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3 Republicans Are Open to Impeachment Witnesses, but Democrats Need a 4th

The New York Times logo The New York Times 4 days ago Sheryl Gay Stolberg
a man wearing a suit and tie: If Democrats can force testimony from John R. Bolton, the former White House national security adviser, or others to testify, or subpoena new documentary evidence, it could sharply alter the course of the trial. © Erin Schaff/The New York Times If Democrats can force testimony from John R. Bolton, the former White House national security adviser, or others to testify, or subpoena new documentary evidence, it could sharply alter the course of the trial.

WASHINGTON — The Capitol math is clear: Democrats need only four Republican votes to force the Senate to subpoena witnesses like John R. Bolton, the former White House national security adviser, to testify in President Trump’s impeachment trial. Three have signaled they may be open to doing so: Senators Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.

That leaves Democrats searching for an elusive fourth vote.

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The question of whether four Republicans will defect — and if so, who — looms large in the Capitol as the Senate prepares to receive articles of impeachment from the House on Wednesday, prompting the third presidential impeachment trial in American history. If they did, Democrats could effectively commandeer the Senate floor during the proceeding and defy Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, by moving to call witnesses.

That could derail Mr. McConnell’s hopes to secure a quick acquittal of Mr. Trump with little debate, drastically altering the course of the trial — and potentially, of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

“I can’t predict to whether we’ll have witnesses or not,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, said Tuesday. “At first everyone said no, McConnell seemed to rule the roost. Now we’re having some people entertain it, but you don’t know what’s going to happen. So we’re in better shape than we were a few weeks ago, but there’s no certainties here at all.”

In recent days, Mr. Schumer, Mr. McConnell and members of Mr. Trump’s team have been privately obsessed with the possibility that a fourth Republican could emerge and tip the math in Democrats’ direction, even as all of them concede they are unsure who that would be.

So far, only Mr. Romney has said explicitly that he wants Mr. Bolton to appear. Ms. Collins, who is facing a tough re-election fight in Maine, and Ms. Murkowski have been a bit cagier, saying that they want the Senate to vote on whether to have witnesses or documents, but only after both sides present their cases.

“Am I curious about what Ambassador Bolton would have to say? Yes, I am,” Ms. Murkowski told reporters, according to Alaska Public Radio. But she said she would not “prejudge” the need for him to testify until after the cases are presented.

Ms. Collins, whose reputation for independence took a hit in Maine when she voted to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, is under pressure from all sides. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats to the Senate, has created a website — WhatChangedSusan.com — spotlighting her push for witnesses during the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.

“It’s time for Senator Collins to commit to a fair process, stand up to Mitch McConnell, and demand a proper trial in the Senate,” the website declared.

But Ms. Collins has suggested all along that she will do just that.

“I tend to like information,” she said on Monday, adding that she would not be pushing for the option to call witnesses “if I did not anticipate at the end of hearing the case presented, and the Q. and A., that there might be a need for more information.”

The names of other Republican senators — including Cory Gardner, who is in a tough 2020 race in Colorado, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is respectful of Senate institutions and is retiring and thus freer to vote his conscience — have also been raised as possibilities. Mr. Gardner can ill afford to break with Mr. Trump.

But Mr. Alexander is of genuine concern to the White House, according to a senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity to characterize the perspective of Mr. Trump’s team. On Monday, he appeared to join the Collins-Murkowski wait-and-see camp.

“We’re taking an oath to be impartial,” Mr. Alexander told reporters in the Capitol, “and that to me means we have a constitutional duty to hear the case, ask our questions and then decide whether we want additional evidence in terms of documents or witnesses.”

After the House voted last month to impeach the president on charges of high crimes and misdemeanors in connection with his campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, Mr. Schumer issued a list of four witnesses Democrats want to call. Those include Mr. Bolton and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff.

Mr. Bolton has since said he would be willing to testify if the Senate issued a subpoena.

Democrats also want to subpoena documents, including administration emails showing that the White House ordered the suspension of military aid to Ukraine just 90 minutes after a phone call in which Mr. Trump asked that country’s president to investigate Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son, Hunter Biden.

Mr. Trump, who has vacillated between saying he wants witnesses and saying he wants a speedy trial, has at times floated the idea of calling Hunter Biden to testify. If Democrats succeed in calling Mr. Bolton or other witnesses, it is likely that Republicans would push to call the Bidens. On Tuesday, Mr. McConnell met with a small group of Republican senators to explore that idea of “witness reciprocity,” according to two people familiar with the discussions.

The question is not going to be settled immediately. Mr. McConnell has indicated that he has the support of 53 Republicans — two more than the 51 he needs for a majority — to adopt an organizing resolution governing the first phase of the trial, in which both sides will present their cases and senators may ask questions. That will take roughly two weeks.

Mr. McConnell has said he wants the resolution to adhere closely to the one used in the Clinton trial, which specified that once the first phase was complete, the Senate would vote on whether to call witnesses. Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and a member of leadership, said on Tuesday that he expected the resolution governing the trial would also include that language.

For Republicans in difficult re-election races — with the possible exception of Ms. Collins, who is her own brand in Maine — the political calculations are complex. Senators Joni Ernst of Iowa, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Martha McSally of Arizona and Mr. Gardner all face tough contests in states that are not nearly as conservative as they used to be.

Democrats are unlikely to support them no matter what they do, and alienating Mr. Trump could be disastrous for them.

“This is Cory’s problem, or challenge: There’s a very restless Republican base in Colorado and Cory cannot afford to alienate that base because he cannot afford any defections from the base in a general election,” said Richard Wadhams, a Republican strategist in Colorado who is close to Mr. Gardner.

“He’s in a very vulnerable position right now in the Senate election,” Mr. Wadhams added, “but believe me, it is much more dangerous for him to appear not to be supporting Trump than it is to be supporting McConnell and the president in Colorado.”

The pressure on Mr. Gardner mounted on Monday when the Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans that describes itself as “dedicated to defeating President Trump and Trumpism,” targeted him in a brutal advertisement that described the Colorado senator as “just another Trump servant — weak, frightened, impotent — a small man, terrified of a political bully.”

“Colorado voters want a fair trial in the Senate and honest leadership,” the ad said. “Either do your job, or Colorado will find someone who will.”

In the Capitol on Tuesday, Mr. Gardner was making himself scarce. When Republicans wrapped up a luncheon featuring a discussion of trial procedure, he zipped out a back door and headed for a little-used elevator, avoiding a throng of waiting reporters.

“I’m sorry, he’s got to get going,” an aide to Mr. Gardner told a reporter who followed him, as the elevator doors opened and the senator slipped inside. Then Mr. Gardner jumped in, begging off any discussion of whether he could be the elusive fourth vote who could upend hopes of a quick acquittal of Mr. Trump.

“We don’t have the articles yet,” he said, “and I’m not going to speculate.”

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.

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