McConnell doesn’t have the votes to block witnesses yet — but it sounds like he will by Friday

The headlines going around this evening, all to the effect that “McConnell doesn’t have the votes!”, are misleading when you read down into the stories themselves. Republicans sound much calmer and more resolute about ramming through an acquittal verdict without witnesses than they did 24 hours ago, in the first flush of the NYT’s story on Sunday night about Bolton’s book. McConnell doesn’t have the votes yet but as of Tuesday night Collins and Romney remain the only two Republicans willing to say it’s highly likely they’ll vote to call witnesses. Murkowski is interested in hearing from Bolton but won’t go any further than that now. And no one thinks Lamar Alexander’s going to blow up his buddy Mitch’s plans for a quick ending to the trial.

They seem to be calculating that they’d rather get torched by nine months of Democratic “COVER UP!” attack ads than put Bolton on the stand, which is cynical but rational. Those “cover up” ads are coming no matter what, after all. They could call Bolton, Mulvaney, Pompeo, even Giuliani, and so long as they vote to acquit Dems will accuse them of being Trump’s co-conspirators. And it may well be that Republicans will suffer less politically from a quick acquittal without witnesses than they would if they called Bolton, he gave damning testimony, and then they voted to acquit anyway. True, Bolton’s probably going to give damning “testimony” to the media anyway after his book comes out. But that can’t be avoided. Trump created this problem for his Senate caucus; there’s no way out of it without some political pain.

Maybe an obviously sham process aimed at ducking material witnesses is less painful than a pretend-diligent process in which the verdict is assured no matter what any witness says. It’s certainly debatable.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said the vote total wasn’t where it needed to be on blocking witnesses or documents, these people said. He had a card with “yes,” “no,” and “maybes” marked on it, apparently a whip count, but he didn’t show it to senators.

Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who face competitive races in the fall, warned colleagues in the meeting against backing more witnesses, people familiar with the matter said. The senators said a drawn-out trial could lead to more Democratic attacks and hurt their re-election chances, the people said. None of the three senators’ offices immediately responded to requests for comment…

The reports of Mr. Bolton’s account unsettled Republican senators and bolstered the odds of a successful vote to hear further witness testimony. Several on-the-fence Republican senators said Mr. Bolton’s claims strengthened the case for further witness testimony, while the number of senators the White House believes may vote for more testimony ticked up.

That sounds pretty dicey! But other reporters say otherwise, sensing far more confidence about the big vote on Friday:

Politico detected a cheerful mood too:

In fact, Republicans feel increasingly confident about prevailing. In the meeting, critics of hearing from witnesses made a “strong” case against voting for new evidence, according to two attendees. A third attendee who opposes new witnesses said the meeting seemed to solidify the position against new witnesses and documents: “I feel good.”…

[B]y Tuesday, a “feeling of calm had been restored” to the Republican Conference, claimed GOP senators and aides.

“I think the conference is coming together,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters as he was leaving the room.

How do they get 51 votes to call anyone if Alexander is unlikely to betray McConnell? Pat Toomey? He’d be taking a big risk in Pennsylvania if his vote ended up enabling Bolton testimony that did real damage to Trump.

As I say, either way there’ll be political pain no matter what they do. New from Quinnipiac:

Note the numbers in all three partisan groups there, and bear in mind that most of this poll was conducted before the big Times story on Sunday night that Bolton really might have something meaningful to say about what Trump knew about Ukraine.

It makes me laugh that he could blow up the current GOP mood on a whim, at a moment’s notice, just by dialing into his cable news channel of choice tonight and telling them on air, “Yeah, the Times story was true. Trump told me he held back the aid to force Ukraine to hurt Biden before the election. Just thought people should know.” *click* I wonder if he’s tempted to do so. Like I said this morning, if you believe that the leak to the NYT came from him (as Team Trump reportedly does) then that makes twice in the past three weeks that he’s tried to force the Senate to demand his testimony. We’re 48 hours away from the big vote on witnesses now and they’re still resisting. If he really does want to make it impossible for them to decline to subpoena him, he’s got to say something accusatory about Trump to the media.

If he doesn’t, Republicans will end up with two arguments for refusing to call Bolton. One: They didn’t want to “open the floodgates” on witness testimony by calling him since that also would have meant calling Hunter Biden *and* potentially anyone else whom Bolton accused of involvement in the Ukraine scheme *and* then any reciprocal defense witnesses to “balance” those new prosecution witnesses. John Thune made that argument to reporters this morning in fact, that calling Bolton potentially means a long trial with lots of new evidence.

But that’s a hard argument to make to the 75 percent of the country that wants witnesses called. The reason for not calling anyone is that … the jury didn’t want to hear all of the evidence that was potentially available?

Two: They’re coming around to the defense of last resort, that even if Bolton’s telling the truth in his book and Trump is guilty as sin that that’s simply not an impeachable offense. Various Republicans began tentatively defending that position today. Smart Trumpers like Tucker Carlson were pushing that point as far back as early October, in the first few weeks after the Ukraine story broke big, allowing that Trump’s pressure on Zelensky during their phone call was inappropriate but that it’s not something to remove a president for. Mike Braun was on CNN today connecting that logic to the issue of Bolton’s testimony, noting that Alan Dershowitz insists there’s no impeachable offense here even if Bolton’s book is true — in which case, hey, why bother hearing from Bolton at all?

The problem with “bad but not impeachable” logic, of course, is that it denies Trump the moral vindication he’s seeking from the Senate GOP for his “perfect phone call.” But who knows? Maybe Republicans will find a way to deliver that too. They don’t need to add the caveat that the call was “bad,” merely to assure the country that it was not impeachable.

“But senator, don’t you think it’s wrong to squeeze foreign governments for oppo on your prospective election opponent?”
“Not impeachable.”
“Right, but is it wrong? Is it something presidents should do in the future?”
“Not. Impeachable.”

At least we’ll see some fun before-and-after ads down the road of various Republicans like Lindsey Graham insisting in October that actual evidence of a quid pro quo would be disturbing, then Bolton providing that evidence at some point, then Graham insisting in January that there’s just nothing all that disturbing about a quid pro quo. Those ads are already being written, in fact, even if they haven’t yet been produced.

Here’s Susan Collins telegraphing that she’ll be one of the two or three Republican votes to call witnesses on Friday. Not enough.

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