WASHINGTON • Leading Republicans have taken to the talk show circuit to defend their expected acquittal of President Donald Trump at his Senate trial this week - despite offering sharp criticism of his role in the Ukraine scandal.
The US President was impeached by House Democrats in December for abuse of power over pressuring ally Ukraine to announce investigations that would have helped him politically, including into Mr Joe Biden, a leading challenger in this year's presidential ballot.
A day ahead of the Iowa Democratic caucuses - the official start of the election season - key Republican senators including Lamar Alexander and Joni Ernst said on Sunday that Mr Trump's behaviour was troubling but not impeachable.
"Hopefully he'll look at this and say, 'Okay, that was a mistake. I shouldn't have done that, shouldn't have done it that way," Mr Alexander told NBC. The Tennessee senator suggested Mr Trump had been naive in asking a foreign ally to look into Mr Biden and his son Hunter's business dealings in Ukraine, which Republicans have claimed without evidence were corrupt. But he added: "The bottom line: it's not an excuse. He shouldn't have done it."
Ms Ernst said it was "up to the American people" to decide on Mr Trump's behaviour, adding that she would vote to acquit him. "I think generally speaking, going after corruption is the right thing to do, but he did it in the wrong manner... I think that he could have done it in different channels," she told CNN.
Mr Trump is all but assured of being acquitted at only the third impeachment trial of a US president, with Republicans holding 53 seats in the Senate to 47 for the Democrats. A two-thirds majority, or 67 senators, is needed to remove him from office.
Last Friday, just two Republicans - Mr Mitt Romney and Ms Susan Collins - joined Democrats in voting to introduce witnesses, following the example of every other impeachment trial in US history.
However, Mr Alexander, who had been seen as a possible swing vote on the issue, said there was no need for more evidence and, with Washington awaiting the results of the Iowa caucuses, it was better to let the American public decide who should be the next president.
The first vote in the US primary process will be closely watched as an indicator as to which of 11 Democratic candidates are gaining early momentum to challenge Mr Trump in November's election.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump is set to be acquitted of the two impeachment charges in final votes set for tomorrow. Before then, senators will hear lawyers' closing arguments and have two days for debate.
Plans for the President's final acquittal tomorrow were sealed after Friday's 51-49 vote blocking the Senate from calling witnesses sought by Democrats, including former national security adviser John Bolton.
The House managers and Mr Trump's defence team will each have two hours to make their arguments, and senators - including the Democrats running in yesterday night's Iowa caucuses - are required to be in the chamber.
After that, members will have until the scheduled vote time at 4pm tomorrow to explain their votes on the Senate floor.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG