Transcript: Making History

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Making History.
Image: Women house managers
Democratic Reps. Val Demings of Florida, Zoe Lofgren of California, Sylvia Garcia of Texas and Val Demings of Florida.NBC News

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

Making History

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Friday, January 24th, and here's what's happening.

Val Demings: The fact that it is the president of the United States makin' these threats tells us something.

Kornacki: We've come to the end of opening arguments from the House impeachment managers, capping off a week of late night sessions in the Senate.

Demings: Senators, we cannot and we must not condone President Trump's attacks on whistleblowers and witnesses, people who truly have the ability to put our country first.

Kornacki: The 100 senators sitting in near silence are tired. Some may be a little bored. Many seem exhausted by the whole process.

Lamar Alexander: Eight or nine hours a day. We're going to hear the president's arguments, study the record. Then we'll see if we need more evidence at that point. I'll make my decisions after I hear all of that.

Archival Recording: Senators have said they want to hear all the evidence, but how can you hear all the evidence without hearing from new witnesses?

Thom Tillis: Oh, we've heard all the evidence that they said was overwhelming, and I'm underwhelmed.

Kornacki: But it's important not to forget that this is a historic moment in American politics. And one of my colleagues, Kasie Hunt, got the chance to sit down with three of those House managers.

Kasie Hunt: How does it feel to be in that role today?

Zoe Lofgren: I've been so focused on getting the job done, making sure that our arguments were well based in the facts--

Kornacki: Representatives Zoe Lofgren, Val Demings, and Sylvia Garcia made history on the Senate floor this week. They were the first women ever to act as prosecutors in a presidential impeachment trial. Today on Article II, an inside look at how they made their case. Kasie Hunt is a Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News and the host of Kasie DC on MSNBC. Kasie, welcome to the podcast.

Hunt: Thanks for having me, Steve. It's great to be here.

Kornacki: It is a great time to have you here. All of the action obviously has moved to the Senate. We've been watching the trial the last few days, gonna continue over the weekend into next week. And you actually had a chance to sit down with three of the seven Democratic impeachment managers: Val Demings, Zoe Lofgren, Sylvia Garcia. In fact, these are the first three women to serve as impeachment managers in a presidential impeachment trial. Take us through why they were chosen to play this role in the first place. Why did Pelosi choose them as managers?

Hunt: These three women (and as you say, they are the first three women to manage a case on behalf of a House against a sitting president), they were chosen because they have unique legal and law enforcement backgrounds. They also share some other qualities in common that I was surprised by.

Val Demings was a police officer, police chief in Orlando, Florida. And she was an officer. Actually, there are some great pictures of her with her police motorcycle. Sylvia Garcia was a judge in Texas. And Zoe Lofgren has actually worked on every single impeachment case actually in modern history. She obviously wasn't around for Andrew Johnson's impeachment, but she was a law student during the Nixon impeachment and worked as an intern before she then was a member of the House on the Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment trial as well.

So they also of course represent a certain amount of diversity. Val Demings, the first African American, along with Hakeem Jeffries, who's also on this team of managers, to represent the House on the floor. And Congresswoman Garcia is the first Latino or Latina I should say to manage a case on the floor as well. So it's a combination of that legal and law enforcement experience as well as the diversity they bring that helped Pelosi decide to choose them.

Kornacki: In this interview, you showed them a photograph of that team of managers from the Bill Clinton impeachment trial. The trial itself was 1999. Talk about that photo you showed them and their reaction to it.

Hunt: Yeah. And I know everybody's listening. But if you get a chance to go see the picture, it's striking. It's a black and white photograph.

Hunt (recording): So this is a photo of the impeachment managers in the last case. And I know, Congresswoman Lofgren, you were here for it.

Lofgren: Yep.

Hunt: You know, imagine the 1990s with the wide-lapelled suits, and the pleated front pants, and the larger kind of glasses. In this particular photograph, Lindsey Graham has a lot more hair and fewer wrinkles, and he's standing in the back left corner. He was one of the managers. The rest of them are all white men.

Hunt (recording): What's your reaction to seeing just how different it looks?

Lofgren: Well, a whole room of old white guys, who I serve with. Now, I'm for old white guys. My husband is one.

Hunt: She said that she thought it was progress to have a group of people that look like America and the way that America is changing.

Lofgren: I do think it's nice that we have really a group that looks like America, that's over there standing up for our Constitution. I'm so pleased to be serving with these two awesome women.

Hunt: You know, I grew up in the 1990s. So, you know, seeing images like that and then realizing that something similar is playing out in front of us today is remarkable.

Kornacki: You mentioned the various firsts that these three managers represent. What was your sense in talking to them? Is this something that's on their mind at all? Does it play into what they're doing in the Senate chamber in terms of prosecuting this case? How do they think about it?

Hunt: So when I asked them that question, they all said that they weren't focused on it. And in fact, Zoe Lofgren was the first of them to make a presentation in the course of all of this. And when she stepped away from the microphone, she said that somebody told her, "Hey, do you realize you're the first woman to have done that?" And she said, "Oh, you know, I didn't think about that until after it was already over." And that sentiment was echoed by the other women that I spoke to.

Sylvia Garcia: Like Zoe, I didn't know any of the history until someone came to me right after I made my remarks that first night and came and said, "You know, you're now the first Hispanic that's ever been on a case of impeachment for a president of the United States." So I keep trying to just focus on, you know, doing my best and keeping up the fight to make sure that we do have a democracy we can give to our children. I don't want to focus on any first.

Hunt: I don't think there's a person here who's involved in this process who doesn't realize the historic nature of it and ascribe importance to how it's being memorialized.

Demings: Particularly when you look at the history of this country, what it means to me as an African American and now to be on the Senate floor fighting for that and to be one of three women. And I love this group that we're with. It is just such an honor. And I don't take it lightly. I take it very seriously.

Kornacki: In the here and now though, the trial is going on. The Republicans, the Trump team gonna begin making their case this weekend. The Democrats wrapping up three days of opening arguments today. What was your sense of the overall strategy these Democratic impeachment managers had in laying out this opening case?

Hunt: Well, this has been a marathon three days, Steve. The hours that have been kept are much longer than a typical workday and certainly than a Senate workday, at least in terms of having to sit on the floor. I mean, if you think about they almost never have to sit on the floor and just listen for hours on end. And the Democrats decided that they were gonna take every single minute of that time. And that has I think had an effect on the senators as they've watched. It's felt very repetitive.

Adam Schiff: Of necessity, there will be some repetition of information from yesterday's chronology. We will now show you these facts and many others and how they are interwoven. You will see some of these facts and videos therefore in a new context, in a new light, in the light of what else we know and why it compels a finding of guilt and conviction. So there is some method to our madness.

Hunt: That's not to say that it's a bad strategy. You know, it's just we've kind of gotten the sense that perhaps it's a strategy as much for TV. Because if you think about the way many Americans are consuming this trial, not everyone is able to spend most of the day watching this kind of coverage. People have jobs and lives. So if they do tune into it for a little while, chances are that they're hearing a piece of the Democrats' main argument because it's been made over and over so many times.

Kornacki: That's really interesting. And you got into that question of strategy with these three managers in your interview. What was your sense from them? 'Cause you talked about the possibility here of two different audiences. There's the audience in the room, in the Senate chamber, the 100 members of the Senate and the idea of these managers trying to persuade a handful of Republicans to vote with the Democrats to allow witnesses and this sort of thing versus the television cameras and the audience of Americans at home and trying to appeal to the jury of the American public. Talking to these three managers, did you have a sense which of those audiences was more on their mind?

Hunt: I got the sense that first and foremost they were talking to the American public in their presentations. And they did know, of course, and the Senate chamber's very small. So physically when you're down in the well actually talking to the senators, I mean, you're making eye contact with them. They're a few feet from you. It is not as though you're up on a stage distantly far away speaking to an audience. So, you know, to a certain extent, you have to address the audience in front of you.

Demings: I'm talking to the senators because they have a very important decision to make. I hope, I would expect them to remember the first oath that they took and certainly the oath to do impartial justice.

Hunt: But I actually think there were some missteps early on around this, particularly that moment with Jerry Nadler. And after Nadler essentially accused the senators of being party to a cover-up, in the days since then, you've seen them adjust their strategy a little bit. The appeals are a little bit more personal.

Demings: We would not allow, no, I am convinced that we would not allow any member of our state or local governments to use the official powers of their office to cover up crimes and misdeeds. As this body is well aware, mayors and governors have gone to jail for doing so. If we allow President Trump to escape accountability, we will inflict lasting damage on the separation of powers among our branches of government.

Hunt: The tone seems to be ever so slightly softer towards the other people in the room. I think that the challenge for the House managers as this has gone on has been to balance those two goals because, you know, they do at the end of the day know that it's incredibly unlikely the president will be removed from office over this.

I mean, that takes far more votes than they have any hope of getting, a supermajority in the U.S. Senate. And that reality means the only way, you know, if they believe the arguments they're making, which is that the president should be thrown out of office, the only way to do that realistically is in November at the ballot box, which makes the American people the most important audience.

Kornacki: We're gonna take a quick pause. We'll be right back.

Kornacki: There's also the prospect though of Democrats not getting enough Republicans to side with them next week on this witness question that the trial basically wraps up very quickly from that point forward. When you look at that pool we identified at the very beginning of this of potential Republican defections, Democrats need four. Can you see four still who might switch?

Hunt: It's getting harder, Steve. And I would break these people down into groups that are a little bit different just from, you know, kind of covering them every day. There's three moderate Republicans for whom the title just is what it is and describes them well: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Mitt Romney of Utah.

There's two other groups I think are important. The next one is people I would describe as running scared. They are Republicans who are from swing states but who cannot afford to alienate a single Trump voter in the course of this process because alienating those Trump voters would be the surest and quickest way to political death, more dangerous than doing something that turns off suburban women, or independents, or, you know, quote/unquote "swing voters."

Cory Gardner from Colorado's in that category. Joni Ernst of Iowa is in that category. Thom Tillis, North Carolina, definitely in that category. Martha McSally of Arizona, same thing. The last group that I think's important is the institutionalists. And that's really the big question mark here.

And I think that's really where the witness question is gonna be decided or not. And the person that we most often look to in that group is Lamar Alexander, the Republican from Tennessee. He's been in the Senate for a very long time. He's very close with Mitch McConnell. He's kinda one of these old bull style senators that, you know, used to be kind of the way the place was. And now, that number of people has been dwindling dramatically. He's one of the last ones left.

He's retiring. He does not have any, you know, political rationale for the way that he might vote. Cares a lot about the institution itself and its prerogatives. And he is somebody who also has the ear of a number of other senators who perhaps want to keep their heads lowered through this process but who, you know, for whatever reason have doubts about the president. The idea of seeing, you know, Democrats win just four senators over and it being enough for them to open the slate to call witnesses just doesn't seem like a realistic possibility to me at this writing.

Kornacki: We talk all the time about Democrats trying to persuade these Republicans to join with them on witnesses, join with them on other questions, and, "Here's how they're trying to do it." What a Republican like McConnell can appeal to among Republicans in terms of how they feel Democrats have handled the last three years, the Trump era. There is a lot of resentment there that McConnell can tap into to unite Republicans. Is that right?

Hunt: I think that's right. I mean, and, you know, McConnell does know and understand, you know, the factions inside his conference. And he is not necessarily somebody who feels the need to be loved the way some politicians like to be loved. You know, like Bill Clinton really appreciated that part of being in politics.

The Senate for many, many years has been and, you know, for better or for worse, you can criticize. Just because it's different doesn't necessarily mean it's better or worse. But it used to be a place where, you know, your party label mattered a little bit less, your seniority and lifetime of service in the institution meant a little bit more.

Now, instead of the leaders of the parties in the Senate being, you know, venerated longtime members of the club, they are two former campaign committee chairmen who love and thrive on winning and getting their people elected. And that's just a different way of looking at the world. And it means that it's much more tribal and much less, you know, focused on the strength of relationships, longevity, seniority, things that perhaps may temper those partisan impulses.

Kornacki: It's that evolution, I know, that those Senate institutionalists, either party, have for years been saying they fear the idea that the Senate just turns into the House but with six-year terms.

Hunt: Yeah, no. It's true. And I first started covering Capitol Hill 15 years ago. And when I first got here, you know, you couldn't walk down a hallway without bumping into somebody who had decades of experience, probably a national profile and, you know, a deep set of relationships with senators on both sides of the aisle. You know, Ted Kennedy, John Warner, John McCain.

And, you know, since then, frankly the character and the face of the institution is just completely different. And, you know, we're missing a lot of those kind of voices of strength that could come from someplace other than the expected, you know, heads of each political party.

Kornacki: Let me close with a much bigger picture question here. You know, we began the conversation talking about that word "historic." It's the third impeachment trial of a president in history. All of the first involved here. When you talked to these impeachment managers, did you get a sense from them at all that history is on their mind, that, hey, 100 years from now people will be looking back on this trial, this is something that will be remembered long term?

Hunt: I did. Yeah. And I think from their perspective, I want to kind of report on what they're feeling and saying and not putting my words in their mouths. But the way they frame their role and what they believe about this president means that they are looking at this in terms of doing it for history, of making the historical point that, you know, even if it doesn't actually lead to the removal of this president from office, that what he has done is so bad in their view that they were under a moral obligation to do everything they could to remove him.

Garcia: We gotta make sure that no other president does this because we've gotta make sure that the public knows that when we say that we stand for the rule of law, that it is about that and that nobody is above the rule of law.

Hunt: You know, that's the way you started to hear members of the House talk about impeaching the president. And, you know, I think for the women who have come and are playing historic roles in this trial, you know, that is clearly weighing heavily on their mind. They talked a lot about their children, grandchildren and the future of the country, and the importance that this plays in that, regardless of the outcome.

Kornacki: Kasie Hunt, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News and the host of Kasie DC on MSNBC. Kasie, thanks a ton for being with us.

Hunt: Thanks so much, Steve.

Kornacki: You can watch Kasie's complete interview with the women making history as impeachment managers. It's gonna air on MSNBC this Sunday night starting at 7:00 p.m. Eastern on Kasie DC. Tomorrow, the White House defense team gets their chance to argue for the president's acquittal.

It's looking like Saturday will be a shorter day, perhaps with just two hours of arguments. News of this schedule comes after a series of tweets from President Trump, who expressed anger that his lawyers would have to defend him on the weekend, when television ratings are lower. The defense team will also likely take Monday and Tuesday to round out their case.

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 Monday.