Senators finally get their chance to participate in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial after a week of waiting by asking questions Wednesday — a phase both sides are hoping can sway their undecided colleagues on the question of witnesses.
The Senate kicks off two days of senator questions for House managers and the President’s legal team at 1 p.m. ET, in the final phase of the trial before the Senate will debate and vote on whether to seek witnesses and documents. Senators still can’t speak during the trial, as they will submit questions to be read aloud by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Senate leaders in both parties have worked with senators to craft questions that will be asked, as Republicans push for an end to the trial while Democrats make their case for calling witnesses and subpoenaing documents.
The vote on witnesses, which is expected Friday, comes down to the handful of Republicans who remain undecided on whether there should be witnesses called in the trial. Republican senators met behind closed doors on Tuesday, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told his conference they didn’t have the votes — yet — to defeat witnesses, but Republicans left the meeting confident they can get there.
“There have been a lot of discussions, but I have no idea how the votes are going to fall,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who is leaning toward voting for witnesses. “I am pleased that I, along with Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and others, worked very hard to get it into the resolution a guaranteed vote on whether or not to call witnesses at this point in the trial.”
McConnell met on Wednesday morning with Murkowski, an Alaska Republican also on the fence about witnesses.
“I had a meeting with Leader McConnell, but I’m not going to talk to you about it,” Murkowski said after leaving McConnell’s office. “I am not going to be discussing the witness situation right now. … I’ve got some more questions that I want to get into the mix. So I’ve been talking with the folks in the cloakroom about what the universe is, see how we can supplement that, so that’s my purposes.”
McConnell is likely to have other meetings Wednesday in between with senators, one source said.
Perhaps the biggest wildcard right now is Sen. Lamar Alexander, the retiring Tennessee Republican and Senate institutionalist who is close to members on both sides. He is also a very close McConnell confidante.
Sources who attended Tuesday’s Republican meeting say Alexander did not speak about his views on witnesses — and is not tipping his hand one way or the other. He is reading through the materials from the inquiry and past testimony and continues to say he will make a judgment after the questioning period is done.
On the Democratic side, there are still a handful of red-state senators who have not said how they will vote on whether to convict or impeach Trump on the articles of impeachment.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has said he wants witnesses, like former national security adviser John Bolton. On Wednesday, Manchin said he was also potentially interested in a key witness sought by Republicans: former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.
“I want witnesses. I definitely want witnesses,” Manchin said. “The only thing I’ve said is that there should be an adult in the room and that’s Chief Justice Roberts. We should vote again on Chief Justice Roberts being able to determine who is pertinent … if Hunter Biden is one of the people who is pertinent to the evidence or to the trial, then absolutely.”
Manchin has not tipped his hand on his final vote, but said both sides did a “good job” with their presentations.
Trump suggested on Twitter that Manchin would ultimately vote against him.
“There is much talk that certain Democrats are going to be voting with Republicans on the Impeachment Hoax, so that the Senate can get back to the business of taking care of the American people,” Trump tweeted. “Sorry, but Cryin’ Chuck Schumer will never let that happen!”
Questions to help make the case
The rough expectation is there will be about 20 to 25 questions asked in total over two days, senators told CNN.
The questions will alternate between Republican and Democratic senators, and they will be directed to either the House managers or the President’s legal team. Senators will not be able to respond to the answer. Roberts on Tuesday encouraged the legal times on both sides to try to limit answers to five minutes per questions.
Senators have huddled to craft the questions and, submitted them in both parties to leaders over the past two days, in part to help structure the questions — and their case — and avoid duplication.
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Democrats on his panel got together to go over lines of questioning on US aid to Ukraine. House Judiciary Democrats similarly huddled to talk about questions, he said.
Senators in both parties say a large majority of the questions will be designed to have their side flesh out specific issues that better make their case. Democrats plan to ask the House managers to respond to the defense counsel’s presentation attacking the Bidens in an effort to rebut it in full.
Republicans will ask the White House defense much the same, in an effort to expand on it, sources say.
Democrats will also tee up several questions underscoring the importance of witnesses and documents to a fair trial, while Republicans will push the argument that the trial needs to come to an end soon.
Sources say both sides are expected to raise Bolton, who injected new fuel into the push for witnesses this week with an unpublished book manuscript alleging that Trump told him the US aid to Ukraine was conditioned on investigations into Democrats.