Susan Collins

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, arrives at the Capitol on Jan. 7 for a closed meeting with fellow Republicans about the looming impeachment trial of President Trump. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is facing incessant scrutiny as President Trump’s impeachment trial gets underway, with both sides of the aisle parsing her every word for clues on where she stands.

The situation is a no-win for Collins, who risks fanning the flames of criticism from Democrats with a vote to acquit the president, while a vote to convict would expose her to furious attacks from Trump and her own party as she seeks re-election.

Her bid for a fifth term is attracting record financial contributions and has become one of the most closely watched Senate races in the nation.

The trial, which started with ceremonial procedures Thursday, is expected to resume Tuesday with an organizational resolution that will outline the rules. Democrats need the votes of four Republicans – and Collins is seen as a possible candidate – to allow for witnesses to be called.

In an interview Friday, Collins said because she hasn’t yet heard the case presented by both sides, it is too early to say definitely if witnesses should be called.

At the same time, she said she has been working with three other Republican senators – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – to ensure the language in Tuesday’s resolution will include provisions for a roll call vote on whether motions should be allowed to subpoena witnesses and documents.

“I think it’s likely because there are holes in the record where hearing from witnesses would expand my understanding,” she said. “I haven’t made a decision on any particular witnesses. When we reach the appropriate point in the trial, I would like to hear from both sides which witnesses, if any, they would like to call.”

Earlier in the week, following criticism for downplaying the release of new evidence implicating the president, Collins released a statement saying her position on impeachment had been “mischaracterized” and reaffirming her support for the trial to follow the model used in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

The Clinton model would allow a vote on whether to call witnesses only after opening arguments and the chance for senators to ask questions. That format hasn’t played well with Democrats, who have sought to have one resolution on rules and witnesses established before the trial starts.

Critics have argued for Collins to push harder for the inclusion of witnesses from the start, arguing that the current situation differs from the Clinton impeachment trial, where senators had the benefit of an independent report into the president’s conduct and the president and Senate majority came from opposing parties.

“This is a vote that will test her,” said Sandy Maisel, a professor of American government at Colby College, who said Collins could follow in the footsteps of Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District – the only member of the House to split votes on the two impeachment articles. “I think Collins is looking at something similar. She may vote to allow witnesses and then vote not to (convict). She has to think about whether splitting that vote will alienate people or please people.”

A new poll released Thursday ranked Collins as the least popular U.S. senator, with 52 percent of Maine voters surveyed saying they disapprove of her performance.

And on Friday, a Democratic group pledged to fund a mobile billboard that would replay Collins’ comments during the Clinton trial outside Senate offices – comments in which she calls for more witnesses and more evidence and that critics say are in sharp contrast to her current position.

“Instead of using her platform like she did 20 years ago to call for a full accounting of the evidence, Senator Collins is parsing her every public statement to try to protect her political career without actually taking a stand against Mitch McConnell’s sham process,” said Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a statement Friday, referring to the Senate majority leader.

Meanwhile, Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, expressed support for Collins in an email Friday.

“Senator Collins has consistently proven that she is an independent voice, and the only people she listens to are the people of Maine,” Savage said. “She has faced a number of tough political decisions in the past. And, in the end, whether you agree with her or not, you know that she only reached a judgment after thoughtful deliberation and with the best interest of our state and nation in mind.”

This isn’t the first time Collins has faced intense pressure on an issue. Her vote to support Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court in 2018 drew the ire of Democrats and independents, while in 2017 she was one of just three Republicans who voted against a repeal and replacement of Obamacare.

The scrutiny this time around is also a reflection of the national interest in her re-election campaign and Democrats’ determination to take back her seat.

Brian Duff, an associate professor of political science at the University of New England, said Collins is in a “uniquely difficult” position as the only Republican from New England remaining in Congress.

Impeachment could distract from her unpopular 2017 tax bill vote, though voting not to remove the president could prompt an outpouring of spending against Collins by Democrats and liberals, he said.

On Friday, Collins also weighed in on the release of a new report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office finding that Trump’s decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine was a violation of the law.

“I suspect there will be a motion to introduce that report as evidence, but again, I’m not going to prejudge the evidence,” she said. “It strikes me that it is likely relevant information, and I will leave it at that.”

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