Republicans Block Impeachment Witnesses, Clearing Path for Trump Acquittal

WASHINGTON — The Senate brought President Trump to the brink of acquittal on Friday of charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress, as Republicans voted to block consideration of new witnesses and documents in his impeachment trial and shut down a final push by Democrats to bolster their case for the president’s removal.

In a nearly party-line vote after a bitter debate, Democrats failed to win support from the four Republicans they needed. With Mr. Trump’s acquittal virtually certain, the president’s allies rallied to his defense, even as some conceded he was guilty of the central allegations against him.

The Democrats’ push for more witnesses and documents failed 49 to 51, with only two Republicans joining Democrats in favor. A vote on the verdict is planned for Wednesday.

As they approached the final stage of the third presidential impeachment proceeding in United States history, Democrats condemned the witness vote and said it would render Mr. Trump’s trial illegitimate and his acquittal meaningless.

“America will remember this day, unfortunately, where the Senate did not live up to its responsibilities, when the Senate turned away from truth and went along with a sham trial,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “If the president is acquitted, with no witnesses, no documents, the acquittal will have no value because Americans will know that this trial was not a real trial.”

Even as they prepared to vote against removing him, several Republicans broke with Mr. Trump’s repeated assertions that he had done nothing wrong, saying they believed he had committed the main offense of which he was accused: withholding nearly $400 million in military aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.

Still, those Republicans said, they were unwilling to remove a president fewer than 10 months before he is to face voters.

“If you are persuaded that he did it, why do you need more witnesses?” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, a critical swing vote on the issue whose late decision to oppose considering new evidence all but sealed Mr. Trump’s swift acquittal. “The country is not going to accept being told that they can’t elect the president they want to elect in the week the election starts by a majority for a merely inappropriate telephone call or action.”

“You don’t apply capital punishment for every offense,” Mr. Alexander added.

The vote signaled the end of a saga that has consumed Washington and threatened Mr. Trump’s hold on the presidency for the past five months, since the emergence in September of an anonymous whistle-blower complaint accusing him of using the levers of government to push Ukraine to interfere on his behalf in the 2020 election.

Senators laid the groundwork for rendering their verdict on Wednesday afternoon, with plans to recess the trial for the weekend and return Monday for closing arguments. The timetable will rob Mr. Trump of the opportunity to use his State of the Union address, scheduled for Tuesday night, to boast about his acquittal, a prospect he has relished for several weeks. Instead, he will become only the second president to deliver the speech, before a joint session of Congress, during his own impeachment trial.

At the White House, Mr. Trump raged against a process he has dismissed from the start as a “witch hunt” and a “hoax,” preparing to make his defiance in the face of Democrats’ attempts to remove him a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.

“No matter what you give to the Democrats, in the end, they will NEVER be satisfied,” the president wrote Friday night on Twitter. “In the House, they gave us NOTHING!”

The outcome of the vote, however, was not in doubt. It would take a two-thirds majority — 67 senators — to convict Mr. Trump and remove him from office.

The president has insisted that he did nothing wrong, calling his telephone conversation with the president of Ukraine “perfect” and the impeachment inquiry a “sham.” For months, he has demanded that his allies deliver nothing less than an absolute defense of his actions. But even as they were poised to acquit him, several Republicans said that was not so.

Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said that “some of the president’s actions in this case — including asking a foreign country to investigate a potential political opponent and the delay of aid to Ukraine — were wrong and inappropriate.”

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who challenged Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination in 2016, suggested that he did not necessarily consider the president innocent, either.

“Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office,” he said. “I will not vote to remove the president because doing so would inflict extraordinary and potentially irreparable damage to our already divided nation.”

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transcript

Impeachment Trial Highlights: A Showdown Over Calling Witnesses

Senators rejected a call for additional witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial, dealing a fatal blow to efforts by Democrats to bring about new evidence.

“Mr. Blunt?” “No.” “No.” “Mr. Booker?” “Yes.” “Aye.” “Mr. Boozman?” “No.” “No.” “Are there any senators in the chamber wishing to change his or her vote? If not, the yeas are 49, the nays are 51. The motion is not agreed to.” “This will set a new precedent. This will be cited in impeachment trials from this point to the end of history. The documents the president is hiding will come out. The witnesses the president is concealing will tell their stories. And we will be asked why we didn’t want to hear that information when we had the chance.” “There is a way to decide right up front in some quick way whether there’s really a triable issue, whether you really need to go to all the trouble of calling in new witnesses and having more evidence in something like that.” “It’s not just about hearing from witnesses. You need documents. The documents don’t lie.” “The question here before this body is, what do you want your place in history to be? Do you want your place in history to be, let’s hear the truth? Or that we don’t want to hear it?” “You did hear evidence. You heard evidence from 13 different witnesses, 192 video clips, and as my colleague the deputy White House counsel said, over 28,000 pages of documents.”

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Senators rejected a call for additional witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial, dealing a fatal blow to efforts by Democrats to bring about new evidence.CreditCredit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Reflecting the depth of the country’s divisions, both sides were already looking past the trial to begin framing the fight over Mr. Trump’s conduct ahead of the November election, starting on Monday, when the Iowa caucuses will be held, marking the first voting in a contest that will deliver the final verdict on his fitness for office.

With the threat of conviction removed, Mr. Trump enters the election season as the first impeached president in modern history to face the voters for re-election, and damaged by the revelations about his conduct. But his expected acquittal is also likely to leave the president emboldened and more determined than ever to stoke voters’ anger and grievances, arguing that Democrats, unelected bureaucrats and the mainstream news media have targeted him because of their disdain for his core supporters, and that his fight for political survival is theirs as well.

“I don’t think he acted improperly,” said Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota. “For three-plus years, Democrats have been trying to parse every one of his words, add their traditional view and find themselves often perplexed. Part of the problem is that most of America likes the straight talk and occasionally forgives if he doesn’t say exactly the right thing.”

Democrats, too, planned to capitalize on the battle scars from the impeachment fight to target Republicans, appealing to voters to punish them for refusing to press for a more thorough trial and ultimately sticking with Mr. Trump despite evidence of his misdeeds. But they faced the risks of a potential backlash by voters to a process that highlighted deep partisan divisions.

After resisting impeachment for months, Speaker Nancy Pelosi embraced it after the Ukraine allegations last fall. In doing so, she calculated that her party could not fail to act against a president whose actions they saw as clearly beyond the pale. But she confronted what she knew to be an unmovable reality in the Senate, where Democrats were certain to fall far short of removing him.

Republicans in the Senate made a wager of their own that it was better to withstand the short-term criticisms of Democrats and potentially constituents to quickly put the trial behind them than, rather than allow the proceeding to stretch on risking damaging new revelations. In doing so, they are strapping their political fate to that of a polarizing president who enjoys unparalleled loyalty among conservative voters.

The Republican victory was sealed just moments after the debate was gaveled open on Friday when Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, issued a statement saying that a vote for additional witnesses would only extend what she called a “partisan” impeachment, even as she lamented that the Senate trial had not been fair and Congress had failed its obligation to the country. Her announcement followed a similar one by Mr. Alexander.

Two Republicans senators — Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine — broke ranks with their party and voted with Democrats in their demand for additional testimony from witnesses.

Ms. Murkowski did not indicate how she would vote on the final articles of impeachment, which she denounced as “rushed and flawed” by the House. But she offered an unusually sharp rebuke of the institution in which she serves, appearing to cast blame on both parties and both chambers of Congress for letting excessive partisanship overtake a solemn responsibility, even as she sided with her own party.

“Given the partisan nature of this impeachment from the very beginning and throughout, I have come to the conclusion that there will be no fair trial in the Senate,” she said in a statement Friday morning. “I don’t believe the continuation of this process will change anything.”

“It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed,” she added

Speaking from the well of the Senate, the Democratic House managers made a final, urgent appeal for additional witnesses during their two-hour presentation on Friday, warning senators that a refusal to hear new evidence would ensure that Mr. Trump is never held accountable even as it undermines the nation’s democratic order and the public’s faith in the institutions of government.

Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the lead House manager, seized on a New York Times report published in the hours before the vote to hammer home his point. The story revealed that Mr. Trump had asked John R. Bolton, his former national security adviser, last may to assist in his pressure campaign on Ukraine.

“The facts will come — out in all of their horror, they will come out,” Mr. Schiff said. “The witnesses the president is concealing will tell their stories,” he said. “And we will be asked why we didn’t want to hear that information when we had the chance. What answer shall we give if we do not pursue the truth now?”

Mr. Trump’s defense team vigorously argued in the opposite direction, alternately telling senators they already had all the evidence they needed to dismiss thee charged before them and warning that calling new witnesses would set a dangerous precedent of its own by validating a rushed and incomplete case presented by the House.

“The Senate is not here to do the investigatory work that the House didn’t do,” said Patrick Philbin, the deputy White House counsel.

Reporting was contributed by Carl Hulse, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Catie Edmondson, Emily Cochrane and Patricia Mazzei.

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