Article II: Inside Impeachment
Making the Case
Archival Recording: Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye, all persons are commanded to keep silent on pain of imprisonment. All Senate of the United States is sitting for the trial of the articles of impeachment, exhibited by the House of Representatives against Donald John Trump, President of the United States. (MUSIC)
Archival Recording: We gather in this historic chamber for the solemn responsibility of these impeachment proceedings. Give wisdom to the distinguished Chief Justice, John Roberts, as he presides.
Steve Kornacki: From NBC News this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, January 22nd, and here's what's happening.
Archival Recording: Pursuant to the provisions of Senate Resolution 483, the managers for the House of Representatives have 24 hours to make the presentation of their case. The Senate will now hear you.
Kornacki: It's day one of opening arguments in the impeachment trial of President Trump. Over the course of many, many hours, house managers argued their case for the removal of the president, and the need for witnesses and documents to fully make that case.
Archival Recording: If this body is serious about a fair trial, one that is fair to the president and to the American people, we again urge you to allow the House to call both Eisenberg and Bolton, as well as other key witnesses with firsthand knowledge who refused to testify before the House on the orders of the president.
Kornacki: Their audience, the American public, of course. Television cameras captured almost every minute. But the managers are also making these arguments to the 100 senators who sit silently in the chamber. They're to act as impartial jurors. Today in Article II, we're focusing on those Republican senators who Democrats are desperately hoping will buy these arguments and side with them next week over those key questions of witnesses and evidence. The Democrats need just four Republicans to cross the aisle. It sounds like a little, it may be a lot though in reality. Can they get them?
Archival Recording: Amen.
Kornacki: Frank Thorp is an NBC producer covering the U.S. Senate. Frank, you have been there for these marathon (LAUGHTER) days. You're going to be there for a bunch more, I think. So you know better than anybody what is going on inside that chamber, and what it means. Let's start with a, a big picture question. The House managers, there's the prosecutors who went today, who began today; what was their job? What was their challenge as they stepped forward to speak today?
Frank Thorp: Their challenge today is to, to start to create a narrative of their case, their prosecution against President Trump. They're presenting this case to a number of senators who have said that they have not been following this day to day, because they have their jobs to do. And so they are creating a narrative that lays out their claim that President Trump held military aid to Ukraine in an effort to jumpstart an investigation into Vice-President Biden, to help President Trump's re-election campaign. The House managers have three days to make these arguments, they have 24 hours over three days. And Congressman Adam Schiff, who's the lead manager here has said that they're gonna do kind of in a little bit of like a two-parter.
Adam Schiff: Today you will hear the details of the president's corrupt scheme in narrative form, illustrating the timeline of the effort through the testimony of numerous witnesses who came before the House, as well as the documents and materials we collected as evidence during the investigation. After you hear the factual chronology, we will then discuss the constitutional framework of impeachment.
Thorp: Why these are impeachable offenses and why President Trump should be removed from office as a result.
Kornacki: You know, we're watching this on television, as I am and, and probably most folks listening to this are, or many folks listening to this are. We're limited in what we can see in that chamber, when it comes to the senators' reactions. And, and, and really just a basic question of, of how engaged with these arguments that are being made, how engaged with them, the senators? I mean, we keep talking about, this is the jury. Do you, do you have a sense of that? Are the senators really focused on what's being said, or are their an indications their minds might be elsewhere?
Thorp: You know, I mean, to be honest, their minds can't really drift that far away, because they can't have their phones, they're not really allowed, according to the rules of decorum to have any kind of other reading materials. They can't really do any other work. They have to sit there and listen to this argument.
We saw that yesterday when they did the organizing resolution. That was a 12 plus hour day, and they just had to sit there and listen to the back and forth. Now there are different levels of engagement here. I mean, there are a number of senators who are copiously taking notes. They're writing down things as they go, they're reading the briefs and the evidence that was provided to them.
But then there are also are senators who are just sitting there listening. Some of them look really bored. Some of them have drifted off to sleep. To be honest, senators just aren't used to this. They're not used to having to sit in place without their phones, and just listen to somebody else speak. Senators like to speak themselves.
The Senate chamber is never this full. There's, you know, whenever there's a speech on the Senate floor, there's usually only just a handful of senators. So to have all 100 senators sitting here listening for hours and hours about arguments, they're gonna try to sit through and pay attention to what they're listening to, but they're also gonna get distracted.
Kornacki: Frank, I mean, if the senators are stuck in the chamber all day, all night, (LAUGHTER) as we saw. They have to eat at some point. Can they eat anything? Can they drink anything? Are there any rules on that?
Thorp: You can't bring snacks onto the Senate floor, unfortunately. You can't even bring coffee onto the floor, and technically the Senate rules only allow for two beverages to be brought onto the floor and that's water, which you can bring still or sparkling water, and weirdly enough, milk. And it's like a weird, arcane rule in the Senate.
I haven't seen any senators drinking milk on the Senate floor. Senators are allowed to take, you know, run to the bathroom if they need to. And there's also one desk called the candy desk, that has pieces of candy that senators are allowed to go and grab. But technically, senators are not allowed to bring any kind of snacks, or any kind of like, you know, beverages like a Diet Coke, or anything like that, other than water and milk.
Kornacki: So Frank, you have these managers making the case today, the prosecution case against Trump for conviction, and it's really building towards a more immediate question before you get to Trump fate. And that's the question of whether there'll be witnesses. Whether Democrats will get to have John Bolton subpoenaed, for example.
Looks like that vote's coming next week after all these opening arguments are done with. If Democrats are gonna succeed on that, the magic number for them is 51. They're going to need 51 votes. As Democrats survey the Republican ranks right now in the Senate, I'm curious, do they even see four? Are there four prospects they can identify and say, yeah, these are the four we think are most persuadable in terms of joining with Democrats on one of those key votes?
Thorp: Yeah, I mean, so Lisa Murkowski from Alaska is obviously one of them. Susan Collins is definitely one of them, Republican from Maine. And then we also have Mitt Romney, who is the Republican from Utah. All three of which have expressed a willingness and an openness to hearing additional witnesses if they feel like that would be necessary.
Mitt Romney's actually come out specifically saying that he'd like to hear from John Bolton. So you can basically take him as a almost like, probably yes vote on the idea of additional witnesses, particularly on Bolton. The fourth one is a little bit harder to find.
I mean, you know, some of us are looking at, I would say, Lamar Alexander, who's retiring. He's considered an institutionalist. He's also expressed an openness to having witnesses. Finding that fourth is I think the game that Democrats are playing right now. And they're trying to find out who that could possibly be. But I mean, those three are the ones that they definitely need to make sure that they have on board with them, which is the Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mitt Romneys of the Senate.
Kornacki: Frank, we're going to take a quick break, but please stay right there, and we'll be right back. You mentioned Collins, Frank. Obviously, there's a lot of conversation around her. She's got a tough re-election bid in Maine this year and all of that.
She already made an interesting move just after this trial got underway yesterday, in fact. McConnell, Mitch McConnell had come in there with the rules that he wanted the Senate to adopt, and before you even got to all these votes on amendments to those rules, he actually changed them himself. Took out a pen and did so. Take us through what was happening there, what Collins was doing there, and if there's any bigger significance to it?
Thorp: The original organizing resolution that was introduced by Leader McConnell would have confined the arguments, the 24 hours of arguments for both sides to only two days. Which would've been some brutal marathon, 12 hour days, two, 12 hour days each potentially.
And Democrats in particular, were fighting against that. And what we found out is that Senator Susan Collins came out and said, "Listen, I think that I would feel more comfortable with doing this over three days." McConnell made those changes. In fact, they made 'em by handwriting the changes on the resolution and dropped it right before they opened up the debate on the organizing resolution yesterday.
What this means though is that it shows how important Susan Collins and some of the other Moderate Republicans are to the strategy for Leader McConnell. He needs them to be happy and on his side, for him to be able to end this trial as fast as he can. And so if he can make Susan Collins happy by accommodating her, by adding an extra day of arguments for each side, that helps him later on if there's a big vote on potentially witnesses, and he needs to have her feel like she's already fought for a fair trial.
Kornacki: Right, it feels like so much of this is building towards that vote you're talking about, probably next week. The interesting thing, I think, is you know, these are jurors in a trial, we keep saying. But we're starting to hear some public comments from them, and I think folks are reading into them potentially.
Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, considered one of the most independent Republicans in the U.S. Senate. She said publicly today, she used the word, offended. She said she was, "Offended by Jerry Nadler." Jerry Nadler, one of the House managers, and comments that Nadler made late on Tuesday night. What set her off there? Does it point to problems for Democrats in getting her to cross over?
Thorp: So this was the most interesting part of the entire debate over the organizing resolution yesterday. And it happened late at night when Jerry Nadler started speaking for the first time. He got heated.
Jerry Nadler: Will you permit us to present you with the entire record of the President's misconduct? Or will you instead choose to be complicit in the president's cover-up? So far, I'm sad to say, I see a lot of senators voting for a cover-up, voting to deny witnesses. And absolutely indefensible, though obviously a treacherous vote. Either you want the truth, and you must permit the witnesses, or you want a shameful cover-up.
Thorp: This is rhetoric that I think that we are probably used to seeing from both sides on MSNBC, for example. But that on the Senate floor, it's a little bit below the level of decorum in which is typically used on the Senate floor. And what we saw is a strong, some strong comments from the White House team as well in reaction to Nadler.
Defense Attorney: Mr. Nadler came up here and made false allegations against our team. He made false allegations against all of you. He accused you of a cover-up. He's been making false allegations against the president. The only one who should be embarrassed, Mr. Nadler, is you.
Thorp: And what happened was this, is a pretty stunning moment. We had the Chief Justice come up and just admonish both sides.
Chief Justice Roberts: I think it is appropriate at this point for me to admonish both the House managers and president's counsel in equal terms. To remember that they are addressing the world's greatest deliberative body. One reason it has earned that title is because its members avoid speaking in a manner, and using language that is not conducive to civil discourse.
Thorp: Just saying, hey guys, you need to tone it down. This rhetoric is unbecoming of the Senate. And Lisa Murkowski's reaction to that is telling in that, it shows that House Democrats need to watch how heated their rhetoric gets. It's easy for them, I think, to default to the way that they speak, you know, during interviews or you know, some of the heated conversations and debates that they had during the House impeachment inquiry. And so what the House managers run the risk of, if they start to get personal or their rhetoric gets too heated, is turning off some of those Moderate Republicans, like Lisa Murkowski, who they need on their side.
Kornacki: You know, Frank, so much discussion in this podcast, and so much discussion just around this Senate trial about the idea of whether there'll be surprises. We're talking about possible Republicans who might join with Democrats on one of these dramatics votes on John Bolton or something, maybe even conviction. That would come later.
For that matter, Democrats (LAUGHTER) breaking with their side, and voting with Republicans on anything. We didn't see any of that either. Is there a cynical reality here that the likelihood is that this is basically just gonna all be party line?
Thorp: It could be, I mean, but I think that, you know, it really depends on the way that the next, you know, ten days go. I mean, they have to hear these arguments from the House managers. They're gonna hear the arguments from the White House. You know, for the first time in like a concise way, and then they're gonna have time, 16 hours of Q and A, that they're gonna be able to submit written questions to both sides about, you know, to answer questions that they have.
And so, I mean, we could definitely see a party line vote. But we could also see some defections. I think that there are probably, you know, some of those Moderate Democrats, I mean, like somebody like a Joe Manchin, a Doug Jones, maybe Kyrsten Sinema. Like you know, there are some Democrats that would be open to the idea of maybe necessarily not voting for both articles of impeachment.
And then, I mean, you could also see that on the other side, with Republicans who could defect as well. Those party line votes happened in the organizing resolution debate on the first day, because these are all pre-trial decisions. Everybody had decided, at least Republicans had, that they were just gonna go along with that resolution. I think the votes later on in this trial are going to be way more unpredictable. I think that we're going to have to keep our ear to the ground as to what those moderates on both sides are saying about how the trial is going. And we could see some surprises. We could see some motions passed. We could see some witnesses or documents come forward that we haven't seen up until now.
Kornacki: Frank Thorp, NBC News producer on Capitol Hill, and expert on all things U.S. Senate. Frank, thank you again for joining us. Appreciate it.
Thorp: Thank you.
Kornacki: The House impeachment managers will continue their opening arguments tomorrow. They're expected to finish on Friday, and then on Saturday the White House defense team will begin its opening statement. 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 be back on Friday.