Sen. Lamar Alexander said late Thursday that he will oppose calling witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial, deflating Democrats.
The Tennessee Republican’s decision means the trial could end in acquittal as early as Friday night.
Alexander, who is retiring, said in a statement that Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate Democrats including Joe Biden was “inappropriate” but did not cross a threshold for removal from office.
“It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation,” Alexander wrote in a 15-tweet statement.
“The Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate,” Alexander wrote.
The senator said the allegations against Trump do not meet Constitution’s requirement of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” to be convicted.
“If this shallow, hurried and wholly partisan impeachment were to succeed, it would rip the country apart, pouring gasoline on the fire of cultural divisions that already exist,” Alexander wrote. “It would create the weapon of perpetual impeachment to be used against future presidents whenever the House of Representatives is of a different political party.”
Alexander’s announcement followed a dramatic near four-hour notice. He declined to personally deliver the news to journalists who followed him to a car before 11 p.m.
Alexander had expressed openness to calling witnesses, making him the potential fourth Republican allowing Democrats to reach a 51-vote majority. But his decision not to call witnesses makes defeat for Democrats near-certain.
Two Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — have said they would like to call witnesses including former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who claims in a forthcoming book that Trump confessed to withholding Ukraine aid to force investigation of Democrats, the central allegation against him.
Collins and Romney only get Democrats to 49 votes, with 51 needed to call witnesses — or perhaps 50, if Chief Justice John Roberts intervenes. Many Republican senators have refused to speak with reporters during the trial, adding to uncertainty.
Senators and journalists closely read apparent clues in the lead-up to Alexander’s announcement.
When senators took a dinner break Thursday, Alexander walked toward a Republican conference dinner featuring a taco buffet after a pull-aside with fellow swing vote Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
In a late-night statement Thursday, Murkowski said: “I am going to go reflect on what I have heard, re-read my notes and decide whether I need to hear more.”
Republican moods elevated just before dinner when Alexander joined two fellow Republican senators in asking Democratic impeachment managers to contrast bipartisanship in the Trump case with the Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon impeachments.
Alexander was tardy to the Senate chamber following a 5 minute evening break. He had been speaking with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has emphatically said he’s ready to end the trial without witnesses.
A joint question from Graham, Alexander, Murkowski, and other senators asked Trump’s legal team for its opinion on whether Bolton’s testimony, even if it matches reporting on his book, “would add nothing to this case” because the “allegations still would not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.”
On Friday, the Senate will convene at 1 p.m. for a four-hour debate on whether witnesses are needed. If Democrats are defeated, senators expect to enter a series of Democrat-forced messaging votes before a final vote to acquit Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.