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Romney wants to call witnesses; McConnell short on votes to block it — for now

After the president’s defense finished their arguments Tuesday, GOP senators met privately, ‘trying to get everyone on the same page’ about whether to call John Bolton or other impeachment witnesses.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, arrives at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. President Donald Trump’s legal team prepared to wrap up arguments in his impeachment trial Tuesday as Senate Republicans wrestled with whether to allow witnesses, including John Bolton who appeared ready to contradict a key Trump claim.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — When the president’s defense attorney suggested senators ignore John Bolton’s book manuscript, Sen. Mitt Romney wasn’t taking notes.

The Utah Republican sat back in his chair and looked straight ahead as Jay Sekulow blasted the manuscript and reports that it undermines President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense as inaccurate and ill-informed.

“That’s the evidence, if you want to call that evidence. I don’t know what you’d call it,” an animated Sekulow said, waving his hands around. “I’d call it inadmissible.”

Romney had no comment on Sekulow’s remarks, but there are no indications he’s backing off his stance that the Senate should take up Bolton’s offer to testify if subpoenaed.

“I, of course, will make a final decision on witnesses after we’ve heard from not only the prosecution, but also the defense,” the senator told reporters Monday. “But I think at this stage it is pretty fair to say John Bolton has a relevant testimony to provide.”

Trump’s defense team wrapped up their arguments Tuesday in a brief two-hour session but senators, visibly relieved as they milled about the Senate floor, didn’t relax for long. Romney and fellow-Utah Sen. Mike Lee retreated behind closed doors with their GOP colleagues to discuss the questions they will ask attorneys and House impeachment managers Wednesday and Thursday and the matter that is dividing them — whether to call Bolton or other top White House aides as witnesses.

No decision was reached, which was clear from the body language of many who slowly walked the Capitol hallways quietly speaking to trailing reporters. Few stopped to talk.

“It was a serious family discussion,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.C., said, according to The New York Times. “Some people are sincerely exploring all the avenues because they are still uncommitted.”

Headlines were mixed on where the Republican majority of 53 stands on the witness question.

Many reported that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his conference that he didn’t have the votes to block a call for witnesses. But others indicated that Republican senators on the fence will likely fall in line by Friday, when the Senate is expected to vote on the issue.

“We are trying to get everyone on the same page,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters after the meeting. He added that he doesn’t expect additional witnesses will be called.

Romney, who has kept relatively quiet since the trial began, reignited the simmering controversy over whether to bring additional witnesses and documents into the impeachment trial against Trump.

In a leaked manuscript of a forthcoming book, Bolton wrote that Trump told him military aide to Ukraine was conditioned on Ukrainian officials announcing investigations into Democrats, including Joe Biden, contradicting the president’s defense that there was no quid pro quo. Trump and other administration officials say Bolton’s memoir and news reports about it are false.

But the reports raised enough questions for Romney to speak out publicly and privately make the case to his GOP colleagues that they should call Bolton as a witness. Romney’s office did not respond to a request to confirm whether he and McConnell were vying to convince undecided senators to join their respective voting blocs.

The controversy threatens to splinter the Republican majority and prolong the trial that they and Trump wanted to end in acquittal by the end of this week.

Whether the GOP-controlled Senate would acquit Trump has never been in doubt. But Romney is among a small group of Republicans who have long endorsed the idea of voting to admit witnesses and documents at the end of questioning. The Bolton revelations have made the question even more urgent.

At least four GOP senators would have to join with Senate Democrats to reach the 51 votes needed to call witnesses. So far, only Romney and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine are committed to voting to call witnesses. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are reserving their decision until Friday.

“I’m going to listen to the arguments, which I’ve done,” Alexander told reporters. “I’m going to consider the record. I’m going to consider the questions and answers, and then I’m going to make a decision.”

Until then, senators will have question House managers and Trump’s defense team in two eight-hour sessions. The written questions will be submitted to Chief Justice John Roberts who will read them to the corresponding legal team.

Before adjourning Tuesday, Roberts told senators that he intended to follow the guidance of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presided over the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.

Roberts acknowledged that his predecessor’s advice for attorneys to keep their answers to five minutes or less “was met with laughter.”

“Nonetheless, managers and counsel generally limited their responses accordingly,” Roberts said. “I think the late chief’s time limit was a good one and would ask both sides to abide by it.”