Behind the scenes, Republicans are worried the Senate impeachment trial might be falling apart

Andrew Feinberg
Senator Mitch McConnell addresses the Senate during the president's impeachment trial: Senate Television via Getty Images

A general rule of American politics these days is that the electorate is so polarized that three-quarters of voters wouldn’t be able to agree on anything at all. But rules, as the saying goes, are made to be broken.

As President Trump's impeachment trial entered its second week on Tuesday, Quinnipiac University released a jaw-dropping new poll showing 75 per cent of registered voters — 49 per cent of Republicans, 95 per cent of Democrats and 75 per cent of independents — believe the Senate should allow witnesses to testify.

The combination of such strong public support for witness testimony and the news that a soon-to-be-released book written by John Bolton — The Room Where It Happened — would contain details of damning conversations between Trump and his mustachioed former aide meant Senate Democrats were standing a bit taller as they walked around the Capitol Tuesday evening.

And when reports emerged from Senate Republicans' weekly caucus meeting which indicated that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had not locked down the 51 votes it would take to preclude consideration of witness testimony, it appeared as if Democrats were one step closer to their goal of compelling Bolton to testify.

Senators have now begin a two-day period during which they can submit questions which Chief Justice John Roberts will put to the House Democrats' managers and the president's lawyers. Whether they will vote to allow witnesses on Friday is still anybody's guess.

A handful of Republicans, including Maine's Susan Collins and Utah's Mitt Romney, have indicated that they'd like to hear from Bolton. Additionally, the fact that McConnell didn’t lock down a majority vote on Tuesday means that at least two more Republicans, at minimum, are on the fence.

Much of the speculation regarding who else might break with Trump and vote against the majority of the GOP caucus has centered on Senators who will be on the ballot this year in swing states, including Arizona's Martha McSally, Colorado's Cory Gardner, and North Carolina's Thom Tillis.

Larry Sabato, the founder of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said it makes political sense for swing-staters like Collins or Gardner to vote for witnesses, particularly since they'll still be able to vote to acquit Trump later on.

"Given the fact that they know they can please and will please Trump in the end [with an acquittal], it gives them some leeway," he told me. "Every day the story changes, but I know if I were in a competitive state, I would want to vote for witnesses. It's a good counter to the claim that they're just hiding the president's missteps."

And while voting to allow witnesses might incur the president's wrath now, Sabato said voters' memories aren't long enough for Friday's vote to matter in November.

"Nobody is going to remember this. It will be in the tenth paragraph of a story and people will say, 'Oh, that's right. That happened at the beginning of the year, didn't it?'"

But Sabato warned that it's highly unlikely even the most damning testimony would cause any currently acquittal-minded Republican to vote to remove Trump, even if the addition of witnesses pushes the trial past some primary filing deadlines: ”I don't think it'll make the slightest difference because they don't want to ever have to say, 'I can't go home again.' And if they do anything contrary to what President Trump wants, with one tweet, Trump can activate his base in their state and their life is miserable and they will be booted out in November."

He added that while it's a tough position for any politician to be in, he isn't sympathetic to their plight.

"They are stuck and they have no one to blame but themselves because they have completely and totally handed Trump the keys to their conscience," he said. "I have no sympathy for them whatsoever."

But some observers think those who are watching to see if swing-state Senators will join Democrats are looking in the wrong place. Instead, the biggest bloc of votes for witnesses could come from so-called “institutionalists" — veteran GOP stalwarts like retiring Tennesee Senator Lamar Alexander, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, or North Carolina's Richard Burr, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"It's not a good place for the White House to be in," one top Republican operative told me. What the White House fears most, he said, is Senate veterans like Burr — or even Alabama's Richard Shelby — joining Collins and Romney in voting to allow witnesses, which could trigger a "jailbreak" by bringing more Republicans along with them.

"If you get Burr, Tillis flips," a longtime Republican Senate watcher predicted, adding that the worst-case scenario for the White House involves eight to 12 GOP Senators joining Chuck Schumer's 47 Democrats.

But one Trumpworld veteran, political consultant Sam Nunberg, said to me that all the handwringing over Friday's vote will come to naught.

"I don’t think there will be witnesses," he said in a text message. "What's the point? The result will be the same."

According to Nunberg, the idea that vulnerable incumbents can gain a veneer of independence from Trump by voting for witnesses but still voting for acquittal is nonsensical.

"It won’t help them with any of their critics once they acquit Trump," he explained.

And while a Senator whose vote remains firmly in Trump's column is McConnell, one Kentucky Republican graybeard I spoke with said the biggest wild-card in all of this is whether he will continue the whip operation he employed to great success last Tuesday, when the Senate voted to approve his trial rules package.

McConnell, he said, will read the tea leaves and do what it takes to remain Majority Leader: ”At the end of the day, Mitch is going to take care of Mitch before anything else, including Trump."

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