Senate votes against calling witnesses in Trump impeachment trial

 Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had been seen as Democrats' last hope of mustering Republican votes to call witnesses in President Trump's impeachment trial.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had been seen as the last hope of mustering enough Republican votes to call witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial.
(Mario Tama / Getty Images)

The Senate voted narrowly Friday to bring the impeachment trial of President Trump to a close without issuing subpoenas for witnesses or evidence, rejecting Democrats’ principal demand and clearing the way for an all-but-certain acquittal to take place Wednesday afternoon.

The vote, 49 to 51, was sharply partisan, with only two Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah — breaking ranks to join Democrats in their push to issue subpoenas for former national security advisor John Bolton and perhaps others.

While the vote opens the way for Trump’s acquittal, it came amid two setbacks for the White House. One was logistical — the final vote will not happen as quickly as Trump had wanted and will not take place until after Tuesday’s State of the Union speech, meaning the president will not be able to use that prominent forum to declare himself acquitted.

The second, more significant setback involved the tone of Republican senators, as several began saying that while they will vote to keep Trump in office, they believe the evidence has proved that he committed misconduct.


Bolton had offered to testify in the Senate trial about allegations, detailed in his upcoming book, that Trump withheld U.S. aid to Ukraine in an attempt to pressure that country to announce investigations of Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden. Those claims struck at the heart of the House’s impeachment article charging Trump with abuse of power. A second article charged Trump with obstructing Congress by blocking his administration from participating in the House investigation.

“It’s a grand tragedy,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said after the vote, referring to the lack of witnesses in the impeachment trial. “Americans will remember this day — where the Senate did not live up to its responsibilities.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) defended the move, saying in a statement: “Never in Senate history has this body paused an impeachment trial to pursue additional witnesses with unresolved questions of executive privilege that would require protracted litigation.”

After the vote Friday evening, Republicans banded together to defeat four Democratic amendments. Democrats proposed subpoenas for Bolton as well as acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and also proposed that the chief justice rather than senators rule on motions for subpoenas. All four amendments failed.

The Senate will come back Monday, when senators will hear closing arguments from House managers and Trump’s attorneys, and then be given time to speak on the floor about their position on the impeachment articles. On Tuesday, there will be more floor speeches, and the final vote would occur Wednesday, under a resolution approved Friday night.

Some Republicans wanted to hold a vote as quickly as possible because there is risk in waiting five days, even though the threshold for convicting the president is exceedingly high at 67 votes. More information about Bolton’s book has continued to come out this week.

“The cake is baked, and we just need to go ahead and move as soon as we can,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of several Republican senators who were advocating for a swift end to the trial.

But Democrats insisted on holding several amendment votes that made a quick turnaround all but impossible with Monday’s Iowa caucuses and Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

The vote on whether to call witnesses provided the most suspense in the third presidential impeachment trial in American history.

But that ended Friday morning when Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) announced she would not vote for subpoenaing witnesses. She was seen as Democrats’ last hope of mustering enough Republicans in their effort.

In a blistering statement, Murkowski heaped blame on all sides for what she described as a poorly handled impeachment, from start to finish.

“The House chose to send articles of impeachment that are rushed and flawed,” she said in a statement. “I carefully considered the need for additional witnesses and documents, to cure the shortcomings of its process, but ultimately decided that I will vote against considering motions to subpoena.”

She added that due to the partisan nature of the impeachment proceeding, she has concluded that “there will be no fair trial in the Senate. I don’t believe the continuation of this process will change anything. It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed.”

Other Republicans expressed frustration for different reasons as cracks in the loyalty of some GOP senators began to show. Several have suggested that Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine were wrong, even if they didn’t warrant removal from office.

“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,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “But 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.”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who had made it a point to not speak with reporters during the trial, broke that public silence Friday to make clear he agreed with Alexander. “Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us,” he said.

Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida similarly suggested Trump’s call was inappropriate, though they did not support conviction.

“Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office,” Rubio said.

Democrats expressed outrage over the GOP vote to reject witnesses, insisting that subpoenaing former and current Trump administration officials — as well as documents — was the only way to ensure a fair consideration of the House’s claim. Without that, Trump’s acquittal will be forever tainted, they said.

The trial — with nine full days of arguments and questions from senators — will amount to the shortest impeachment trial of a president and will be the only one without witnesses’ testimony.

“He cannot claim a true acquittal if this has not been a fair trial,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). “In every impeachment hearing, be it for a judge or a president, that has gone through completion, witnesses have been presented at the trial.”

Republicans blasted that claim, arguing that House Democrats rushed through a weak case and failed to subpoena the witnesses it now wanted the Senate to bring in. Video of several of the House witnesses played throughout the arguments this week.

Trump’s Republican allies, including McConnell, said early in the trial that agreeing to subpoena witnesses would open a Pandora’s box. They said that if Democrats were able to hear from Bolton, Republicans would issue several subpoenas, including to Biden, possibly extending the trial for weeks.

The timing of the final vote in the impeachment trial means that Trump will appear for his State of the Union address with the impeachment trial still technically unresolved, depriving him a chance to gloat that the process is in the rearview mirror, but he could still proclaim victory.

At least some of his allies hope he stays off the subject entirely, given the raw nerves it exposed.

“My hope would be that he uses that speech to talk about the agenda, talk about the economy and jobs and things he wants to do this next year, and areas in which we can find common ground and kind of get off the subject of impeachment,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican. “Which is what I think most people in the country want to see.”

The witness vote came perilously close to an even 50-50 split. It is a possibility that would have led to Democrats asking Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to weigh in on the issue to break the tie.

Democrats say Roberts, as presiding officer, had the power to break a tie, just as Vice President Mike Pence does when he presides over the Senate. Republicans say the chief justice does not have the power to vote, and under Senate rules, a tie means the motion fails.

Murkowski indicated that one consideration for her was that she did not want to be the cause of a constitutional debate over the issue.

“It has also become clear some of my colleagues intend to further politicize this process, and drag the Supreme Court into the fray, while attacking the chief justice,” she said. “I will not stand for nor support that effort. We have already degraded this institution for partisan political benefit, and I will not enable those who wish to pull down another.”

Though he was never presented with the issue, Roberts said Friday — responding to a question from Schumer — that if the occasion arose, he does not have the authority to break a tie. The remark on the Senate floor may set a precedent that any future impeachment trial would feel beholden to follow, a consequential decision for Roberts to make.

He said Chief Justice Salmon Chase’s decisions to break two ties in President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial of 1868 — which some had regarded as a precedent — were regarding nonconsequential issues. Roberts said he doesn’t think that he — as an unelected official — can change the Senate’s decision.

“I think it would be inappropriate for me, an unelected official from a different branch of government, to assert the power to change that result,” he said. “I do not regard those isolated episodes 150 years ago as sufficient to support a general authority to break ties.”

Times staff writer Noah Bierman in Washington contributed to this report.