Washington (AFP) - Leading Republicans took to the talk show circuit Sunday to defend their expected acquittal of US President Donald Trump at his Senate trial next week -- despite offering sharp criticism of his role in the Ukraine scandal.
The president was impeached in December for abuse of power over pressuring ally Kiev to announce investigations that would have helped him politically, including into 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 Trump's behavior 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," Alexander told NBC.
The Tennessee senator suggested Trump had been naive in asking a foreign ally to look into 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."
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.
- 'Wrong manner' -
Ernst said it was "up to the American people" to decide on Trump's behavior, adding that she would vote Wednesday to acquit the president, who is also accused of obstruction of Congress.
"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.
On Friday, just two Republicans -- Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine -- joined Democrats in voting to introduce witnesses, following the example of every other impeachment trial in US history.
Alexander, who had been considered a possible swing vote on the issue, said however there was no need for more evidence and, with Washington awaiting the results of Monday's Iowa caucuses, it was better to let the American public decide who should be the next president.
Related: Law Professor Explains Exactly How Impeachment Works
The first vote in the US primary process will be closely watched as a sign as to which of 11 Democratic candidates are gaining early momentum to challenge Trump in November's election.
In the impeachment trial, Democrats failed to muster the four Republican votes needed to allow testimony from Trump's former national security advisor John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others.
Democrats had been eager to hear from Bolton following reports that, in a forthcoming book, he says Trump told him military aid to Ukraine was tied to Kiev's investigating former vice president Biden. This is the crux of the charge against Trump, coming from someone close to him.
- 'We are the jury' -
"As upsetting as what's going on in the Senate is, the thing that I'm always reminding voters of -- especially in these closing days of the Iowa caucuses -- is that, yes, the Senate is the jury today but we are the jury tomorrow," Pete Buttigieg, who is running third in the Hawkeye State, told CNN.
"And we get to send a message at the ballot box that cheating, lying, involving a foreign country in our own domestic politics, not to mention abuse of power more broadly and bad administration, that that's not okay, that we can do better."
The Senate resumes as a court of impeachment on Monday to hear final arguments, before voting on Wednesday on the two articles of impeachment passed last month in the House.
Adam Schiff, the leader of the House impeachment managers, told CBS Sunday that it was "pretty remarkable" that senators on both sides had acknowledged that Democrats had proved their case against the president.
"But I'm not letting the senators off the hook. We're still going to go into the Senate this week and make the case why this president needs to be removed. It will be up to the senators to make that final judgment, and the senators will be held accountable for it."
Four contenders for the Democratic nomination -- Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet -- were required to be present at the impeachment trial.
Monday's Iowa vote is headed to a photo finish, with leftist Bernie Sanders holding a narrow polling lead over Biden.