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Trump Prepares for Victory Lap as Impeachment Trial Winds Down

Republicans successfully fight off a call for witnesses, but a final vote to acquit will come after next week’s State of the Union.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander gets into an elevator outside the Senate chamber as the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump continues at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 31.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander gets into an elevator outside the Senate chamber as the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump continues at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 31. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Donald Trump now looks all but set to be acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial as the Republican Party succeeded Friday night in voting down a motion to bring in witnesses and documents. But Trump may be robbed of the opportunity to use his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday as a victory lap, since the final vote on acquittal in the third-ever impeachment trial of a U.S. president is now scheduled to take place the next day.

The nearly 2-week-old trial has been marked by angry partisan division, with both sides arguing that their opponents would inflict terrible damage on the republic if they got their way. The Democratic House managers said Trump’s acquittal would set a dire precedent for future abuses of power by a president, while Trump’s defense counsel argued that to mount a highly partisan impeachment effort and remove a president with an election only nine months away would open the door to regular abuse of the impeachment remedy itself. 

The president’s defense prevailed in the Republican-dominated Senate, which will begin hearing closing arguments this coming Monday. Trump’s acquittal is all but foreordained on Wednesday since the Democrats aren’t close to gaining the two-thirds majority required for conviction and removal from office. Most of the remaining suspense over how long the trial might last ended Thursday evening, when one of the few Republican moderate holdouts, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, said he would vote against a move to call for further witnesses. On Friday, he was joined by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who said she would vote alongside the majority of her party, dashing Democratic votes they could secure enough Republican votes to call for more testimony. 

In a statement, Murkowski said, “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.” She added: “It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed.”

The final vote against allowing witnesses and further documents was 51-to-49, with two other Republican moderates, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, breaking ranks with their caucus to side with the Democrats.

Trump’s impeachment entered the home stretch as new revelations dropped about the extent of his personal involvement in the Ukraine pressure campaign. On Friday, the New York Times reported new details from former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s forthcoming book, in which he describes how he was asked by Trump last May to assist in efforts to pressure Ukraine to unearth potentially damaging information on the president’s political rivals. The directive was given during an Oval Office meeting that was also attended by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who has led the president’s defense during the impeachment trial. 

Details leaked about Bolton’s book manuscript for the first time appeared to offer a firsthand account of the president’s direct participation in a scheme to leverage military aid in a bid to push Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens—the basis for Article 1 of impeachment, abuse of power. During the impeachment investigation, the White House issued a blanket directive barring current and former officials from testifying or handing over documents, citing executive privilege. That led the Democrat-dominated House to vote in Article 2, which alleges obstruction of Congress. 

A number of Republicans seemed to warm to the idea of calling for further witness testimony in the wake of the Bolton revelations, first published on Sunday by the Times, but as the week wore on and the president’s defense team presented their arguments, most members fell back in line with their party. 

In a statement explaining his decision not to vote for more witnesses, Alexander broke with some Republican lawmakers defending Trump by saying it was “inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation.” But he added that he did not feel that it amounted to an impeachable defense. 

His statement echoes the strategy put forward by the president’s defense team, which argued that the accusations made against Trump did not amount to an impeachable offense. The Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz caused a stir on Wednesday as he seemed to imply that Trump’s actions didn’t amount to an impeachable offense because he was acting in what he believed was the public interest. “Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest,” Dershowitz said during a Senate Q&A. “If a president did something that he believes will help him get elected—in the public interest—that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” The celebrity lawyer later said his words had been distorted, tweeting, “I did not say or imply that a candidate could do anything to reassure his reelection.”

Despite the prospect of losing the vote, Democratic impeachment managers made one last appeal to Republicans to change their mind as the next stage of the impeachment trial began on Friday. 

“There has never before been a full Senate impeachment trial without a single witness,” Democratic Rep. Val Demings said on the Senate floor. “Today, we ask you to follow this body’s uniform precedence and your common sense.” 

“Is this a fair trial? Without the ability to call witnesses and produce documents, the answer is clearly and unequivocally no,” she said.

Update, Jan. 31, 2020: This story was updated to reflect the results of the Senate vote on the question of whether to call for further witnesses.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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