Senate impeachment trial draws to a close. Here's what to expect next…

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (CNN) — Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, has conceded that President Donald Trump withheld US security assistance to Ukraine in order to pressure the country to investigate his political rival — but that’s not enough to get him to vote to consider witnesses.

For Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his conference has just about fallen into place. Now he’s about to bulldoze to the close of the shortest impeachment trial for a president in US history.

Bottom line

Trump will be acquitted in the early morning hours of Saturday, according to GOP senators and aides. And while the actual end-game was never in doubt — the President was always going to be acquitted — it’s jarring that the more than four months of investigations, inquiry, impeachment and trial will come to a sudden (and rather anti-climactic) end.

McConnell’s departing words Thursday night, via the incomparable Ted Barrett: “Tomorrow’s a big day.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, with the thought you should be repeating to yourself throughout the day/night/early Saturday morning hours: “Things here almost always take longer than you think they’re going to take.”

What to watch today

  • Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer holds a press conference at 11 a.m. ET.
  • Senate closed-door lunches at 11:30 a.m./12 p.m.
  • Senate Impeachment trial gavels into session at 1 p.m.
  • Senate votes to proceed to consideration of subpoenas for witnesses and documents, 5-6 p.m.

The end game

What follows the witness vote is very, very fluid. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind, with the caveat that, seriously, this is fluid. Both sides were still trying to figure it out Thursday night.

  • Expect both parties to meet separately after the vote to plot their way forward.
  • When they return, expect McConnell to offer a motion to move to final judgment.
  • That motion is amendable, and there’s no expectation Schumer and Democrats will simply just let the trial end without a fight. So get ready for amendments — and the hours of debate that come with them.
  • At some point, Democrats will relent, at which point senators will have to decide whether they want to go into deliberations (which would be in closed session). GOP leaders are leaning heavily on this not happening, but it’s possible.
  • The vote on the articles would occur, separately, with each senator being called in alphabetical order, standing and reading their judgment of “Guilty” or “Not guilty” aloud.

Repeating the caveat: things just aren’t locked into place yet, so stick with us for guidance, but rest assured, once the chamber gavels into session on Friday, it will not adjourn until the President is acquitted.

“I can tell you that we have a high level of interest in just getting this done,” Sen. John Thune, the second-ranked Republican, told Ted Barrett.

Wild card

The great unknown right now is what Democrats will attempt to offer in terms of motions after the witness vote fails. There’s a distinct possibility they will attempt to once again bring things related to witnesses and documents up for a vote, even though the main witness vote on Friday will technically shut down their ability to do just that. In other words, prepare for some procedural fireworks (if that’s even a thing) as both sides try and feel their way through a process that is more or less without firm precedent.

Keep an eye on the timing

Democrats haven’t tipped their hand on how they’re going to handle the process Friday, but there is a running theory that the expectation is it pushes into the early morning. Why? Voting at 2 a.m. to acquit the President in a trial Democrats have deemed as “unfair” and “a sham” seems to bolster that point.

Republicans say they aren’t concerned by the appearance of it — they just want to get it done. But don’t be surprised if this is how it happens.

(Oh, and for what it’s worth, that also would allow senators to, I don’t know, hop on a plane to Iowa first thing Saturday morning. If that’s what they’re interested in or something.)

Where the GOP votes stand for witnesses

Yes:

Sen. Susan Collins

Sen. Mitt Romney

Undecided:

Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Count the above senators. Democrats needed four to be able to move forward to consider subpoenas for witnesses and documents. This is over.

Will the chief justice break a tie?

No. Seriously, the answer is no. Is there precedent? Yes, see Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. Is that going to happen here? Nothing — and I mean nothing — has signaled yes. There are more than a few Democrats I’ve spoken to who don’t want it to happen out of concern for future precedent.

Have more questions? Good news: Ted Barrett and Clare Foran have an excellent, and much smarter, story on all of this.

And yet

It’s a genuine issue senators have been trying to figure out. In fact, multiple people said it was a central topic of discussion at the closed door Senate GOP lunch on Thursday. The way the discussion transpired, according to one person in the room, appeared to be intended to press Republicans not to end up in the situation.

“It was made clear that it would just be easier to avoid 50-50,” the person said.

Whether that happens is now up to Murkowski.

Where Murkowski stands

The word from Murkowski’s colleagues is that she’s genuinely undecided and in many ways has appeared to lean both ways at various points in the last 48 hours. McConnell has been extremely focused on hearing the Alaska senator out and attempting to address her concerns. Alexander had a private meeting with Murkowski a few hours before he announced his intentions.

Murkowski asked perhaps the clearest, most concise question of the two-day period when she cut to the core of why senators shouldn’t hear from John Bolton given the conflicting statements regarding the conditionality of the US aid.

But she also asked a question that appeared to line up her up closely with Alexander’s rationale that the evidence shows what is alleged may have happened, but isn’t impeachable.

In other words, we should all stop reading the tea leaves and just wait for her statement. As for what she planned to do Thursday night:

“I’m going to go back to my office, put some eye drops in so I can keep reading,” she told CNN’s Ellie Kaufman.

On Alexander

It’s important to read Alexander’s statement, which he’d spent days working on and putting together, not just because it explains his decision but because he has largely ended up in a place where many Senate Republicans are on what happened. Here’s the difference between those Republicans: Alexander attached his name to the statement.

Throughout the course of the last two weeks, you’ve seen the GOP argument with some — not all — morph into “this doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment” and certainly not removal. Those senators aren’t even arguing whether the President conditioned US security assistance on an investigation into his political rival. (Mostly they are dodging that question, then quietly telling you on background it’s pretty obvious it happened.)

But it’s just notable that Alexander’s statement kind of lays that bare — to argue the President didn’t do what he’s accused of doing is, to some degree, be willfully blind to the evidence. And yet that, and the way in which the inquiry was constructed and turned into what arrived in the Senate, isn’t enough for removal, particularly not in election year, according to Alexander.

**Continuing coverage, here**

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