A “fairly small group,” she called it.

I bet we’d all have some pretty good guesses at this point about who’s in that “fairly small group.”

Some righties were high-fiving earlier this week when McConnell announced that he had the votes to proceed with a Clinton-style rules package, in which the Senate would postpone any decision on witnesses until after each side has presented its prima facie case at the trial. The celebration was understandable since that amounted to checkmate against Pelosi. Her dumb “impeach and withhold” strategy, aimed at pressuring (somehow) McConnell to make concessions on witnesses up front, had failed. As it was always destined to do.

But the fact that Collins, Murkowski, Gardner, Romney, and McSally weren’t willing to agree in advance to call new witnesses doesn’t mean they won’t allow it once the trial is under way. Bolton’s announcement this week that he’s willing to testify put them on the spot by depriving them of an obvious reason not to try to call him. If they couldn’t force him to appear without fighting a long court battle, then they could just say that it’s not worth bothering. (That’s what House Democrats did, right?) But if they can get him to appear just by issuing a subpoena, with Bolton promising to show, it’s harder to explain declining to issue that subpoena. If the goal in this civic pageant is simply to show their constituents that they took the trial seriously before inevitably voting “not guilty,” they’re arguably stuck calling Bolton now.

So here comes Collins admitting that she’s discussing the subject of new witnesses with a select group of colleagues.

Speaking to reporters on Friday at the end of a visit to the Fruit Street School in Bangor, Collins said she had been working all week with a “fairly small group” of Republican senators and party leaders to ensure trial rules would allow House impeachment managers and Trump’s lawyers to call witnesses.

Collins declined to say how large the group was, but she said “we should be completely open to calling witnesses.”

“I am hopeful that we can reach an agreement on how to proceed with the trial that will allow the opportunity for both the House and the president’s counsel if they choose to do so,” she said.

For political reasons, that’s how this will have to work in practice — if Democrats get to call Bolton, the president gets to own the libs by calling a witness of his own like Hunter Biden. Maybe Collins is hoping McConnell will twist Trump’s arm and convince him to make things easy on the GOP caucus by not sending them down that path. (If so, she’s kidding herself. Trump’s going to relish his opportunity to play offense.) Or maybe she thinks the “small group” she’s working with could get away with gritting their teeth and voting against calling individual witnesses like Biden or the whistleblower whom the president really wants to put on the stand. He’s entitled to witnesses in principle, per Collins; he’s not necessarily entitled to any witness he wants. The thinking in that case would be that, although MAGA Nation will be pissed off that the RINOs aren’t letting Trump put on the case he wants, all will be forgiven when they cast the vote to acquit him.

Which is probably true. Collins and the rest can afford to show a tiny bit of favoritism towards Democrats on procedural matters knowing that they’re going to nuke the Democratic case in the end. It’s a form of bet-hedging with swing voters back home.

But there’s a third possibility, one which I raised yesterday: Maybe Collins is counting on Trump to provide her with a pretext to not bother calling Bolton after all. Trump was asked about that today in an interview with Laura Ingraham and clarified that, oh yes, he’ll be invoking executive privilege to try to shut Bolton down.

In an interview with Laura Ingraham set to air Friday night, the Fox News host asked Trump: “Why not call Bolton? Why not allow him to testify? This thing is bogus. Why not allow Bolton to testify?”

“No problem other than one thing,” Trump replied. “You can’t be in the White House as president, future, I’m talking about future — any future presidents — and have a security advisor, anybody having to do with security, and legal and other things but especially —”

“Are you going to invoke executive privilege?” Ingraham asked.

“Well I think you have to for the sake of the office,” Trump said.

How’s that going to work at the trial if/when Bolton shows up? No one knows. Which may be all the excuse Collins needs to say, “Let’s not bother. Too messy.”

In lieu of an exit question, a fun tidbit about “impeach and withhold” backfiring on Pelosi:

I’m looking forward to Amy Klobuchar complaining that Pelosi wrecked her last best chance of a surge in Iowa by holding the articles of impeachment too long, right into the home stretch before Iowa. And I’m really looking forward to Bernie fanatics blaming Pelosi if he flames out in Iowa and New Hampshire because he’s stuck in Washington attending the trial at a moment when he should be campaigning like a demon. If the great socialist hope ends up underperforming, lefties will be frantic to find scapegoats among the Democratic establishment. Pelosi’s handing them a reason to scapegoat her on a silver platter.