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Romney backs witness call but Trump impeachment trial nears end

FILE PHOTO: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) arrives at the U.S. Capitol before the start of the day's Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump in Washington, U.S., January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert

By David Morgan, Richard Cowan and Lisa Lambert

 A second Republican senator declared support on Friday for calling witnesses at President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, leaving Democrats still short of the U.S. Senate majority required and paving the way for Trump’s swift acquittal.

Senator Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and sometime critic of Trump, joined fellow moderate Susan Collins as the only ones among the 53 Republican senators in the 100-seat chamber to support voting for witnesses.

Democrats need to persuade four Republicans to vote with them in the Senate in order to call witnesses such as John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser.

Barring an unforeseen change of heart by other Republican senators before a final vote on the articles, Trump’s allies seemed assured of defeating the request for testimony, acquitting the president and keeping him in office.

That final vote on whether to convict the Republican president could take place late on Friday or on Saturday, congressional sources said.

The Senate was due to resume the proceedings at 1 p.m., with further arguments from Trump’s legal team and the House of Representatives Democrats serving as prosecutors.

Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who had been undecided, said late on Thursday that Democrats had proven the case against Trump but that the president’s actions did “not meet the United States Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense.”

Alexander said 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.”

The Democratic-controlled House voted to impeach Trump on Dec. 18, formally charging him with abuse of power for asking Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

The House also charged Trump with obstruction of Congress for blocking current and former officials from providing testimony or documents.

Trump is only the third president in U.S. history to be impeached. A vote of two-thirds of the Senate is required to remove him from office and no Republicans have yet indicated they will vote to convict.

Senate Democrats have been arguing throughout the two weeks of proceedings that lawmakers need to hear from witnesses in order for it to be a fair trial. This would be the first Senate impeachment trial in U.S. history with no witnesses, including trials of two prior presidents and a number of other federal officials.

Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal told CNN: “The danger going forward is that the guard rails will be removed. The president now feels, in effect, legally unleashed.” Blumenthal added that the trial is no vindication for Trump “because it was really no trial – no witnesses, no documents, no real evidence.”

Trump’s Republican allies have sought to keep the trial on a fast track and minimize any damage to the president, who is seeking re-election on Nov. 3. Trump denies any wrongdoing.

Trump’s acquittal would allow him to claim vindication just as Democrats hold the first of the state-by-state nominating contests on Monday in Iowa to choose the party’s nominee to challenge Trump in the election. Biden is a leading contender to face Trump in the November election.

The president held a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday night and denounced the impeachment trial, again calling it an effort by Democrats to overturn his 2016 election victory.

SHOWDOWN

On Friday, the Democrats prosecuting Trump and the president’s lawyers are expected to present closing arguments before the Senate votes on whether to call witnesses.

Contradicting Trump’s version of events, Bolton wrote in an unpublished book manuscript that the president told him he wanted to freeze $391 million in security aid to Ukraine until Kiev pursued investigations of Democrats, including Biden and the former vice president’s son, Hunter Biden, the New York Times reported.

Bolton’s allegations go to the heart of impeachment charges against Trump. Democrats have said Trump abused his power by using the security aid – passed by Congress to help Ukraine battle Russia-backed separatists – as leverage to get a foreign power to smear a political rival.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the highest-ranking U.S. official to travel to Ukraine since the impeachment began, emphasized American support for Ukraine.

“Today I’m here with a clear message: the United States sees that the Ukrainian struggle for freedom, democracy and prosperity is a valiant one. Our commitment to support it will not waver,” Pompeo said in Kiev.

Ukraine counts on the United States for diplomatic support, sanctions on Moscow and military aid to buy Javelin anti-tank missiles and other hardware as it battles Russian-backed separatists in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan, Susan Hea vey, Susan Cornwell, Patrician Zengerle, Lisa Lambert and Mohammad Zargham in Washington and Jeff Mason in Des Moines, Iowa; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Dan Grebler and Howard Goller)

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