After one bombshell whistle-blower report, hearings before two committees of the House of the Representatives, six days of oral arguments in the United States Senate, and 180 questions read aloud by Chief Justice John Roberts, the impeachment saga is all but over.
In a late-night statement shared on Twitter, retiring Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander announced that he would not support calling additional witnesses or seeking additional documents in the impeachment trial of President Trump. Barring a last-minute intervention from Roberts to break a tie in the Senate to hear witnesses — a scenario so hokey and unusual it would be laughed out of the writers’ room of The West Wing — the trial will soon conclude with Trump’s acquittal.
Alexander, a relative moderate with a penchant for wearing sweaters with suits, became the focal point of attention this week. Democrats needed four Republicans to join them to call witnesses like John Bolton, the former national security adviser who reportedly wrote in the manuscript of his book that Donald Trump explicitly tied aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations of former Vice-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. For Democrats to get the 51 votes needed for witnesses, the only plausible scenario involved Alexander joining three other Republican senators who break with Trump on a more frequent basis: Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Of the other three, Romney expressed support for hearing from witnesses in recent days, and Collins issued a formal statement on Thursday saying that she would vote to support hearing witness testimony. Murkowski still has to make up her mind, telling reporters on Thursday night, “I’m going to go back to my office, put some eye drops in so I can keep reading. I’ve been forming a lot of thoughts so that’s going to be my job now.”
Barring a shock intervention from another Republican, it would lead to a 50-50 deadlock if all three vote for more witnesses on Friday. This would automatically fail under Senate rules, unless Roberts decides to intervene to break the tie, under precedent from Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial in 1868. Needless to say, the scenario is unlikely. South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, for one, expressed his confidence before Alexander’s announcement earlier on Thursday, saying, “I don’t think it would be a tie” and that it would be “51-49 either way.”
The statement served as a crescendo of excitement on the second day of questions on the Senate floor. Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy could be heard complaining about a bad back before Chief Justice John Roberts gaveled the trial into session. There was little action on the floor that seemed likely to relieve his pain.
One frisson of excitement came at the beginning of the session, when Rand Paul — who spent Wednesday thwarted in efforts to make Roberts read a question naming the alleged whistle-blower — tried the bit again. The Kentucky Republican rose and said, “I have a question to present to the desk for House Manager Schiff and President’s counsel.” He handed a question card to a Senate page who then walked up to the dais and handed it to the Chief Justice. Roberts looked at it for a moment. Then, in a mild voice, he said, “The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted.” Paul then stormed out of the chamber to hold a brief press conference as the trial continued.
Eventually, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin asked a question that accomplished many of the same goals, without explicitly mentioning the whistle-blower’s name. Thirteen other senators joined him in asking it. Roberts allowed the question and read it to the chamber..
But these moments were rare. The questions mostly became opportunities for senators to coax partisan talking points out of advocates from each side. At one point, Senator Mike Braun went so far as to ask Trump’s lawyers if Joe Biden had actually committed an impeachable crime.
Yet one question did reveal precisely where the balance lay. In a question posed by Lindsey Graham, in which both Alexander and Murkowski joined, the president’s lawyers were asked: Even if Bolton confirmed everything alleged under oath, could Trump be impeached? Deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin said no. “Even if you take everything alleged in [the articles of impeachment] they don’t as a matter of law rise to the level of an impeachable offense.”
Alexander agreed. In his statement, the Tennessee Republican said, “There is no need for more evidence to conclude that the president withheld United States aid, at least in part, to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens; the House managers have proved this with what they call a ‘mountain of overwhelming evidence.’” He described this as “inappropriate.” However, Alexander added, “The Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate.”
It seems that a majority of senators think Trump used foreign aid to leverage Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. But it’s apparent that there is not a majority — let alone the two-thirds necessary to convict — who believe Trump should be removed from office as a result.