Alexander said the president did use military aid as leverage to pressure Ukraine’s leader to investigate a Trump political rival, but he wouldn’t join Democrats on calling witnesses.
“I think there’s a big gap between this conduct and impeachable conduct; I don’t think this is close. I think it’s inappropriate,” Alexander said in an interview Friday morning.
Democrats had hoped that Alexander, 79, could build a coalition of Republicans who would at least support calling witnesses such as John Bolton, the former national security adviser whose forthcoming book alleges that Trump’s goal in delaying $391 million in security aid to Ukraine was to force that nation to launch damaging political investigations of former vice president and 2020 candidate Joe Biden.
As Friday’s debate over witnesses began, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) issued a statement opposing witnesses, eliminating the chance of a 50-50 vote that would have compelled Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to decide whether to break the tie or let the motion for witnesses die.
Unlike Alexander, Murkowski called the case against Trump “rushed and flawed” but said that the Senate was incapable of curing “the shortcomings” and that she would oppose additional witnesses.
“I have come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate. 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,” said Murkowski, who also cited attacks on Roberts as a factor in her decision.
That left Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Mitt Romney (Utah) as the only two Republicans poised to join all 47 members of the Democratic caucus in asking for more witnesses in a vote destined to fail.
Democrats had hoped that Alexander’s background as a protector of the Senate’s institutional prerogatives would make him a supporter of expanding the trial, especially given his early years as a top aide to then-Sen. Howard Baker (Tenn.), who served as the top Republican on the Senate Watergate Committee, which helped lead to Richard Nixon’s resignation in the face of likely impeachment and removal in 1974.
“I was certainly hoping he would have a Howard Baker moment, you know, but it appears he will not,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said Friday morning.
Durbin said he was “disappointed but not really surprised” by Alexander’s decision, particularly because the Tennessean has been a close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) since their shared days as Senate staffers.
While even-tempered and pragmatic in working with Democrats on legislation, Alexander has built a solid conservative record far different from those of the few remaining moderate GOP senators, who were closely watched for their votes.
In his own telling, Alexander said that he was never that close to voting for witnesses and that he delayed in stating a position in order to act as a prudent jurist in the trial while leaving open the possibility of wanting to hear more evidence.
To prepare for the trial, he said, he read two books: one by Edmund Ross, the senator from Kansas who cast the decisive vote in 1868 against removing President Andrew Johnson from office, and the other, “Impeachment: An American History,” a collaborative book published in 2018 about all the cases against presidents.
Alexander read the newer book at his desk during Thursday’s question-and-answer session, focusing on the chapter by Jon Meacham on Johnson’s trial.
The senator said that “many presidents have probably done similar things,” citing a talk he had with Jimmy Carter’s attorney general, Griffin Bell, in which Bell said Carter had ordered him to indict on civil rights charges a Texas police officer who had received a short sentence in a brutal murder. Bell refused.
Alexander said a similar scenario should have happened when Trump wanted a probe of the Ukrainian energy firm that had Joe Biden’s son Hunter on its board. “If he wants to investigate the Bidens, he should give that information to the attorney general and let him handle it,” said Alexander, who continues to support Trump’s reelection as honorary chairman of his Tennessee campaign.
He said that he has not spoken to Trump since a bill-signing ceremony at the White House in mid-December but that he came under fierce pressure from a collection of colleagues, close friends and others who had access to the president.
“I got some very impassioned emails from people who canonize President Trump or people who hate him,” Alexander said.
Three key elements convinced him that it was time to move.
First, with the election already underway and ballots printed in many early primary states, prolonging the trial could blow up that campaign. “So we’re tearing up the ballots and telling people basically, as an election is starting, you can’t vote for or against President Trump,” he said.
Second, he said that the Founding Fathers disapproved of party-line impeachments in the House and that the Senate should dismiss those. “I did not want to create a weapon of perpetual impeachment that the House could use to immobilize the Senate and immobilize the executive,” he said.
Finally, he believes that the House managers documented their case but did not show that it rose to an impeachable offense.
“Did he, at least in part, withhold aid in order to encourage that investigation? I thought the evidence was conclusive that he did,” Alexander said. “The president might very well say, ‘I did it because I cared about corruption,’ but I was convinced that at least in part, he did it to encourage the investigation of the Bidens.”
Alexander said he is not sure what defines a “high crime or misdemeanor” — which the Constitution sets as the basis for removing a president — but added that one key requirement is bipartisan support.
“I think you step back and say, is it something about which there is such a consensus that both Republicans and Democrats think the president ought to be removed? I guess the only example we really have of that is President Nixon,” he said.