Senate Republicans are in trouble no matter what they do

Senate Republicans are in trouble no matter what they do
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News & Politics

Senate Republicans seem to have finally gamed out the witness situation in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump at least a couple months past the actual vote—and they are in deep doo doo, to use a technical turn of phrase. Whether or not former national security adviser John Bolton appears as a witness in the Senate trial, his account is going to come out in book form mere months from now. As my colleague Mark Sumner writes, that's exactly why Senate Republicans are newly trying to sell the fantastical reasoning that Bolton's account doesn't matter one way or other, no matter what he ultimately says. That way, whether Americans get Bolton's account through testimony now or through his prose months from now, Senate Republicans can dismiss it as irrelevant to the matter of Trump’s removal from office. Again, this is an otherworldly take in which Trump is king and above the law, and Republicans completely shred the Constitution and everything it stands for in support of the most incompetent and corrupt president America has ever seen.

Now, as a practical matter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn't currently have the votes to quash Bolton’s testimony, as he has said. But why end the bluff now? First, so that the White House and other Trump cultists can apply maximal pressure to the Republicans who are potentially poised to make the rest of the GOP caucus look horrible by voting in favor of the only intellectually honest thing to do—hear from witnesses. McConnell's other concern is that he's up for reelection back home, where he's deeply unpopular, and he doesn't want to be caught solely holding the bag for losing this critical vote.

All that said, anything can happen over the next couple of days of questioning in the Senate trial, which, it's worth remembering, will be curated by McConnell and will not be an organic process by any means. Nonetheless, perhaps more information à la another Bolton excerpt or a Lev Parnas interview will drop, completely roiling the GOP caucus. Or not. Although Utah Sen. Mitt Romney continues to say he wants to hear from witnesses, perhaps Trump's maximal pressure campaign will squelch the Romney faction, leaving only Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (for process reasons) and Maine Sen. Susan Collins (for electoral reasons) to vote with Romney. That would leave the witness faction one vote shy of the four Republican votes necessary.

Whatever happens, my personal belief is that Senate Republicans will either fall short of what's needed to call witnesses or end up with more than four votes. No one wants to be tagged as being the "fourth vote," but if it starts to become clear in hushed conversations that the votes are there, then the witness faction will likely pick up several more votes rather than just one. People such as Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman are potential additions, more for legacy reasons than anything else. And perhaps a vulnerable Republican such as North Carolina's Thom Tillis will join Collins in determining that a no vote on witnesses would be nearly impossible to defend. But again, outside of Collins, most vulnerable Republican Senators (e.g., Tillis, McSally, Gardner) appear to have determined that hugging Trump is the only way to win reelection (or perhaps lose but still have a future in GOP circles). In any case, my guess would be that the witness vote either falls short or draws four-plus support, depending on what happens between now and Friday.

Now for a couple of side notes: Don't fall for any of this ridiculous "witness trade" talk. Not only would it be stupid for Democrats to welcome a materially irrelevant witness like Hunter Biden in order to hear from Bolton, but the whole concept of a trade is a red herring. If Republicans have the votes to call Hunter Biden or Adam Schiff, they could and can do it. They have enough people in their caucus to authorize those witnesses without getting Democrats to sign off on it. So just let them stew in their juices over that. Democrats should remain focused on Bolton. And, as Schiff pointed out Tuesday, if they want a 1-for-1 trade, let them call someone relevant, such as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who has contradicted Bolton's account.

Finally, let's remember where this entire inquiry started—it was deemed a plank walk for Democrats at the outset when Pelosi first announced it last fall. But she has played it masterfully, threading the needles of duty, oath of office, and public opinion all the way through. House Democrats managed to execute an inquiry that was deemed fair and has convinced a majority of the public that Trump should be removed from office according to a preponderance of polling over the last month. Senate Republicans, at the moment, are now on the wrong side of the polling no matter what they do—whether they vote for witnesses and then acquit or forgo witnesses altogether and then acquit. Frankly, forgoing witnesses is their worst option as a national consensus has emerged that witness testimony must be heard. If Senate Republicans choose to ignore some 70% of the population, they will pay the price at the ballot box in November. However, if they vote for witnesses, it opens a Pandora's box in which McConnell loses control of the process. Win-win for Democrats.

Ultimately, regardless of what Senate Republicans do, House Democrats still have the final play. If they aren't satisfied with the process the GOP-led Senate has undertaken, Pelosi and Chairman Schiff now have more reason than ever to subpoena Bolton's testimony. No one can be 100% sure all of what Bolton would say under oath, but House Democrats still have the opportunity to have the final say on what the public hears when Senate Republicans conclude their sham trial. That's pretty damn close to a checkmate in terms of congressional chess playing.

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