WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Amid uncertainty over the key question of whether to call witnesses in President Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, Trump’s legal team wrapped up its opening arguments on Tuesday with an appeal for a quick acquittal.
Saying “it is time for this to end,” Trump’s lawyers brushed off former national security adviser John Bolton’s explosive allegations about Trump’s conduct and accused Democrats of trying to interfere with Trump’s November re-election bid.
Afterward, Republican senators met behind closed doors to discuss calling witnesses including Bolton, but said as they emerged that there was no resolution on the matter. Four Republicans would need to vote for witnesses, along with all 47 Democrats and independents.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told senators in the meeting that he did not currently have the votes to block Democrats from calling witnesses at the trial because some Republicans remained uncommitted, the New York Times reported.
Republican Senator John Barrasso told reporters the consensus in the meeting was “we’ve heard enough and it’s time to go to a final judgment vote.” But other Republicans said the vote count was unclear and no decision would be made until Friday.
Republican Senator Kevin Cramer, a conservative defender of Trump who opposes witnesses, said Republicans were “mostly united. I’m pretty sure it’s not unanimous. But I don’t know what the numbers are.”
Trump’s legal team sought to minimize the importance of Bolton’s unpublished book manuscript that describes Trump’s central role in a pressure campaign aimed at getting Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in this year’s election.
“You cannot impeach a president on an unsourced allegation,” Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow told the Senate.
The Democratic-led House on Dec. 18 impeached Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his request that Ukraine investigate Biden, the former vice president.
The Republican-controlled Senate is almost certain to acquit Trump, who has painted the impeachment proceedings on the campaign trail as an effort by Democrats to poison his re-election. His lawyers echoed that argument on Tuesday.
“Overturning past elections and massively interfering with the upcoming one would cause serious and lasting damage to the people of the United States and to our great country. The Senate cannot allow this to happen,” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone told the Senate.
“It is time for this to end, here and now. So we urge the Senate to reject these articles of impeachment.”
When they reconvene on Wednesday, senators will begin two days of questions to the lawyers representing Trump and to the seven House of Representatives Democrats who have served as prosecutors. That would leave summations and a vote on witnesses for Friday.
Adam Schiff, who served as the lead Democratic prosecutor in arguing the case against Trump last week, said witnesses would be needed for the trial to be considered fair.
“A fair trial involves witnesses and it involves documents,” he told reporters.
Bolton’s manuscript directly contradicts Trump’s account of events. He wrote the president told him he wanted to freeze $391 million in security aid to Ukraine until Kiev pursued investigations into Democrats, including Biden and his son Hunter Biden, the New York Times reported.
Bolton’s allegations go to the heart of impeachment charges against Trump. Democrats have said Trump abused his power by using the security aid – approved by Congress to help Ukraine battle Russia-backed separatists – as leverage to get a foreign power to smear a political rival.
Sekulow underscored what fellow Trump legal team member Alan Dershowitz told senators late on Monday – that even if what Bolton says is true, it would not represent impeachable conduct.
Bolton left his White House post last September. Trump has said he fired Bolton. Bolton said he quit after policy disagreements.
Trump has denied telling Bolton he sought to use the Ukraine aid as leverage to get Kiev to investigate the Bidens. He has denied any quid pro quo – a Latin term meaning a favor for a favor – in his dealings with Ukraine.
Sekulow told the senators that impeachment “is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts. That’s politics, unfortunately.”
Some Republican senators who oppose calling witnesses proposed that Bolton’s manuscript be made available for senators to review on a classified basis, an idea rejected by top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer.
“What an absurd proposal. It’s a book,” Schumer told reporters about the proposal floated by Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and James Lankford, saying there was no need to place the manuscript for review in a classified setting “unless you want to hide something.”
Lankford urged Bolton to speak publicly outside of the trial.
Schumer criticized Trump’s legal team for stating during its arguments to the Senate that there was no eyewitness testimony detailing abuse of power by Trump, “when we know that John Bolton has eyewitness testimony and is willing to testify.”
Schumer made a fresh appeal for four Republican senators – the number needed for a majority – to join Democrats in voting to call witnesses. Schumer also indicated Democrats would reject any effort at a so-called witness swap with Republicans.
“The Republicans can call who they want. They have the ability. They have the majority,” Schumer said.
The impeachment drive against Trump, Sekulow argued, was a partisan exercise motivated by Democratic opposition to Trump’s policies, not genuine impeachable offenses.
“But to have a removal of a duly elected president based on a policy disagreement?” Sekulow asked. “That is not what the framers (of the Constitution) intended. And if you lower the bar that way – danger, danger, danger. Because the next president or the one after that, he or she would be held to that same standard? I hope not. I pray not.”
Reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan, Patricia Zengerlem Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, Makini Brice, Karen Freifeld, Lisa Lambert and Richard Cowan; Writing by Will Dunham and John Whitesides; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Peter Cooney