Washington Wednesday – Wrangling over witnesses


MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 29th of January, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: Washington Wednesday.

Opening arguments in the impeachment trial against President Trump ended yesterday. Today, senators get a chance to question both sides. But don’t expect a lively cross examination. The senators themselves cannot speak during this part of the trial. They must submit all questions to Chief Justice John Roberts, who will read them aloud and allow the legal teams to respond.

BASHAM: Last week, the trial went just about as expected, with no surprises. But a new revelation from outside the Senate chambers could be a game-changer. On Sunday, The New York Times published leaked excerpts of a forthcoming tell-all memoir by former National Security adviser John Bolton. In it, Bolton reportedly claims the president said he wanted to freeze military aid to Ukraine until it agreed to launch investigations into Democrats.

EICHER: That revelation could have a big effect on the next possible phase of the trial: witness testimony. Democrats have said all along they want to hear from people who had direct knowledge of the president’s actions, including Bolton. Republicans claim that’s not necessary. But the leaked excerpt of Bolton’s book is making that argument more difficult. Senators are set to vote on the witness question Friday.

Joining us now to untangle this political web is Kyle Kondik. He’s with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Good morning!

KYLE KONDIK, GUEST: Good morning!

EICHER: Let’s start with this Bolton revelation and how it might affect Friday’s witness vote. Do you think it on its own will sway enough Republicans to side with Democrats on this?

KONDIK: Well, however likely—or whatever the likelihood it was that Bolton was going to testify prior to these news reports coming out about Bolton’s book manuscript, I would say the chances went up of Bolton actually testifying. And we have seen some Republican senators suggest they would like to hear from Bolton. And, look, I think that as so often happens with this White House, I think Senate Republicans were sort of thrown for a loop a little bit because it seems like they didn’t quite realize what was in this book manuscript that Bolton submitted. Now, you know, at the end of the day, this is still about whether or not the president would actually get convicted by the Senate. And that still does not seem likely. But, you know, it’s a revelation that I think for a lot of Republicans was unwelcome.

EICHER: Remind us who those swing votes are and why they might break ranks with their fellow Republicans.

KONDIK: Well, you know, Susan Collins of Maine is a natural person who comes up and she’s someone who has won pretty handy reelections in Maine, which is generally thought of as a Democratic state, although it’s more competitive than people give it credit for. Mitt Romney of Utah, who is a Trump critic and a newer member of the U.S. Senate. Lamar Alexander, retiring member from Tennessee. You do also have some swing state Republicans like Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, although they have by and large suggested that they probably are going to be sticking with the president on these things, there could potentially be some wild cards here. But those are some names that come up either for political reasons or for some of the public statements that they have made that have not always been supportive of the president on this—specifically I think about someone like Romney.

EICHER: There are a few Democrats also in the middle here, right? I’m thinking particularly of Doug Jones in Alabama. He’s fighting to keep the Senate seat he won in a special election in 2018. And of course Alabama is typically a Republican stronghold. How is that playing into his calculations, and do you know of other Democrats facing challenges similar to Jones?

KONDIK: Yeah, I mean Doug Jones is the most vulnerable senator in the country and he’s probably a clear underdog to win a full term in the Senate later this year. And he’s someone who has to try to tread lightly here, although honestly there may not really be much of anything he can do from a political standpoint as part of this impeachment trial to really help himself. Joe Manchin is another kind of wildcard in the Senate in terms of these votes and the ultimate decision whether to convict or acquit. Manchin just got reelected and so he’s not going to be on the ballot anytime soon—maybe ever—but he’s in a state that—West Virginia—that Donald Trump won by more than 40 points and so he’s always someone who can be politically cautious. And then even someone like Kyrsten Sinema who just got elected from Arizona. And so she’s another person who I think is kind of an interesting vote, particularly when it comes to the ultimate decision to convict or acquit.

EICHER: So, both sides are evaluating the possible effect on the November election that witness testimony and the rest of the proceedings will have. Does either side have an advantage as things stand now?

KONDIK: You know, overall, I think that impeachment—I don’t think you could say it’s really hurt the president or Republicans in that you haven’t seen the president’s approval rating decline. And, in fact, I think maybe it has gone up a little bit. I think partially because sometimes when a party feels like it’s threatened, maybe that causes them to rally around the flag a little bit and maybe we’re seeing that with Republicans. It’s just a theory on my part. And the president’s approval rating is still net-negative, although in most national polls it’s now maybe closer to 45 percent than, say, 40 percent, which is maybe where it is at some other times. But it may also be that once we get beyond impeachment here, one wonders whether we’ll move on to other things. Particularly because once the trial concludes, whenever it does conclude, we’re going to be in the midst of the voting for the Democratic primary and that really picks up in early March. I mean, look, this president is going to be, again, so long as he’s not removed from office—which does not seem very likely—he’s going to be the first president, really ever, to have survived impeachment and then run for reelection. And so it’s kind of an unprecedented situation.

EICHER: If Senators do agree to hear witness testimony, what are the chances Republicans will call former Vice President Joe Biden, or his son, Hunter?

KONDIK: Well, I mean, it all depends on how many votes there are for the calling of individual witnesses—whether it’s witnesses that Democrats want to hear from or witnesses that Republicans want to hear from. I mean, I’ve heard—there’s been this talk of doing deals or whatever, but ultimately it’s whatever there are votes for. Republicans, if they are unified, can call the witnesses that they want. But, again, this all seems like a pretty fluid situation.

EICHER: Bolton’s book revelation really changed the dynamic—or seemed to—with the leak of the manuscript. And it derailed somewhat what I thought was going to be a fairly predictable process. Do you know of any other potential bombshells out there that could change the dynamic again?

KONDIK: I don’t, but the thing with this White House is that it seems like there’s always another shoe to drop with new revelations, new accusations, new people coming forward. And, you know, so there’s always the possibility of new facts emerging here. And that’s the tricky thing for Republicans is that when you have an unpredictable person in the White House, who doesn’t seem to be particularly good at keeping his allies in the loop all the time, you just never know when you may think you have a handle on something and then all of a sudden you don’t have a handle on it anymore. And, look, on one hand obviously this is—there are a lot of headaches for Republicans, but on the other hand, things move so fast that even for the president’s critics, it’s sort of hard to keep everything front of mind and the sheer volume of controversy of debate and whatnot makes it hard, I think, for some things to stick to this president, which is ultimately a testament to his resilience, which has I think been shown in many instances.

EICHER: I don’t understand the position the president’s taking by denying that he predicated aid on anti-corruption investigations. I mean, I listened to his lawyer Alan Dershowitz ably making the case that that’s not impeachable and that Bolton’s book, as reported, is therefore ho-hum stuff. It’s irrelevant to these impeachment articles. But it becomes relevant because the president has a position that he’s taken and it contradicts his statements.

KONDIK: The president really could—I think—could do himself a favor by simply saying at some point, “Hey, look, I went a little too far on this one. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.” If he were to say that, I think it would defang a lot of the arguments against him. And it would also make it easier for Republicans to defend Trump. I mean, you know, whatever you think of Bill Clinton and whether he should have been removed or not during his impeachment and, you know, he did show some remorse for his behavior even as Democrats stuck with him. But it made it easier for Democrats to say, hey, well, we don’t have to defend every aspect of Clinton’s bad behavior here. But we don’t think he should be removed from office for this. But that’s just not something he’s ever going to do, really. He’s never shown the capacity for it.

EICHER: Kyle Kondik is with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Thanks for joining us today.

KONDIK: Thank you!


(Senate Television via AP) In this image from video, people stand as presiding officer Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts enters the chamber during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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