As Senate Republicans face a pivotal moment on President Trump’s impeachment witnesses, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is struggling to maintain control of his caucus following news of former national security adviser John Bolton’s bombshell manuscript.
The GOP leader on Monday deflected growing calls, including from fellow GOP senators, to allow testimony from Bolton and other potential witnesses, which could prolong the trial and deal a massive blow to Trump and Republicans.
McConnell’s refusal to allow witnesses sends a clear message that he’s not interested in the truth. Instead, he appears to be more concerned about the political fallout if the truth finally comes out before the 2020 elections.
The debate over whether to call additional witnesses was upended Sunday following a New York Times report revealing that Bolton claims in a draft of his forthcoming book that Trump told him directly he wanted to freeze U.S. assistance to Ukraine to force them to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.
McConnell’s strategy all along has been to keep the trial as short as possible and avoid giving more political ammo to Democrats to use against Trump and vulnerable Republican senators in the 2020 elections.
He instructed his colleagues to ignore persistent media questions about additional subpoenas until phase one of the trial is complete, as outlined in the organizing resolution passed last week by all 53 Republican senators, according to senators at the meeting.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who attended the lunch, said McConnell told GOP senators to “remember we passed a rules package that gives us an opportunity to vote on this very issue of witnesses after we hear both sides and ask our questions.”
“He just reiterated that a couple times, as did some other people, just to remind us that we have dealt with this and we don’t have to deal with the next step of it until the end of phase one,” Cramer added.
“Take a breath, we’re going to vote on witnesses,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), noting that Trump’s lawyers have one more day of presentations followed by 16 hours for senators to ask questions.
McConnell’s strategy has been working so far, but there’s little room for error, making the Bolton news all the more challenging for the Kentucky Republican.
Two key Republicans — Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Susan Collins (Maine), who faces a tough reelection bid — on Monday indicated they are more likely to support additional witness testimony. Romney made a forceful case at the Republican lunch for calling Bolton to testify, but it didn’t appear to immediately change any opinions.
He told reporters earlier in the day that it’s “increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton” but that statement was slapped down by newly appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.).
Separately, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) has floated the possibility of accepting Bolton’s testimony in exchange for a witness who could help Trump’s case, such as Hunter Biden.
Other potential swing votes on subpoenaing more witnesses and documents include GOP Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.), a vulnerable Republican up for reelection this year. Four defections would allow Democrats to introduce new evidence in the trial through witness testimony and administration records.
But McConnell has declined to endorse the plan floated by Toomey, preferring instead to wait and debate the question of witnesses. Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has likewise ruled out any deal that would require the Bidens to testify in exchange for hearing from Bolton or acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. He wants no witnesses at all.