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As Senate Impeachment Trial Nears, Collins Targeted From Left — And Right — To Break With McConnell

Jacquelyn Martin
Associated Press
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, arrives for a closed intelligence briefing with Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, Thursday Sept. 26, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has said little publicly about the upcoming Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. But pressure is mounting for Collins to take a public position on whether to remove the president from office, and to use her political leverage to ensure a fair trial.

Collins has largely declined to discuss an impeachment process that could affect her reelection chances next year, citing her role as a juror in a Senate trial that will determine whether the president will be removed from office because of his controversial dealings with Ukraine.

As expected, Collins has been criticized by Democrats seeking to defeat her next year. But now a Republican group that opposes the president is also launching a pressure campaign on Collins and other swing-state Republicans to ensure that the upcoming trial is thorough.

The ad, from the group Republicans for the Rule of Law, is airing in Maine over the holidays. It’s designed to get Collins to push for testimony from current and former White House advisors who could further implicate the president in an alleged scheme involving personal political favors in exchange for continued U.S. support for Ukraine as it battles Russian aggression.

Another GOP group seeking to break Trump’s grip on congressional Republicans, The Lincoln Project, has also indicated that it’s keeping close tabs on Collins and the trial.

All of these efforts follow a recent declaration from Senate Leader Mitch McConnell on Fox News that strongly suggests that Senate Republicans will favor loyalty to Trump over the call for a trial involving witnesses who the president blocked from testifying in the House impeachment inquiry.

“Everything I do during this I’m coordinating with the White House counsel. There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this,” McConnell told Fox News Sean Hannity.

McConnell’s statement complicates Collins’ repeated vow to remain open to the facts in the case. She recently told a gaggle of reporters that she would not approach the trial the same way as her conference leader, but she stopped short of signaling that she would join Democrats calling for witnesses from the president’s inner circle.

Another centrist Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has also pushed back on McConnell, telling local TV station KTUU in Anchorage that she disagrees with his vow of total coordination with the White House.

“In fairness, when I heard that I was disturbed,” she told KTUU.

Murkowski said that fellow Republicans should step back from working “hand-in-glove” with the White House if they intend to deliver impartial justice.

“And so I heard what leader McConnell had said. I happen to think that that has further confused the process,” she said.

Murkowski’s comments quickly made national headlines as political observers are seeking evidence of Republican defections in what has so far been a strident, rapidly evolving GOP defense of Trump’s conduct.

Only four Republican senators are needed to join with Democrats to force McConnell to call more witnesses. Sens. Murkowski and Collins, who are described as friends, are often viewed as persuadable.

But lost in Murkowski’s comment about McConnell is her criticism of the House impeachment process, and the decision by Democrats not to seek a court intervention when the White House blocked testimony of key aides.

Collins issued a statement that reiterated her promise to pursue impartial justice, but did not address Murkowski’s comments or the question of whether she’ll push for witnesses that the White House has blocked.

Instead, she expressed hope that Senate leaders would negotiate the rules for the trial, just as Republicans and Democrats did when President Bill Clinton was impeached, but ultimately acquitted.

Collins has also said that pressure from the left — and the right — will have no influence on any of her decisions.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.