts.

The sentiment that, ultimately, U.S. voters should decide Trump’s fate was the one unifying theme in all of the final Republican statements opposing witnesses. Democrats rejected that rationale, saying the GOP didn’t want those Americans to hear the truth about Trump’s conduct from current and former aides, such as Bolton, as they consider how to vote in November.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned that evidence would continue to emerge, including in Bolton’s book, which is scheduled to be published in March, and that Republican senators will be to blame for failing to hear those details under oath before casting a final verdict.

While a handful of Republicans had publicly agonized over how to vote, just two, Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah, voted to seek new evidence, including the testimony of Bolton.

Most had long since declared themselves unconvinced by the House’s case. Republicans argued that Democrats’ real intent was to pressure vulnerable Senate Republicans up for re-election in November, including Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Martha McSally of Arizona and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

There was never any expectation that Trump would actually be removed. That would require at least 20 GOP votes, and no Republican in Congress has said his conduct merited removal from office.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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