Yesterday, as we suspected after Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander’s vote not to allow witnesses despite—or because of—the fact that it was so clear Trump was guilty, the Senate voted 49-51 not to hear witnesses or admit documents in the impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump. This is the first impeachment trial in American history (the Senate also holds impeachment trials of federal judges) that does not have witnesses or documents.
Republican Senators scrambled to justify their votes. As I wrote last night, Alexander said that the Democrats had proven the charges against the president but those actions were not impeachable. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) said that Alexander spoke for him, as well as for other senators. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said that the whole process was so bad she was just giving up and voting for it to be over. And tonight, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) went further. He said that the charges against Trump were both proven and impeachable, but “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.”
What’s going on? It appears that Republican Senators are admitting Trump is guilty at the same time they are running away not just from conviction, but also from hearing witnesses and seeing key documents. What does this even mean?
It seems that Republican Senators and Representatives have decided their only course of action for the 2020 election is to hug Trump as tightly as they can. This will assure them the votes of Trump loyalists, even as it signals they are tossing aside the idea of appealing to moderates. So expect Republican campaigns to be vicious appeals to the Trump base by attacking everyone else.
Rumors suggest that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was facing a revolt and had to quell it to get to this point. That rumor, taken with the comments from congressmen like Mark Meadows that senators who did not stick with Trump would face retaliation, suggests that McConnell simply told senators to stick with Trump or they would get no money for their reelection campaigns. So they have made Trump the standard bearer for their party; he owns them now. Only two Republicans voted for witnesses in the impeachment trial: Susan Collins (R-ME), who appears to have had McConnell’s permission, and Mitt Romney (R-UT). As soon as news of his vote got out, the leaders of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, announced he would not be welcome in their midst. And so it begins.
At the same time, Republicans know that most Americans wanted witnesses in the impeachment trial, at the very least, and do not believe the trial was fair, something we feel quite strongly about. So they are trying to justify their votes as best they can.
How good do they feel about where they are? Lindsey Graham did an interview tonight on the Fox News Channel in which he called impeachment “partisan bullshit” (sorry) that was going to blow up in the Democrats’ face. It would maybe have been more convincing if he had not appeared to be drunk.
As House impeachment manager Adam Schiff repeatedly warned them, more and more information would continue to drop. And yesterday it did, relentlessly. It started with another leak from the manuscript by former National Security Advisor John Bolton. According to a story by Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt in the New York Times, in early May, more than two months before the infamous July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump asked Zelensky to announce an investigation into the Bidens in exchange for receiving US military aid, Trump told Bolton to call Zelensky and tell him to meet with Trump’s sometime lawyer Rudy Giuliani to talk over the proposed investigations. While Trump immediately denied this exchange, Bolton’s story matches with other witnesses’ accounts.
Worse, though, Bolton apparently alleges that the conversation included acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, already deeply linked into the Ukraine Scandal, Giuliani, and White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, who is leading the president’s defense team in the impeachment trial. Ouch. Cipollone should have disclosed that he was, at the very least, a material witness to the events at hand, especially since Schiff and the other impeachment managers had written him a letter before the trial started warning him that “You may be a material witness to the charges against President Trump, even though you are also his advocate.”
But the revelations weren’t over. Lev Parnas’s lawyer Joseph A. Bondy published on Twitter a letter he wrote to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, outlining what Parnas would say if he were called to testify. Remember, Parnas, who is under indictment for campaign finance violations (he gave Russian money to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, among others) is an unreliable witness, but he also has little incentive to lie. Still, take all this with a grain—or rather a half teaspoon—of salt.
Bondy says that Parnas will lay out the entire scheme—as it’s written in the letter it reads much as we would expect based on what we already know. But, according to Bondy, Parnas is willing to testify that the Ukraine scheme involved not just Trump, but also Vice President Mike Pence, the GOP Super PAC America First, Former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Bill Barr, Senator Lindsey Graham, Congressman Devin Nunes, Nunes’s staffer Derek Harvey, journalist John Solomon (he was the one who printed articles attacking US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch in The Hill), attorneys Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing, and Giuliani. Bondy’s letter claims that Parnas has records and documents to prove his testimony is accurate.
In response to all this, last night John Solomon, the reporter Parnas named, appeared on Laura Ingraham’s show on the Fox News Channel to accuse John Bolton of taking money from oligarchs in Ukraine. (There is no evidence at all that this is true.)
What has happened in the Senate is a travesty. But the Republicans are clearly aware that they have made a devil’s bargain that is going to weigh heavier as time passes. Remember, the Ukraine Scandal broke only four months ago. There are nine more months until the election for more revelations to drop, and Americans are already mad and vowing that they will not be counted out in 2020. In the short term, the Republicans have won. But even they appear to be worried about the longer term.
A couple of other loose ends to tie up. Remember how I said that Trump can pay legal bills with campaign money, and that’s why I thought he filed for reelection on Inauguration Day, the first president ever to do so? We learned today that Trump’s reelection campaign spent $1.4 million on legal fees in the fourth quarter of 2019 alone. The fees the campaign paid add up to roughly $12.4 million since Trump took office.
And yesterday we learned that former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch has retired from the foreign service after 33 years. She has served America well at crucial postings, including, of course, Ukraine, as it transitioned away from Russia and toward Europe, the transition the Trump team worked to reverse. She is leaving the service at just 61 years old, and while she has certainly earned a respite from the chaos into which the Ukraine Scandal has thrown her, the loss of such an accomplished and principled diplomat significantly weakens the United States.
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter on January 17 2020. Subscribe for free here.