29 Jan

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World Politics

United States

Trump’s defense team and his Republican allies have argued against the inclusion of witnesses at impeachment trial

Mitch McConnell arrives at the US Capitol for the impeachment trial of Donald Trump in Washington DC, on 28 January.

Mitch McConnell arrives at the US Capitol for the impeachment trial of Donald Trump in Washington DC on Tuesday. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Republicans do not yet have the needed votes to block witnesses from appearing at the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump, the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, told his caucus in a meeting on Tuesday night, according to multiple reports.

With an unknown number of Republican senators still undecided on the question of calling witnesses, McConnell could still get the votes he needs to block witnesses and stop the trial from reeling off into unpredictable – and potentially hazardous – territory for the president. At least four Republicans would need to join Democrats to force witness testimony.

Trump’s defense team and his Republican allies have argued vehemently against the inclusion of witnesses at the trial, saying they already had enough information to decide the case and that the Senate should not be burdened by what they have framed as an incomplete process in the House of Representatives.

But those arguments appear not to have been persuasive to the necessary number of senators. Trump’s lawyers concluded their opening arguments on Tuesday.

Led by Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow, the defense team dismissed objections to Trump’s conduct towards Ukraine as “policy disagreements” and warned senators not to “lower the bar of impeachment” by voting to convict the president.

The defense team briefly grappled with charges reportedly appearing in an unpublished manuscript written by the former national security adviser John Bolton that Trump had conditioned security aid for Ukraine on the delivery of personal political favors.

Even if Trump did that, his lawyers said, it would not be impeachable. But reports about the Bolton book were in any case “inadmissible” as evidence, Sekulow argued, owing to the secondhand nature of those reports.

“You cannot impeach a president based on an unsourced allegation,” Sekulow said. “Responding to an unpublished manuscript that maybe some reporters have an idea of maybe what it says – if you want to call that evidence, I don’t know what you want to call that – I’d call that inadmissible.”

A two-thirds majority of voting senators is required to convict Trump. An acquittal, much more likely, could be voted on as early as Friday. In the final visible hurdle remaining between Trump and acquittal, senators planned to vote, also on Friday, on whether to call witnesses in the case.

Before McConnell told his caucus that he was short on votes, Republicans had threatened to respond to witnesses called by Democrats with a call for witnesses whom Democrats say are irrelevant to the case but whom Trump has been very much focused on: former vice-president Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, the whistleblower whose complaint launched the impeachment inquiry and potentially others.

Hearing from numerous witnesses could extend the impeachment trial, which began last week and so far has had a brief run by historical standards, into next month and potentially beyond.

But if Sekulow’s argument sounded like a call for Bolton to testify, that was an aberration from the strong posture of the defense team against witnesses and in favor of ending the trial as quickly as possible.

The White House was reportedly spreading the word to senators on Tuesday that calling Bolton or other witnesses would result in a court battle that would prolong the trial indefinitely. Republican senators were to meet on Tuesday afternoon to discuss strategy for the next phase of the trial, a two-day question period in which queries submitted by senators in writing will be read aloud by the chief justice, John Roberts, who is presiding.

It is still far from certain that witnesses including Bolton will testify, but since Sunday night, when Bolton’s manuscript was first reported, some more moderate Republican senators have voiced openness to the prospect, a sticking point for congressional Democrats in the impeachment trial.

“Certainly a few days ago [the chance of witnesses being called] was zero and now it’s something,” Republican strategist Rob Jesmer told the Guardian. “I think that will massively prolong the trial.”

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