WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., acknowledged to Republican senators during a private meeting earlier Tuesday that he did not currently have the votes to avoid calling witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, a GOP aide familiar with his comments told NBC News.
Though the votes are not yet secured, Republicans appeared confident Tuesday evening that they would ultimately be successful in blocking witnesses. Senate Republican leadership exerted strong pressure on the party’s members to vote against calling witnesses, two sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.
The sources said Republican Senate leaders “whipped the vote” — although there was no official vote count —against calling for witnesses at the private GOP Senate meeting Tuesday afternoon, which came after Trump’s defense team wrapped up arguments. Whipping is when leaders firmly tell members how the party expects them to vote.
Several Republican senators wouldn’t divulge to NBC News the substance of what they discussed, telling reporters to “check with the whip” about any directives from leadership.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told NBC News that he was “whipped against voting to call witnesses” but that there was not an official whip count.
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Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and John Boozman, R-Ark., told NBC News, however, that they did not feel pressured. Boozman said everyone at the hour-long meeting was being “respectful.”
The meeting of the Senate Republican Conference was held for the purpose of “starting to check the conference on witnesses,” a GOP leadership said. At a Senate Republican lunch ahead of the meeting, executive privilege was also expected to be discussed.
Conversations about where the Senate Republicans are on the witness question have been ongoing.
A debate and vote on whether to call witnesses could come later this week.
Republicans have a 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning Democrats would need four Republicans to join them in a vote for witness testimony in the Senate trial.
Top Senate Democrats have said repeatedly they want former national security adviser John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Robert Blair, senior adviser to Mulvaney, and Michael Duffey, associate director for national security at the Office of Management and Budget to testify.
However, calls for Bolton, in particular, to testify have intensified in recent days after The New York Times reported — according to a manuscript of Bolton’s book, which it obtained and has not seen by NBC News — that Trump told Bolton in August that nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine would not be released until it provided all of the information it had in connection with the investigations of Democrats the president sought.
A pair of moderate Republican senators — Mitt Romney, of Utah, and Susan Collins, of Maine — said Monday that the report of major revelations in Bolton’s soon-to-be-released book strengthens the case for calling witnesses.
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Romney, Collins, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are considered to be the most likely Republicans to vote for witnesses.
Murkowski said Monday: “I’ve said before I’m curious about what Ambassador Bolton might have to say. I’m still curious.” Alexander said he won’t decide until after both sides have answered questions from the Senate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham. R-S.C., a top Trump ally who’s resisted calls for additional witnesses and documents, acknowledged Monday that Bolton may be “a relevant witness” and said he’d consider subpoenaing a manuscript of his book.
Frank Thorp V is a producer and off-air reporter covering Congress for NBC News, managing coverage of the Senate.
Kasie Hunt, the host of MSNBC’s “Kasie DC,” is a Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News.
Geoff Bennett is a White House correspondent for NBC News.
Julie Tsirkin and Leigh Ann Caldwell