Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans “have the votes” to move ahead with Donald Trump’s impeachment trial without a deal with Democrats on calling witnesses such as former US national security adviser John Bolton.
Mr McConnell has been at loggerheads with Democrats for weeks over how Mr Trump’s impeachment trial should be run, with his Democratic counterpart, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, pushing for testimony from witnesses who did not participate in the House of Representatives impeachment investigation last year.
The White House had ordered officials not to testify before the House inquiry. Mr Bolton, who subsequently refused to co-operate with the House probe, said on Monday that he was willing to testify in a Senate trial if subpoenaed.
Last month Mr Trump became the third president in US history to be impeached, when the House charged him with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. But Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, has held off on sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate, thereby stalling a trial, in an effort to pressure Mr McConnell and other Republicans to allow for new witnesses and the submission of fresh evidence.
The rules of an impeachment trial require the approval of a simple majority of senators, and while the Republicans hold 53 of the 100 Senate seats, questions had been raised over whether more moderate Republicans, such as Lisa Murkowski of Alaska or Susan Collins of Maine, would side with Mr Schumer and the Democrats. But both Ms Murkowski and Ms Collins said this week that they would back Mr McConnell’s plans to begin a trial without committing to calling new witnesses.
Mr McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that “phase one” of the trial would include opening arguments from the prosecution and the defence, followed by counsel for both sides answering written questions submitted by senators.
The top Senate Republican said the “appropriateness of calling witnesses” would be addressed only after the initial phase, mirroring how Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial was structured in 1999.
“There will be, I’m sure, intense discussion, once you get past phase one about the whole witness issue,” Mr McConnell said.
It remains unclear whether enough Senate Republicans would push to hear from additional current or former members of the Trump administration. Mitt Romney, a Republican senator from Utah and former US presidential candidate, has backed Mr McConnell’s plan so far, but also told reporters this week: “I’d like to hear from John Bolton and other witnesses to provide information.”
Mr Schumer said on Tuesday that he and Mr McConnell “have very different visions about what it means to conduct a fair trial”.
“Democrats believe that a fair trial means that all the relevant facts come out, and witnesses and documents are part of that trial,” he added. “Whoever heard of a trial without witnesses and documents?”
Ms Pelosi did not immediately respond to Mr McConnell’s remarks on Tuesday. Under current Senate rules, Mr Trump’s trial cannot be held until the articles of impeachment are sent from the House to the upper chamber.
Mr Trump is widely expected to be acquitted in an eventual impeachment trial, as under the US constitution, two-thirds of the Senate — including at least 20 Republicans, given the current composition of the legislature — would need to vote to convict in order for him to be removed from office.