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Looking at Trump’s likely acquittal, Republicans shift defense from ‘no quid pro quo’ to ‘already been proven’

February 1, 2020, 1:07 AM UTC

With a 15-part statement on Twitter late Thursday night, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a key swing vote, sunk Democrats’ hopes of calling new witnesses to testify in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

And on Friday evening, those hopes were completely dashed, as the U.S. Senate voted against witnesses, 51-49, mostly along party lines.

Alexander conceded that the President did what Democrats had accused him of, but that it wasn’t an impeachable offense, and the Senate, contrary to the hopes of Democrats and two Republicans, did not need to hear any more evidence about something that had “already been proven.”

“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,” he said. Alexander further added that House managers had already proven their case, but the voters should decide whether to re-elect the Trump in November. 

Alexander’s vote ensured a swift acquittal for the President without the testimony of former National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Bolton wrote in a forthcoming book that Trump directly tied the withholding of $391 million in military assistance for Ukraine to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens, discarding a defense that Trump and House Republicans had made for months—that there was “no quid pro quo,” or “a favor for a favor.”

Alexander spoke for “lots and lots” of Senate Republicans, according to Senator Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who has rarely talked to the press during the trial, but made an exception Friday to tell reporters that he agreed with Alexander. Sasse did not answer and walked away when asked whether the President’s conduct was inappropriate.

Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) echoed Alexander, releasing a statement saying that Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine were “wrong and inappropriate.” But, he added, they weren’t an impeachable offense, and he would be voting against witnesses.

“[Alexander] said out loud what I think most Senate Republicans believe in private, that yes, the President did withhold military assistance to try to get him in his elections,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a press conference.

Indeed, several Senate Republicans Friday were unwilling to criticize Trump’s conduct on the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asked his counterpart to “look into” the Bidens— even after it was certain that Trump would be acquitted without potentially damaging testimony from Bolton.

“Well, I know it wasn’t impeachable,” Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said, not responding to shouted questions about whether the President’s actions were inappropriate as the doors of his elevator closed. Similarly, Senator Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said “the actions were not of an impeachable offense,” but did not say whether they were inappropriate.

“I don’t agree with every specific component of [the Alexander statement], but it was the right decision with regard to witnesses,” Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told Fortune.

Trump had warned Republicans not to defend the phone call as imperfect.

“Republicans, don’t be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable. No, it is much stronger than that. NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!” he tweeted in November.

Some were still saying that the “quid pro quo” didn’t happen.

“I don’t see enough evidence at this point to believe that there is a quid pro quo in the legal sense,” Senator Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told Fortune. “I think [Alexander] comes to a different conclusion with as much thoughtfulness and consideration…at the end of the day, the conclusion is the same.”

Other Republican senators said that not only was there a “quid pro quo,” but suggested that Trump was justified in asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, despite the fact that there is no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the former vice president, who was in office when his son worked for Ukrainian gas company, Burisma.

“There’s ample evidence to suggest a public reason to be concerned about the Biden activities in Ukraine, undercutting our message about corruption,” said Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “I think you can look at the evidence and say for all practical purposes there was a quid pro quo, but in this case there was some legitimacy to be asking, the mechanism investigating wasn’t right, and the conduct is not what the founders had in mind to remove a President from the ballot.”

Bolton has said he would testify before the Senate and has a forthcoming book to be released in March. According to fresh reporting from the New York Times on Friday, Trump told Bolton last May to direct a pressure campaign against Ukrainian officials to get them to dig up potentially damaging information on Democrats. However, with the witness vote failing, it was certain that the Senate would not hear from him. 

A final vote on the articles of impeachment against Trump will be held on Wednesday.

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