There was a reason Sen. Mitch McConnell was smiling as he left the US Capitol just before 11 p.m. Thursday night. The final stage of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump had arrived at last, thanks to one of the Republican Majority Leader’s closest friends in the Senate.
Only a few minutes before, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander had himself left the Capitol through the east-facing carriage door, leading out to a plaza where cars awaited to whisk lawmakers away. Having spent the day surrounded by reporters, Alexander was again swarmed as he descended the steps and crossed the Capitol plaza in the cold. The questions, which came in rapid-fire succession, were all essentially the same: Would he support calling witnesses?
In his calm, genteel Southern accent, Alexander assured the press they would receive his statement soon, that he had already informed McConnell of his decision, and that the statement would speak for itself. Clutching a set of briefing papers under his arm, Alexander ducked into the passenger seat of a black car, and drove into the night.
Several minutes later, at 11 p.m. sharp, Alexander’s lengthy statement landed in the inboxes of the handful of reporters still standing outside. The three-term Republican would vote against allowing witnesses, denying Democrats the chance at having 51 votes on the issue.
Alexander’s statement confirmed the consensus that had been building all week among GOP senators, that whatever Trump did with aid to Ukraine, it did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
It also ended weeks and days of drama over how long the trial might go and to what extent more politically damaging information about the President’s hold on aid to Ukraine might emerge. While the tension built in the final hours of Thursday’s question-and-answer period, the moment of Alexander’s announcement at precisely 11 p.m. deflated weeks of speculation. The impeachment trial is now effectively finished, and Trump is on a glide path toward acquittal.
For the previous few days, it seemed possible, if not probable, that the trial could fall out of the Majority Leader’s control. McConnell had sought to thwart any surprise moves from his members but could not prevent the bombshell news on Sunday that John Bolton, the former national security adviser, might testify that Trump had directly tied the hold to politically-motivated investigations.
Even before the pressure to call witnesses rose at the beginning of the week, Alexander had long been considered the most likely decisive fourth vote for witnesses needed to force the issue. A relative moderate in the increasingly conservative GOP conference, Alexander is also retiring at the end of his term this year, potentially liberating him to make a stand against his party if he were so inclined.
But he is also a close friend of McConnell’s and less willing to buck the GOP conference — a group he had presided over as chairman for four years a decade earlier. It all underscores that no matter how damning the Bolton news, it was always going to be a longshot for Democrats to get their desired witnesses if the decision turned on a faithful party man like Alexander.
Either way, Alexander had studiously avoided tipping his hand after Bolton’s revelations came to light. All week he refused to talk to reporters asking about his views. He was among the more attentive Republican senators during arguments, but he rarely showed any emotional reaction to what either the White House lawyers or the Democratic managers had to say. While other senators occasionally nodded their heads or threw up their hands, Alexander had been nearly as stoic as his friend McConnell.
Signs of a decision
But by early evening Thursday, after days of waiting, Alexander began to show signs he had made a decision. All day, he had been seen at his desk in the chamber reading a book, off and on, about the history of presidential impeachments. Alexander asked his first question of the trial, about comparing the bipartisanship of the past impeachment proceedings to the current one.
That alerted both his colleagues, who took notice of Alexander’s sudden engagement, and the reporters studying every minor detail that something had changed. As he walked through the halls of the Capitol during the evening breaks, Alexander was mobbed by the press corps that had earlier in the week been so focused on the other swing votes — Sens. Susan Collins, Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski. Still, Alexander refused to engage.
But during the dinner break, Alexander was spotted entering his private office in the Capitol with Murkowski, which only heightened the tension. Was an alliance being forged? Would an announcement from both about how they would vote on witnesses be soon forthcoming?
When he emerged from their meeting to join his other colleagues for dinner, Alexander demurred.
“We were just talking,” Alexander told CNN after emerging from their meeting. “Lisa and I often talk about what we are doing.”
The final hours of questions and answers on the floor became an exercise in scrutinizing every move by Alexander and Murkowski in the Senate chamber. An indication of where the two swing votes were headed became much clearer late in the 9 p.m. hour as senators continued to ask the legal teams questions.
Alexander and Murkowski were spotted meeting with staunch Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in the Republican cloakroom just off the Senate chamber. A few minutes later, after Alexander and Graham emerged and just after 10 p.m., Graham submitted a question on which several GOP senators, including both Alexander and Murkowski, added their names. The question spoke to that emerging consensus within the Republican conference:
“Assuming for argument’s sake that Bolton were to testify in the light most favorable to the allegations contained in the articles of impeachment, isn’t it true that the allegations still would not rise to the level of an impeachable offense, and that therefore for this and other reasons his testimony would add nothing to this case?”
The full message of Alexander’s statement, which concedes the evidence shows Trump withheld aid to Ukraine in an attempt to extract an investigation into his political rivals, is that the President’s actions nevertheless do not warrant removal from office. That’s a position the GOP conference seemed to have arrived at earlier in the week.
Practically, Alexander’s decision removes all doubt about the trajectory of the trial. Without Murkowski’s support and an unlikely tie-breaking vote from Chief Justice John Roberts, there are not enough votes to call Bolton to the stand. There are vanishingly fewer chances to sway Republican senators who might have otherwise been open to conviction.
And as the Tennessean’s statement indicated, Trump’s ultimate future in the White House will not be determined by the Senate but by American voters.
“I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday,” Alexander said.