WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's defense team appealed to the Senate on Tuesday to disregard a new account by John Bolton that bolsters the impeachment case against the president. But by day's end, Republican leaders working feverishly to block testimony from the former national security adviser or other witnesses indicated they had not yet corralled the votes to do so.
On the final day of arguments on Trump's behalf, Jay Sekulow, one of the president's private lawyers, sought to raise doubts about Bolton's claim in an unpublished manuscript that Trump tied the release of military aid to Ukraine to investigations into his political rivals, calling it an "unsourced allegation" that was "inadmissible" in his impeachment trial.
Just after Trump's team ended a three-day legal defense, Republican senators rushed into a private meeting room in the Capitol, where Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, worked to herd his rank and file in line behind ending the trial without witnesses.
He brandished a card that bore a tally of Republican votes on the question, and warned that he did not yet have enough to block an expected Democratic move to call witnesses because some Republicans remained uncommitted, according to people familiar with the meeting not authorized to discuss it publicly.
"It was a serious family discussion," Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told reporters as he emerged from the senators-only meeting in the Strom Thurmond Room. "Some people are sincerely exploring all the avenues."
But behind the scenes, key Republicans said they were increasingly confident they could bring the trial to an end, and they described McConnell's comments as a pointed signal that it was time for GOP senators to fall in line.
The talks unfolded after Trump's team essentially rested its case against removing him from office, ending its oral arguments by urging senators to ignore what Bolton might have to say. Without directly denying the veracity of his account, Sekulow argued that the behavior Bolton described had no place in the discussion of the president's fate.
Impeachment "is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts," Sekulow said. "That is politics, unfortunately. [Alexander] Hamilton put impeachment in the hands of this body, the Senate, precisely and specifically, to be above that fray."
The argument was a bid to quiet the anger and anxiety that Bolton's revelation prompted in Republican ranks when it emerged at a critical stage in Trump's impeachment trial.
Conservatives said the case for moving directly to acquittal without new testimony or documents was overwhelming, but key moderates, including Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, said they were still undecided.
Two other Republicans, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine, have said they would likely vote for witnesses, but Democrats would need four Republicans to join them in order to prevail. Another moderate, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, indicated that "Mr. Bolton probably has some things that would be helpful for us."
Inside the private meeting on Tuesday, McConnell and his allies warned that allowing witnesses would blow the trial wide open and potentially prolong it by weeks. Clutching his whip count of yeses, noes and maybes, McConnell appeared to be suggesting that undecided senators needed to make up their minds and join the majority of their colleagues in opposing witnesses.
The activity inside and outside the Senate chamber underscored just how thoroughly Bolton's account has threatened to upend the trial, injecting an element of unpredictability into a proceeding that appeared headed for Trump's acquittal by week's end.
The longtime Republican foreign policy figure has made clear he would testify if called, but senators also know that regardless of his account, there is almost no chance that the Republican-controlled chamber would vote to convict Trump and remove him from office less than 10 months before a presidential election. A 67-vote supermajority would be needed to do so.
How they proceed now could have significant political ramifications not just for Trump, whose very defenses could be further undermined, but also for Republican senators up for re-election in swing states this fall who want to show voters they conducted a fair trial.
Democrats prepared to accuse Republicans of a coverup if they do not vote for witnesses pounced on Sekulow's remarks about Bolton, saying that his reference to "unsourced allegations" proved their point that the Senate must subpoena him to testify in the trial to clarify his precise account.
"Once again, the president's team, in a way that only they could, have further made the case for calling John Bolton," Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the lead House manager, told reporters during a break in the proceedings.
Proponents of calling Bolton got an unexpected bit of support late Monday from John Kelly, the former White House chief of staff, who told an audience in Florida that he believed Bolton's account and supported the Senate's seeking direct witnesses.
"I think some of the conversations seem to me to be very inappropriate but I wasn't there," he said, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. "But there are people that were there that ought to be heard from."
At the White House, Trump was uncharacteristically quiet about the impeachment proceedings, which he has followed on television in recent days. He sought instead to put his policy agenda on full display, unveiling a long-awaited Middle East peace plan.
Inside the Senate chamber, Sekulow and two White House lawyers delivered a voluble and indignant final defense, capping three days of oral arguments on the president's behalf against the House's abuse of power and obstruction of Congress charges.
Many Republicans moved quickly on Tuesday to adopt Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz's arguments that abuse of power and obstruction of Congress were not impeachable offenses. The argument cut against the legal consensus that impeachable offenses need not be crimes, and against Dershowitz's own earlier views.
"I listened to Ken Starr and Dershowitz loud and clear yesterday," said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. "The whole premise of the impeachment, I think, is false. I don't think we need witnesses."
Punctuating his remarks on Tuesday with a refrain of "danger, danger, danger," Sekulow insisted that the managers' case was built solely on a dressed-up policy dispute with the president over his stated push to combat corruption in Ukraine.
"If that becomes the new normal, future presidents, Democrats and Republicans will be paralyzed the moment they are elected, even before they can take the oath of office," Sekulow said. "The bar for impeachment cannot be set this low."
Despite his warnings, Sekulow did not directly deny the former national security adviser's account, instead reading aloud from statements by Trump, the Justice Department and the vice president's office contesting it.
Democrats spent three days last week arguing just the opposite. They said that the House's two-month investigation concluded that Trump had used the powers of his office not in the pursuit of a policy objective but for his own political advantage. When he was caught, they argued, he sought to conceal what he had done by ordering an across-the-board defiance of their investigation.