WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday he had enough support from his fellow Republicans to set the rules for President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, dealing a blow to Democrats' efforts to call new witnesses against the president.
Democrats want several White House officials and Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton to testify at the trial in the Republican-controlled Senate about their knowledge of the president's efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival.
McConnell has resisted the idea, instead seeking a fast trial based on evidence collected in the House of Representatives before it voted last month to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
While Republicans are still divided over whether the Senate should eventually hear more testimony, the vast majority of them have agreed to leave the decision until after the trial has started, McConnell told a news conference.
Senator Lindsey Graham said 51 of the 53 Republicans in the Senate were backing that plan.
“We’ve got the votes necessary to start the trial using the Clinton model, which is good news," Graham said, referring to an arrangement made during the 1999 impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton after Republicans and Democrats were similarly deadlocked over the question of witness testimony.
The House has charged Trump with abusing his power for personal gain by asking Ukraine to announce a corruption investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in November's presidential election.
It also charged the president with obstructing Congress by directing administration officials and agencies not to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry.
Trump says he did nothing wrong and has dismissed his impeachment as a partisan bid to undo his 2016 election win.
Democrats say Bolton and the other new witnesses must be heard for the trial to be a fair one. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Democrats would force votes during the trial to have new witnesses testify.
"Make no mistake, on the question of witnesses and documents, Republicans may run, but they can't hide,"
Schumer said on the Senate floor.
The trial is likely to lead to Trump's acquittal before the 2020 presidential election campaign heats up, as no Republicans have voiced support for removing him from office. A two-thirds majority of the Senate is needed to vote to oust a president.
No date has been set for the trial yet. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, has so far declined to submit the two articles of impeachment to the Senate, effectively delaying any trial.
Earlier on Tuesday, Pelosi's office said no decision has been made on the timeline for sending the articles to the Senate.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said he expected Pelosi would send the articles soon.
“I would expect that given this announcement that she would likely send them over,” Murphy said, adding that Democrats needed to decide on their best strategy. "At this point our best leverage is probably inside that trial."
Bolton is among the potential witnesses Democrats want to testify. On Monday, he said he was willing to do so.
Other witnesses during the House impeachment investigation testified that Bolton strongly objected to an effort by Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine's government outside of regular diplomatic channels, with one saying Bolton referred to the arrangement as a "drug deal."
Bolton refused to participate in the House impeachment inquiry while the Trump administration and Congress battled in court for access to witnesses and documentary evidence.
The White House could try to block Bolton, who was fired by Trump in September, from testifying.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Alistair Bell)
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