Spotlight turns to Alexander in Trump's Senate impeachment trial

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., addresses the media during a visit to Point Park on April 3, 2018, in Lookout Mountain, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - While it's President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, the national spotlight in the U.S. Senate this week is likely to shift at least briefly this week to a senator from Tennessee.

Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander is in a pivotal position, along with three GOP colleagues, to determine if the Republican-led Senate votes to hear from new witnesses and seek more documents related to the two articles of impeachment involving Trump's dealings with Ukraine.

So what is the retiring three-term senator, former governor, one-time U.S. education secretary and two-time presidential hopeful going to do?

Alexander, 79, hasn't publicly said other than to state that after arguments from House impeachment managers and Trump's defense team, he will listen to questions posed by senators to both groups. "And then I'm going to decide whether I believe we need" additional witnesses or documents, he has said.

If Alexander and three other lawmakers from Republicans' 53-member majority side with 45 Democrats and two independents who want that testimony, it would extend proceedings. And it might upend them, although no one is expecting the necessary two-thirds approval to remove Trump from office.

Alexander's office on Friday declined a Times Free Press interview request, saying the senator isn't doing interviews.

A political moderate seen as a advocate of Senate prerogatives, Alexander has previously described Trump's interactions with Ukraine's president in seeking an investigation of potential Democratic rival Joe Biden and Biden's son as "inappropriate."

But the senator also has called the Democratic-led House's impeachment of the president on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress a "mistake," saying the upcoming fall election "is the right way to decide who should be president."

Tom Ingram, Alexander's longtime friend and political adviser who previously served as his chief of staff and also served in same role when Alexander was governor, isn't predicting whether the senator will push a vote on more witnesses and testimony or not.

"He stands where he stands and probably doesn't know where he stands yet," Ingram said. "He's not keeping anything close to his vest, and he's going to make up his mind and do what's right."

Ingram said Alexander has the "greatest respect for the process and the greatest respect for the presidency. And he's going to weigh all factors. And it's not as simple as a lot of people like to think of it. He will put it through a complete filter and decide, when it's appropriate, how he's going to vote, whether he's going to ask for witnesses and so on and so forth."

If Alexander feels he needs more information "he'll ask for it," Ingram said. "If he doesn't, he'll move to the next step and decide how he's going to vote."

While Alexander has sometimes sided with Democrats in the past and disagreed occasionally, usually mildly, with Trump, he also is a close friend of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell wants the impeachment trial ended quickly with an acquittal.

With more than a half century in Tennessee politics, Alexander's political mentor was the late Republican U.S. Sen. Howard Baker, for whom Alexander once worked as an aide. Baker played a major role during 1973 and 1974 investigations of President Richard Nixon in Watergate, famously asking "what did the president know and when did he know it?"

Last week, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Politico that "I would hope [Alexander] has Howard Baker in his mind," noting Baker "stepped up and showed his courage time and again when it came to excessive partisanship."

But Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., told Politico that "I thought [Tuesday] night as the night went on, it became easier and easier for [Alexander] to be one of us. [Democrats] were making it so easy to vote against their amendments. After [that], he might not be as committed to it."

Political science professor Kent Syler at Middle Tennessee State University said Alexander "is certainly in a very interesting position. I think he has done a good job of at least not publicly pre-judging things. He's played his cards close to the vest. It's going to be interesting to watch how he handles it."

After working for Baker as an aide, Alexander later worked in Nixon's White House. He returned to Tennessee and in 1974 ran for governor and lost to Democrat Ray Blanton. Four years later, Alexander ran again, beating Democrat Jake Butcher.

The term-limited Blanton, meanwhile, was engulfed in a clemency-for-cash scandal. Fearful Blanton was preparing to issue mass pardons on his way out of office, Democratic legislative leaders, a democratically appointed U.S. attorney and a Democratic state attorney general moved in to pre-empt that, leading to Republican Alexander being sworn into office two days early.

Noting that was a bipartisan effort, Syler, the longtime chief of staff for former Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, said "today is a much more polarized partisan environment." But Alexander not seeking re-election "gives him more flexibility to vote his conscience," Syler said. "If he were up for re-election and voted against the president, that is certainly a career-ender."

In sharp contrast to the guarded Alexander, fellow Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn has unabashedly supported the president. Just last week she renewed her Twitter attack on Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council aide who testified before the House on the Ukraine scandal.

Veteran political observer Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said he has long viewed Alexander as "one of the exemplars of public service."

But Ornstein said while Alexander has generally been "constructive in the Senate," the last "several years have been different" under the senator's chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

He cited Alexander's shepherding of Betsy DeVos, Trump's controversial education secretary, through her Senate confirmation process. And he noted there was "silence out of his committee" not only on a subsequent controversy over a DeVos action but no real oversight into the blow-up over the Department of Health and Human Services' separation of undocumented children from their families.

"I think the question is what is Lamar going to do on his way out with serious offenses by the president. There is no expectation, I think, on the part of anybody that he is going to vote to remove Trump from office. But I think there'll be ultimately a very sharp spotlight on him as to the fairness of this trial."

Ornstein said he has "kind of been thrown into uncertainty. What I would have expected from the Lamar Alexander of the past has not been reflected in the Lamar Alexander of the past several years."

Meanwhile, Alexander has a number of things he still wants to get done before leaving office a year from now.

"There's a lot of things he'd like to impact, a lot of them positively affecting Tennessee," Syler said. "So if this vote, which could be inconsequential toward the outcome anyway, were going to neuter him for the rest of the year, that's obviously something to think about. I just know - every time you cast a vote, there are lots of things to consider."

While "there's certainly a desire to do what you think is right, it's not as simple as that," Syler noted.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.