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Impeachment trial could end soon; Alexander says no to witnesses

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, walks to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee will oppose calling more witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, all but dashing Democratic efforts to hear more testimony and boosting odds the Senate will vote to acquit Trump as early as Friday.

The retiring Alexander was one of a handful of Republican senators weighing whether to hear from witnesses, including President Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton. But in a statement late Thursday, Alexander said House Democrats had already proven their case that Mr. Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine at least in part to seek investigations into political rivals — an action Alexander calling “inappropriate” but not impeachable.

“There is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the U.S. Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense,” Alexander said.

Impeachment witnesses debate

At least one Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said she would vote for impeachment witnesses, and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is expected to join her. But without two more Republican yes votes on Friday, the trial could speed to a swift conclusion.

President Trump was impeached by House last month on charges that he abused his power, jeopardizing Ukraine and U.S.-Ukraine relations. Democrats say the president asked the vulnerable ally to investigate Joe Biden and debunked theories of 2016 election interference, temporarily halting American security aid to the country as it battled Russia at its border. The second article of impeachment says Mr. Trump then obstructed the House probe in a way that threatened the nation’s three-branch system of checks and balances.

Collins, a centrist senator announced her decision after the Senate concluded a long question-and-answer session with the House Democrats prosecuting the charges and President Trump’s lawyers defending him.

“The most sensible way to proceed would be for the House Managers and the President’s attorneys to attempt to agree on a limited and equal number of witnesses for each side,” she said in a statement. “If they can’t agree, then the Senate could choose the number of witnesses.”

In response to Alexander and others, Democrat Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, a congressional staffer during Watergate and now a House prosecutor, told the senators that the Nixon impeachment also started as a partisan inquiry. A bipartisan consensus emerged only after Republicans — including staunch Nixon supporters — saw enough evidence to change their minds, she said.

“They couldn’t turn away from the evidence that their president had committed abuse of power and they had to vote to impeach him,” Lofgren said. Richard Nixon resigned before he was impeached.

While disappointed that House Republicans did not join Democrats in voting to impeach President Trump, she said the Senate — “the greatest deliberative body on the planet” — has a new opportunity.

Alexander, after his question Thursday night, consulted with a key staff aide to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. As the senators broke for dinner Alexander and another Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, met privately.

The Nixon era example

Thursday’s testimony included soaring pleas to the senators-as-jurors who will decide Mr. Trump’s fate, to either stop a president who Democrats say has tried to cheat in the upcoming election and will again, or to shut down impeachment proceedings that Republicans insist were never more than a partisan attack.

“Let’s give the country a trial they can be proud of,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor for House Democrats. Americans, he said, know what it takes for a fair trial. He offered to take just one week for depositions of new witnesses, sparking new discussions.

President Trump’s attorney Eric Herschmann declared the Democrats are only prosecuting the president because they can’t beat him in 2020.

“We trust the American people to decide who should be our president,” Herschmann said. “Enough is Enough. Stop all of this.”

Schiff drew on the lessons of the Nixon era to warn of a “normalization of lawlessness” in Mr. Trump’s presidency.

“That argument – if the president says it it can’t be illegal – failed when Richard Nixon was forced to resign,” Schiff told the senators. “But that argument may succeed here, now.”

“Have we learned nothing in the last half century?” he asked.

“This is not a banana republic,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., rejecting the White House counsel’s suggestion there was nothing wrong with seeking foreign election interference.

Tie-breaking vote unlikely

Democrats played a video showing the many times President Trump has campaigned while in office.

The president has argued repeatedly that his dealings with Ukraine have been “perfect.”

In a Senate split 53-47 with a Republican majority, at least four GOP senators must join all Democrats to reach the 51 votes required to call witnesses, decide whom to call or do nearly anything else in the impeachment trial.

Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the chamber and fielding senators’ questions for the trial, could break a tie either for or against impeachment witnesses, but that seems unlikely.

The chief justice did exercise authority Thursday with a stunning rebuttal to a question posed by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky designed to expose those familiar with the still anonymous whistleblower whose complaint about the president’s phone call with Ukraine’s new president led to the impeachment inquiry.

Roberts had communicated through his staff to McConnell’s office that he did not want to read the whistleblower’s name, according to a Republican unauthorized to discuss the private conversation and granted anonymity.

“The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” he said.

Senators have dispatched with more than 100 queries over two days. The questions came from the parties’ leaders, the senators running for the Democratic nomination against President Trump and even bipartisan coalitions from both sides of the aisle.

The president’s defense

Mr. Trump’s team says the House’s 28,000-page case against the president and the 17 witnesses — current and former national security officials, ambassadors and others who testified in the House proceedings — are sufficient.

Instead, his lawyers focused some of their time Thursday refloating allegations against the former vice president and his son, Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine while his father was vice president.

Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., responding to one question, said the Bidens have little to tell the Senate about Trump’s efforts to “shake down” Ukraine for his own campaign.

Democrats argued Bolton’s forthcoming book cannot be ignored. It contends he personally heard the president say he wanted military aid withheld from Ukraine until it agreed to investigate the Bidens — the abuse of power charge that is the first article of impeachment. President Trump denies saying such a thing.

The White House has blocked its officials from testifying in the proceedings and objected in a letter to Bolton’s attorney to “significant amounts of classified information” in the manuscript, including at the top secret level. Bolton resigned last September — President Trump says he was fired — and he and his attorney have insisted the book does not contain any classified information.

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly, Laurie Kellman and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

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