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McConnell tells senators he doesn’t yet have votes to block witnesses in Trump impeachment trial

GOP senators have continued to weigh the potential testimony of John Bolton following new reporting on Jan. 26 about his conversations with President Trump. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Astrid Riecken/The Washington Post)

White House lawyers pleaded with senators Tuesday to acquit President Trump based on “the Constitution and your common sense,” concluding their defense even as Senate GOP leaders struggled to block demands for new witnesses that could throw the trial into turmoil.

In a closed-door meeting after closing remarks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told colleagues he doesn’t have the votes to block witnesses, according to people familiar with his remarks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe them. Just four GOP senators would have to join with Democrats to produce the majority needed to call witnesses — an outcome McConnell has sought to avoid since it could invite new controversy and draw out the divisive proceedings.

An initial vote to allow witnesses, expected Friday, does not ensure witnesses would actually be called, since the Senate would have to subsequently hold separate votes on summoning each individual witness. And Trump’s ultimate acquittal still remains all but assured, since a two-thirds vote in the GOP-run Senate would be required to remove him.

On Jan. 28, President Trump’s legal team rested their case in the Senate impeachment trial amid uncertainty over whether witnesses will be called. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

But the debate over witnesses has roiled the Senate since the emergence of revelations Sunday in an unpublished book manuscript written by former national security adviser John Bolton. In the book, Bolton recounts a conversation with Trump in which the president described wanting to withhold military assistance from Ukraine until Kyiv announced investigations into some of Trump’s political rivals.

That would make Bolton the first official to provide a firsthand account of the alleged quid pro quo at the heart of House Democrats’ abuse-of-power charge against the president, one of the two articles of impeachment the House approved in December. The other charged Trump with obstruction of Congress.

Amid the debate over witnesses, White House lead attorney Pat Cipollone on Tuesday urged senators to bring the proceedings swiftly to a close on the final day of the defense’s opening arguments.

“Overturning the last election and massively interfering with the upcoming one would cause serious and lasting damage to the people of the United States and to our great country. The Senate cannot allow this to happen,” Cipollone said. “This should end now, as quickly as possible.”

Since the Bolton revelations emerged, a handful of Senate GOP moderates have indicated a desire to hear from him. But foreshadowing disputes to come, many other Republican lawmakers disagree or say that they would allow testimony from Bolton only if they could also call witnesses they favor, such as Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company when his father was President Barack Obama’s vice president.

“All I can say, is I don’t need any more evidence, but if we do call witnesses, we’re not just gonna call one witness. We’re gonna call a bunch of witnesses,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

Democrats strongly oppose calling either of the Bidens or agreeing to any witness “trade,” as suggested by some Republicans. Other plans floated by GOP senators have drawn similar Democratic resistance, including the idea of getting the White House to release Bolton’s manuscript for senators to review. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called that proposal “absurd.”

Even before the vote on witnesses occurs, the Senate will spend 16 hours over Wednesday and Thursday engaged in what could be a revealing question-and-answer period, modeled on a procedure followed during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. The senators, who have been forced to remain silently in their seats throughout the eight-day trial, will be able to ask questions of the White House defense team or the House impeachment managers. The questions will have to be submitted in writing and will be read aloud by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who is presiding over the trial.

The questions are likely to run the gamut from factual queries to potentially direct challenges aimed at lawyers on either side.

Democrats intend to ask questions about the revelations from Bolton, which White House attorney Jay Sekulow attacked on the Senate floor Tuesday. Without directly disputing Bolton’s claims, Sekulow read statements from Trump, the Justice Department, and a top aide to Vice President Pence denying or disputing them.

“That was the response, responding to an unpublished manuscript that maybe some reporters have an idea of maybe what it says,” Sekulow said. “If you want to call that evidence — I don’t know what you’d call that. I call it inadmissible.”

Sekulow also repeatedly cautioned the Senate against removing the president on what he termed flimsy grounds, arguing that it would set a dangerous precedent. “Danger! Danger! Danger!” Sekulow repeatedly intoned.

Trump’s team wrapped up its opening arguments, having used about 11 of its allotted 24 hours. House Democrats used about 23 hours in presenting their case last week. As Trump’s lawyers were completing their remarks Tuesday, Trump was at the White House with Israeli leaders unveiling a plan for Middle East peace, which critics and Palestinian leaders immediately predicted was doomed to fail.

Immediately after the White House team wrapped up in the Senate, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House impeachment manager, held a news conference to denounce their presentation and blast the White House for refusing to allow witnesses such as Bolton to testify.

Schiff scoffed at some of the White House arguments, including the claim that Trump had held up the Ukraine military assistance because of legitimate concerns about corruption in that country and released it when those worries had been addressed.

“Okay, no one believes that. No one believes that,” Schiff said. “I’m confident there isn’t anyone in that chamber, or anyone in the country, who will buy that explanation.”

As Schiff was railing against the White House case, Senate Republicans huddled in a meeting room debating the issue of witnesses. Although McConnell told colleagues he didn’t yet have the votes to defeat the initial witness vote, leaders feel they’re making progress toward that goal, according to officials familiar with the discussion.

Several Republican senators up for reelection this November and facing tough campaigns — including Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) — indicated during the meeting that they were ready to vote against witnesses and proceed to the final vote, according to two people familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting.

But in a sign of the turmoil and internal dissent produced by the issue, Republicans floated a variety of ideas, including a suggestion from Graham and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) that the White House turn over the unpublished manuscript of Bolton’s book so senators can read it and assess the need to hear from the former Trump official.

One Republican encouraged Bolton to tell his story publicly, either in a congressional hearing or a media interview. “ ‘John, if you’ve got something to say, I’d rather have you say it sooner rather than later,’ ” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Tuesday, recalling what he said to Bolton in a discussion several weeks ago. Bolton answered by saying he would respond only to a Senate subpoena, Johnson said.

The witness debate and the Trump team’s closing arguments came as some Senate Republicans were embracing a new talking point: that Trump’s actions are not impeachable even if they’re proved. Trump’s attorneys and GOP allies have argued for months that there was no quid pro quo, echoing the president’s own impeachment mantra in arguing that Democrats have no “firsthand” witness who can testify that Trump directed such a scheme.

But the Bolton revelations forced GOP lawmakers to scramble for another defense, and by Tuesday they appeared to have coalesced around a point made by defense attorney Alan Dershowitz: that Trump’s actions do not rise to the level of impeachment, even if they occurred as House Democrats allege.

The finale to Tuesday’s proceedings came so quickly that it took some senators by surprise. After a short break in the early afternoon, Cipollone announced he would be brief, but some senators missed the announcement as they were still returning from their restroom breaks, and many huddled in their respective cloakrooms, grabbing one last glimpse of their cellphones or a quick drink of coffee.

Less than 10 minutes later, as Cipollone closed his binder and announced the defense complete, senators gasped. “Oh my,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) could be heard saying.

The defense rested at 2:54 p.m.

But a few senators lingered, and those huddles showed the tension still left in the room. In chairs in the back, reserved for staffers, Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) sat with freshman Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a moderate not prone to listening to leadership. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), a Democrat always in the mix, first huddled with moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) before moving on to a long one-on-one discussion with Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), another key moderate who had previously been talking with Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

And, finally, Collins walked over to join a Republican scrum led by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose back-row desk has long been seen as a pivotal place, given his Bush-era political lineage.

Paul Kane, Mike DeBonis, Karoun Demirjian and Elise Viebeck contributed to this report.