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McConnell warns against witnesses in pitch for quick impeachment trial resolution

Posted January 22, 2020 6:02 a.m. EST

— Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hardening his argument against new witness testimony in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, a sign that the powerful GOP leader plans to rally fellow Republican senators to block witness testimony and bring a swift end to the proceedings, according to GOP sources.

McConnell has already led his conference in a fight to defeat Democratic efforts to push for an initial deal to subpoena witnesses, arguing that such decisions should wait until after both sides make their opening arguments and senators ask questions to the House impeachment managers and Trump's defense team. But now that the trial has started, McConnell is focused on bringing the proceedings to a close in about a week-and-half's time, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

On Tuesday, McConnell foreshadowed the case he is expected to reiterate in the coming days, warning that the Democratic demands for witness testimony would raise constitutional concerns and set a precedent to "incentivize" future House majorities to carry out "frequent and hasty" impeachment inquiries. And he made explicit reference to an argument that has circulated behind closed doors for several days, according to GOP sources: that subpoenas for senior Trump administration national security officials will open up a scenario akin to an executive privilege Pandora's box that Republicans should fear.

"It could dramatically change the separation of powers between the House and the Senate if the Senate agrees we will conduct both the investigation and the trial of an impeachment," McConnell told his colleagues on the floor Tuesday.

"What's more, some of the proposed new witnesses include executive branch officials whose communications with the President and with other executive branch officials lie at the very core of the President's constitutional privilege," McConnell added. "Such litigation could potentially have permanent repercussions for the separation of powers and the institution of the presidency that senators would need to consider very, very carefully."

It's an argument McConnell allies hope will become a GOP rallying cry as they fight Democratic demands for subpoenas for four key witnesses, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton.

McConnell has little margin for error as the trial progresses. A simple majority of the 100-member Senate would be enough to force subpoenas for witnesses and documents. Two GOP senators -- Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine -- have signaled they are likely to vote to hear from witnesses. A third, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has said she is open to the idea.

If all three vote in favor of witnesses, McConnell can't afford to lose another GOP senator, underscoring the razors edge that future vote sits on at the moment.

"I think it's pretty effective," one GOP senator said of the argument when asked by CNN. "But I'm not on the fence on this."

Ahead of the trial, McConnell has emphasized the fact that he's following the model of President Bill Clinton, where the question of witnesses was put off until later in the trial. He has made clear publicly he hasn't foreclosed the possibility of witnesses, and the resolution that lays the rules of the road for the trial allows for an explicit up-or-down vote to clear the way for exactly that.

Democrats have pressed, repeatedly, for Republicans to support subpoenas for witnesses and documents and sought to ramp up the pressure on the handful of Republicans considering witnesses to join their efforts.

"A vote to delay is a vote to deny," House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said Tuesday as Democrats forced amendment votes on subpoenas for documents and witnesses, adding that the President's legal team was not going to have an "epiphany" to support witnesses later.

"Republicans have called our request for witnesses and documents political," Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, said Tuesday. "If seeking the truth is political, then the Republican Party is in serious trouble."

Yet unlike the Clinton trial, McConnell has already laid the groundwork to oppose subpoenas for any witnesses, a move that would lengthen the trial for days, if not weeks — an outcome the White House and Trump are eager to avoid with the President's February 4 State of the Union looming.

McConnell successfully kept all 53 GOP senators unified in opposing Democratic efforts to add subpoenas for witnesses to his initial trial organizing resolution on Tuesday, including on votes to subpoena Mulvaney and Trump administration documents.

Romney told CNN Tuesday he's "interested in hearing from John Bolton -- perhaps among others." But he added: "I'm not going to be making that vote today."

McConnell, in private conversations, has called the idea of calling witnesses the equivalent of "mutually assured destruction." Publicly, he's warned Democrats that should they succeed in garnering the 51 votes necessary to subpoena their witnesses, Republicans will almost certainly move to bring in witnesses preferred by Trump and his team, including Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden and the whistleblower who filed the initial complaint that led to House's the impeachment inquiry and the President's impeachment.

McConnell has already taken one step to try to speed up the trial, condensing the number days the two sides would have for their 24 hours of opening arguments from four in the Clinton trial to two. He relented to give each side three days to make their case instead of two — a move he made after senators like Collins raised concerns.

It was a brief break in GOP unity, but one that did little damage in the end. McConnell is keenly aware that complete unity won't last for the duration of the trial, two Republican senators told CNN. But he wants to hold off any departures as long as possible -- and, perhaps most importantly, keep the number below four.

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