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Transcript: Can I Get A Witness?

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Can I Get A Witness?
Image: Senate Impeachment Trial Of President Trump Continues
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell arrives at the U.S. Capitol as the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump continues on Jan. 30, 2020.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Article II: Inside Impeachment


Can I Get A Witness?

Reporters: Senator McConnell?

Reporters: How are you feeling about today, Mr. McConnell? Do you think you'll have the votes?

Reporters: Do you believe there will be an acquittal vote tonight?

Security: Make a hole.

Mitch Mcconnell: Well, I think we can all agree this is a big day. (MUSIC)

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Friday, January 31st, and the impeachment of President Donald Trump is coming to a close.

Donald Trump: This was not supposed to happen, but I have great confidence in the Republicans, and the Republican Senate, and I know they're gonna be fair.

Kornacki: President Trump talking to FOX News last night in Iowa, clearly feeling good about where this is heading. The Senate will vote today on whether to call new witnesses to testify in the impeachment trial.

Patrick Philbin: Assuming for the sake of argument that Ambassador Bolton would come and testify, even if that happened, even if he gave that testimony, the articles of impeachment still wouldn't rise to an impeachable offense.

Kornacki: The result of that vote determines what happens next.

Nancy Pelosi: You cannot be acquitted if you don't have a trial. And you don't have a trial if you don't have witnesses and documentation and that. I would hope that--

Kornacki: It's looking like it's gonna be another very long day on the Senate floor. So before things get started, we are bringing you a roadmap for how all of this could play out. That is today on Article II. Let's get started. Frank Thorp is a producer covering Congress for NBC News. He is on Capitol Hill. He has been following every hour, every minute, every second of this impeachment trial. Frank, you wake up on what could be the final day of this entire impeachment drama, or maybe not. But thanks for joining us today. Welcome to the show.

Frank Thorp: Thank you for having me.

Kornacki: We have been talking now for weeks about this vote that is coming on whether there will be witnesses in this Senate trial. And now it looks like the big day is here. There are expectations now clearly about how this vote is going to go. We can get into that. But just take us through first if you will a roadmap of what we can expect in that trial in that Senate chamber today.

Thorp: Yeah, so the trial's gonna come back in at 1:00. And they're gonna immediately start up to four hours of debate, equally divided between the two sides, on this witness question, on the question about whether or not additional witnesses and documents need to be requested as a part of this trial, as a part of evidence to help build the case for the House managers.

They're gonna have that debate, it's gonna be four hours, and then they're gonna have a vote. And that vote would be to basically start deliberations and votes on additional witnesses and documents. That could be an unlimited amount of votes, depending on who would wanna call who. Right now, that vote is the key vote. That's the vote that everybody's been looking at, about whether or not they're going to call additional witnesses as a part of this trial.

Kornacki: Right, so, and we can get to some news overnight in terms of where it looks like that vote is going. But let's start on the possibility that as we tape this, seems unlikely. But if the vote to have witnesses passes, what would happen then?

Thorp: If it passes, then it starts a kind of "Wild West" of situations here. We don't really know how the process would go, but we know that there would be votes and a debate on the witness question, on the question of whether or not to add documents.

There has been speculation of what witnesses different sides would call. We obviously know that Democrats wanna talk to John Bolton, they wanna talk to Mick Mulvaney. The White House has said, "Hey, all right, if you guys are gonna have those witnesses, we wanna talk to Adam Schiff, we wanna talk to the whistleblower, we wanna talk to other folks who have been possibly in touch with the whistleblower." So it would get into a back and forth that could potentially get pretty messy.

Kornacki: This gets to the other possibility then that seems like the likelihood right now, that this vote will not pass, that the vote for witnesses will fail. Take us through, we've been saying over and over, Democrats need to hold all their members together and get four Republicans to join them. Take us through what we know now about how the math is looking on that.

Thorp: There are 47 Democrats and 53 Republicans. You need 51 votes to call additional witnesses and documents. And right now, it's a situation that as you said, if all 47 Democrats stick together, they need four Republicans to be able to call additional witnesses and get additional documents.

But right now, we're in a situation where it's looking actually pretty unlikely that that's gonna happen. We have a Mitt Romney as a "yes." He's been saying all along that he wants to talk to John Bolton. Susan Collins came out late last night after the Q&A period ended and said that she would be calling for additional documents.

But we also had Lamar Alexander, who's a Republican from Tennessee come out and say that he will actually vote "no" for additional documents and witnesses. So that is a big blow to the Democrats' chances of being able to get those 51 votes. We still at this time, it's 8:40 right now, still don't know where Lisa Murkowski, the Republican from Alaska, stands on this question.

Lisa Murkowski: I have filled up one and a half volumes of notes here. I've got a lot that I have written down. And I'm gonna be processing that. I think I'm gonna put eye drops in and blink a little bit, figure out how much more I can read. But I think it's important to have a well-thought-out statement. So that's what I'm (UNINTEL PHRASE).

Thorp: But even if she comes out in support, that's only three. And you need a fourth. And so we're in a situation where Democrats don't look like they have the 51 votes they need.

Kornacki: Yeah, just explain that one again for a second. Because I think folks doing the math might be saying, "Forty-seven Democrats, if they get Romney, if they get Collins, if they do get Murkowski, is 50-50. It's a tie." Why is that not it's?

Thorp: Yeah, so the way that it works in the Senate, and particularly in this trial, is that a tie fails. You need 51 votes to pass any motion or resolution. And typically, when you have a Senate vote in a regular legislative process, the vice president can come and break a tie. In this situation, we obviously have the chief justice presiding over the trial.

While technically, according to precedent, in the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial, there was a situation where the chief justice there actually broke two ties. Those were more on procedural motions. That wasn't on a big motion like this, on whether or not to call additional witnesses.

So hypothetically, the chief justice could break a tie in this situation. But all of our reporting says that he would not do so. Particularly on such a huge question like this. Like on whether to call witnesses, something that's been so, so important to particularly one side's argument. So if there is a 50-50 tie, the expectation is that that question would fail.

Kornacki: So what would happen then if we get to, I guess this would be late afternoon, early evening, they would've gone through the debate on this, have the vote, the vote fails. What would happen then?

Thorp: It's another situation where it's a little bit of kind of a "Wild West" situation. So a lot of different motions could be in order there. Republicans and Democrats will have the ability to enter any kind of motion that they want. That could be a motion to dismiss, that could be a motion to go straight to a final vote.

That could be a motion to go into closing arguments or deliberations. There's actually a lot of open questions there. But the expectation or the hope, at least amongst Republicans who say that if this witness motion fails, is that they could try to wrap this up quickly. And that could be as soon as tonight.

Kornacki: That's my next question, actually. What are the odds that that actually happens? That it does just all end tonight? That there is then a vote on conviction or acquittal that ends this completely, today?

Thorp: You know, it's funny because in the Senate, you know, I was talkin' to Senator Roy Blunt yesterday, and he admitted what we all kind of know, is that, you know, things in the Senate always take a little bit longer than you would hope that they would take.

Hypothetically, it could go as long as they wanted to. It takes 51 senators to agree to this. If 51 senators agree hypothetically that they wanna have closing arguments on Saturday and deliberations on Monday and a vote on Tuesday, they could do that. Now, that is a long timeline for a process that could take a very short amount of time.

But, I mean, right now, like, that process is not laid out in the organizing resolution that laid out the rules for this impeachment trial initially. So we're in a situation where they can basically establish the timeline any way they want going forward after this witness vote happens. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: All right, Frank. So we've got a little bit of uncertainty today, could be the last day, could be--

Thorp: Could be.

Kornacki: --the start of the series of last days, but we will let you go and cover all the action there on Capitol Hill. But thank you so much for fillin' us in on what we can expect today.

Thorp: Thanks for havin' me, Steve.

Kornacki: Keep refreshing that feed wherever you listen to Article II because the team will be following this process every step of the way. And we will be back, either late tonight, or early tomorrow with an episode after this historic day concludes.

Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman, Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio, I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll see you on the other side.