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McConnell Says He Has Votes to Start Impeachment Trial Without Witnesses

Although Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi continues to withhold the articles of impeachment from the Senate with no indication of when she plans to transfer them to the Republican-controlled half of Congress, the outlines of how the trial will proceed are beginning to take shape as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has told Republican colleagues that he has the votes to begin the trial with no guarantee that witnesses will be called. Democrats believe that their case against the president is already ironclad, but that calling additional witnesses like former national security advisor John Bolton and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney will further bolster their case and convince the American public of the president’s wrongdoing.

Republicans, on the other hand, have not presented a defense of the president’s conduct on the merits of the case but instead have tried to shift attention to the president’s political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter, alleging that the younger Biden’s conduct in Ukraine as a member of the board of an oil company constituted impropriety as his father was Vice President at the time. Accordingly, McConnell and Senate Republicans have announced their intention to work with the White House to ensure that the political damage the trial inflicts on Trump’s presidency is minimized. As such, Republicans are pushing for a rapid trial involving no witnesses and documents, consisting only of a presentation from the impeachment managers selected by the House and a defense from the president’s legal team followed by a vote which is all but certain to result in an acquittal, giving the president ammunition in his claim that he is being unfairly prosecuted by Democrats.

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McConnell has argued that the Senate trial should begin in accordance with the rules that governed the 1999 impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, which did not guarantee the presence of documents or witnesses but allowed senators to vote to call witnesses, who appeared virtually via videotape, as the trial proceeded. As Republicans hold a majority in the Senate and are fairly united in their opposition to the impeachment of Donald Trump, it is unlikely that they will decide during the trial to call witnesses like Bolton and Mulvaney who have firsthand knowledge of the scandal that led to the president’s impeachment, though they may push to call witnesses like Joe and Hunter Biden to testify about the unrelated, manufactured conspiracy theory that alleges without evidence misconduct on the part of Democrats.

If history is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before the full details of the administration’s conduct in connection with the scandal about Ukraine are revealed to all

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has accused McConnell and the Republicans of engaging in a cover-up by refusing to hear from Bolton and Mulvaney, among others, particularly given the magnitude of the evidence that has already been uncovered by House investigators despite the White House’s near-total obstruction, which has understandably raised additional questions about the administration’s response to the president’s request of Ukrainian President Zelensky for assistance in his domestic political campaign.

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Though the likelihood of the presence of witnesses at the president’s trial decreases by the day, John Bolton has complicated the process by saying he’d be willing to testify if he receives a subpoena from the Senate, despite his prior refusal to comply with a House subpoena on the basis of his claim that that his conflicting orders from Congress and the executive branch constituted a critical separation-of-powers issue that had to be resolved by the courts.

Political observers believe that Bolton’s announcement is not sincere, but instead strategic, as the former White House national security advisor is well within his rights to discuss what he knows about the president’s conduct in a public forum, and in fact may do so in a book that he is planning to sell. That being said, pundits disagree over the end-game of Bolton’s political strategy, which remains unclear to everyone except him and his legal team. In any event, if history is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before the full details of the administration’s conduct in connection with the scandal about Ukraine are revealed to all, whether or not witnesses are called during the forthcoming trial. 

Impeachment Trial

Public Impeachment Hearings Begin

The next stage of the impeachment inquiry has begun, as witness testimony has moved from being conducted in closed-door rooms to being conducted in public, with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers asking questions of witnesses Bill Taylor and George Kent. The hearing, which started at 10 AM and lasted until the mid-afternoon, represented a forum for Democrats to make their case that the president engaged in what amounts to extortion by threatening to withdraw aid to Ukraine unless that country’s president went on CNN and announced an investigation into Burisma, the company for which Hunter Biden worked while his father was the US vice president. Simultaneously, the hearing was a chance for Republicans to offer their defense of the president, using their allotted time to attack the witnesses’ credibility by asserting that they had never met the president nor listened to the call in question, pointing out that the Trump administration provided military aid to Ukraine when the Obama administration only provided economic and political aid, and expressed outrage at the fact that the whistleblower’s identity has not been disclosed and that he or she has not been called to testify, among other lines of reasoning.

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The hearing began with Adam Schiff, who described the rules for the hearing and introduced the witnesses, and then presented the Democrat’s theory of the case, outlining a summary of events involving Trump’s phone call with President Zelensky. He defended the impeachment inquiry, saying that “if foreign interference is not impeachable, what is?” and worried that if the president gets away with inviting foreign interference, other presidents would feel emboldened to do the same, threatening principles fundamental to the core of the country. Devin Nunes then delivered his opening statement, beginning by attacking Democrats and the “corrupt media” and asserting that the impeachment inquiry is nothing more than a partisan attack on the president, comparing it to what he called the “Russian hoax” which culminated in Robert Mueller’s underwhelming testimony before congress, calling the inquiry a “low-rent Ulkranian sequel.” Nunes described the closed-door testimonies as a “cult-like” atmosphere during which witnesses “auditioned” for a “televised, theatrical performance.” 

Overall, most pundits thought the hearing was a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans, and as the hearings proceed over the coming days and weeks, this trend is likely to continue.

The witnesses then delivered their opening statements. George Kent spoke first, detailing Rudy Giuliani’s activities abroad, including a “campaign to smear” the ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, in order to set up a shadow foreign policy apparatus to allow the president to circumvent official channels in his conduct with Ukraine. Then Bill Taylor gave his opening remarks, reitering testimony he gave earlier behind closed doors and describing the series of events he witnessed and had knowledge of. Taylor also broke news by revealing that a member of his staff had overheard a cell phone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, during which Trump asked about the investigations into Biden, and Sondland responded that “the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.” Also, Taylor testified that Sondland claimed that President Trump cares more about the investigations into Biden than he does about Ukraine. Both witnesses said they thought the president was not genuinely interested in corruption in Ukraine and expressed alarm at his attempt to extort the foreign country.

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While Republicans complained that neither of the witnesses had direct knowledge of the call, another witness who listened in on the call, Alexander Vindman, is scheduled to testify next week. Notably, witnesses who would be able to provide more first hand evidence, including John Bolton, have ignored lawful congressional subpoenas and refused to appear in Congress under orders from the White House. Previously, Republicans complained that the witness depositions were held behind closed doors, though they voted against moving forward with public hearings and complained about the theatrical nature of the event. Republicans spent considerable energy focusing on the whistleblower, asserting that it wasn’t fair that Adam Schiff knows who the whistleblower was and they don’t. (Schiff denies knowledge of the whistleblower’s identity.) Republicans forced a vote to subpoena the whistleblower, which is not expected to pass. 

Many GOP senators have stated that they wouldn’t be watching the hearing. The president’s staff said Trump wouldn’t be watching the hearing, but he offered his commentary on Twitter throughout the event. Overall, most pundits thought the hearing was a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans, and as the hearings proceed over the coming days and weeks, this trend is likely to continue.