Transcript: Q & A

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Q & A.
Politicians on the Senate floor during Trump's trial on Jan 21, 2020.
Politicians on the Senate floor during Trump's trial on Jan 21, 2020.Senate TV

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

Q & A

Marsha Blackburn: Thank you Mr. Chief Justice. I send a question to the desk.

Chuck Schumer: Mr. Chief Justice, I send a question to the desk.

Jeanne Shaheen: Mr. Chief Justice, I send a question to the desk.

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, January 29th, and we've entered the next phase of the impeachment trial. This is the phase where the senators submit written questions to the prosecution and the defense. Chief Justice John Roberts reads those questions.

Chief Justice John Roberts: Would you please respond to the arguments or assertions the house managers just made in response to the previous question? (LAUGHTER)

Kornacki: And it's the job of the house managers and the president's defense team to answer those questions.

Adam Schiff: The short answer to that question is, no.

Kornacki: This is all happening as the Senate gears up for a highly anticipated vote on whether to call witnesses, most notably, former National Security Advisor, John Bolton. So today on Article II, did this first round of Q&A move the needle at all on the question of witnesses and on whether to acquit or convict the president? Leigh Ann Caldwell is an NBC News correspondent covering Congress, and she joins us now from the center of all activity right now in Washington, Capitol Hill. Leigh Ann, thanks for joining us.

Leigh Ann Caldwell: Thanks for having me.

Kornacki: Okay, new phase of the Senate trial has begun. The senators have listened to these days' long opening presentations from each side, and now the senators get to speak, or, well, not really speak. But they're being heard from here. Describe this process exactly, how this is working, this question period.

Caldwell: Sure Steve. So yeah, Republicans and Democrats, they finally get to voice their opinion in some way in this entire process, rather than having just to sit there. But they still can't really speak. So what they're doing, it's 16 hours probably divided over two days, eight hours each day, where they get to ask questions of the White House defense team and the house managers, the prosecutors.

But they don't get to ask these questions. They have to write these questions on a card that has been given to them. It's a very uniform card where they put their name, and they write down the question. Then a Senate page, who is someone in high school who is here for an internship will come and get their card from their desk, and walk it to the Senate parliamentarian, who then hands that card to the Chief Justice, John Roberts. And then John Roberts, he's the one who reads the question for the senators. He does note which senator asked the question, and then he also says who the question is directed to, to the White House defense team, or the house managers.

Kornacki: Is there communication going on among the senators in the chamber at all? Are they passing notes to each other? Are they talking? Are they coordinating?

Caldwell: They are coordinating actually. They're supposed to not talk. They're supposed to be relatively quiet, but inside the chamber, they are talking. They're trying to coordinate questions. They're writing notes to each other. And they're really conferring on what sort of questions they should ask. For example, I saw Senator Graham lean forward to talk to Senator Cory Gardner, who sits directly in front of him. He handed him his question card.

Gardner read the question card, nodded, handed it back to Graham, and then Graham kind of nodded and put it back on his desk. And so, you know, senators are strategizing here. And they're talking about this, and they want to get their points across. They are in fact communicating very quietly though in the Senate chamber as this is going on.

Kornacki: Now that kind of relates to a question we got from one of our listeners. We're always asking folks, if you've got a question about the process, get in touch with us. Lindsey (PH) from Budapest, Hungary, not the first international questioner we've gotten. But Lindsey (PH) from Budapest, Hungary asks, "How are the questions being chosen?" Gets to this issue of, is there a strategy on the Republican side, a strategy on the Democratic side, in terms of sequencing these questions, in terms of topics that each side wants to raise? How much coordination is going on at that level?

Caldwell: So it's interesting. It seems to be different from Republicans and Democrats. These Democrats' leaders' office asked for the senators to submit their questions so that they could go through them and make sure that there wasn't too much duplication. And so that they can make sure that they also had all their points across.

On the Republican side, it seemed a little less coordinated. Senators were talking amongst each other. Individual senators were talking with the leaders to try to figure out what questions other senators were asking. While there is some strategizing going on, it's still a bit of a chess game as well, because things change. They might hear a question from the Democratic side and want to respond to that question.

Or if they were planning to ask a question about John Bolton or Joe Biden, for example, but then a question about abuse of power comes up, then the other side might want to respond to that more immediately. And so, while there seems to be an overall general strategy, each senator has their own priorities and their own agenda. And plus, they have to respond to what's actually happening in real-time. So the plan does go out the window very quickly.

Kornacki: Yeah, so let's get to some of the questions that were asked, and the identities of some of the senators asking these questions. Because I think that's caused some speculation, some commentary today. The very first question outta the gate.

Susan Collins: I send a question to the desk.

Kornacki: It goes to the Republicans first, and it comes from three Republican senators. Susan Collins.

Collins: On behalf of myself, Senator Murkowski, and Senator Romney.

Kornacki: Leigh Ann, obviously, those three senators are the three that are most prominently discussed when it comes to potential Republicans who might vote for witnesses, who might vote for John Bolton, who might even vote to convict the president. All that speculation has been out there. The fact that the three of them banded together to ask the first question, what's the significance of that? Are folks reading anything into that? Was there a strategy at work there?

Caldwell: It's significant for a variety of reasons. The first is, it shows that Romney, Murkowki, and Collins are talking with each other. You know, they've all said that they're having many conversations with their colleagues. But this was proof that the three of them are in close contact with each other.

They're kind of on an island out here in the Republican Party on the Senate. So it was significant that they banded together to ask a question. But it's also significant that they asked the first question. It was a public offering to these three that their opinions matter. And that was a nod from McConnell, if only symbolic, but it was there.

Kornacki: And to the question that they asked, it was asked of the president's defense team.

Roberts: This is a question for the counsel for the president. If President Trump had more than one motive for his alleged conduct, such as the pursuit of personal political advantage, rooting out corruption, and the promotion of national interests, how should the Senate consider more than one motive in its assessment of Article I?

Kornacki: What was the White House team's response to that question?

Caldwell: One of the attorneys, Philbin, he said that the motive was of public interest. Perhaps there was some personal interest too, but there was also public interest there. And because there were these competing motives or complimentary motives possibly, that it's not impeachable. So the White House is arguing that it was complicated.

Patrick Philbin: Because it would be absurd to have the Senate trying to consider, well, was it 48% legitimate interest and 52% personal interest? Or was it the other way? Was it 53% and 47%? You can't divide it that way. And think about it. All elected officials to some extent have in mind how their conduct, how their decisions, their policy decisions will affect the next election. There's always some personal interest in the electoral outcome of policy decisions. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Caldwell: It was an acknowledgement and a nod that the president is not perfect, but that he really does have the interests of the country at heart. And because there is competing motives, you can't cancel each other out. It's too murky to impeach a president over this is what Philbin's point was.

Kornacki: That was what the Republicans led with. Now let's talk about the Democrats. They got their first crack at this question round. And their first question was about John Bolton.

Roberts: The Democratic leader asks, "Is there any way for the Senate to render a fully informed verdict in this case, without hearing the testimony of Bolton, Mulvaney, and the other key eye witnesses, or without seeing the relevant documentary evidence?"

Kornacki: So Leigh Ann, obviously, John Bolton's name has been all over the news this past week. This is, Democrats are desperately trying to find a way to get him brought in as a witness in this Senate trial. Is that the basic strategy you're seeing here? Bring him up as soon as they get the chance to try to keep the pressure on?

Caldwell: Absolutely. And also because the White House defense team barely mentioned Bolton in their three days of defense of the president. They alluded to him. His name came up a couple times, but Bolton has been front and center in this trial the entire time.

Even before the explosive New York Times story that broke earlier this week, Democrats have been making adding more witnesses to the trial a necessity. And so when the Democrats asked the House impeachment managers if it's necessary to have John Bolton, Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, he said, "The short answer is, yes." It's imperative that Bolton comes.

Adam Schiff: There's no way to have a fair trial without witnesses. And when you have a witness who is as plainly relevant as John Bolton, who goes to the heart of the most serious and egregious of the president's misconduct, who has volunteered to come and testify, to turn him away, to look the other way I think is deeply at odds with being an impartial juror.

Caldwell: He then played a tape of his opponents, the White House defense team.

Adam Schiff: Last video, which is even more important and on point for Mr. Bolton.

Archival Recording: And once again, not a single witness in the House record that they compiled and developed under their procedures that we've discussed and will continue to discuss provided any firsthand evidence that the president ever linked the presidential meeting to any investigations.

Caldwell: But Schiff says, there are people who said it.

Schiff: (IN PROGRESS) --know that's not correct, right? Because, of course, Mick Mulvaney said that, the money was linked to these investigations. Gordon Sondland also said, the president said on the one hand, no quid pro quo, but also made it clear that Zelensky had to go to the mic and announce these investigations.

Caldwell: Democrats wanted to drive home the point that Bolton says he has direct evidence, and that he needs to be a part of this trial, Steve.

Kornacki: We're gonna take a quick break here. But Leigh Ann, sit tight. We'll be right back. So about an hour into the question session today, there was a group of Republicans who put a question forward. They addressed it to both sides, to both the managers and to the president's defense team. It was about the role of executive privilege. It's a topic a lot of our listeners actually have been asking about.

Roberts: The senators ask, "Why did the House of Representatives not challenge President Trump's claims of executive privilege and/or immunity during the House impeachment proceedings?" We'll begin with the House managers.

Kornacki: The question about executive privilege being asked of both sides, what do you make of that?

Caldwell: Well, I thought it was an interesting tactic to ask both sides. And actually, I think that it was a very fair way to address it, because the strategy we've been seeing so far is that the Democrats are asking their side, the impeachment managers questions. And the Republicans are asking the White House defense team questions. And it's not really to seek answers, but really to prove points.

So the fact that when there's a group of Republican senators who asked both sides was a rare and I think effective tactic, especially on this issue of executive privilege. It has been so central to this entire case. One of the main arguments against calling for more witnesses is that the president will cite executive privilege. And so then it will be hung up in the courts, and it'll prolong the trial. And then it could take months for this to conclude.

The Democratic response, Hakeem Jeffries, one of the impeachment managers, he said, they didn't challenge executive privilege in the House investigation, because they never raised the question of executive privilege. And so they didn't think that it was something to address.

Hakeem Jeffries: What the president did raise was this notion of blanket defiance. This notion that the executive branch directed by the president could completely defy any and all subpoenas issued by the House of Representatives.

Caldwell: The defense team, again Philbin, he says, it wasn't blanket defiance. In fact, it's just that the House Democrats were in too much of a hurry.

Philbin: One of the House managers said on the floor here, they had no time for courts. They had to impeach the president before the election.

Caldwell: They're saying that they wanted to impeach the president before Christmas, and so they didn't want to wait for this to play out in the courts.

Kornacki: You mentioned this earlier. There was that interesting dynamic when you see these questions coming from each side of the aisle. It did seem like a lot of the questions coming from Democrats were addressed to the prosecutors. And they seemed less expressions of curiosity on the part of the senators, and more attempts to make a point. And you certainly saw that from the Republican side as well, often with questions addressed to the president's defense team. With that in mind, let's start with the Republican side. What were the main arguments they were trying to advance?

Caldwell: Well, one thing that is getting a lot of attention is from one of the president's attorneys, and that is Alan Dershowitz. He's only spoken for a couple hours total in this trial, but what he has said has been some of the most explosive things that have come up from this trial. And today, he said that, the president wanting to get reelected is in fact important to the national interest.

Alan Dershowitz: Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest. And if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.

Kornacki: And so, if he wanted an investigation to help him win the next election, well, the person in office, the president, thinks that that is for the good of the country. And so he made this argument that, the president's personal interest is also the same as the national interest. And that does not rise to a level of an impeachable offense.

Dershowitz: But for it to be impeachable, you would have to discern that he or she made a decision solely on the basis of, as the House managers put it, corrupt motives. And it cannot be a corrupt motive, if you have a mixed motive that partially involves the national interest, partially involves electoral, and does not involve personal pecuniary interest.

Caldwell: And so that was a really explosive claim that is getting a lot of attention. You know, as we talked to senators over the next, you know, hours and couple days, it'll be fascinating to see if Republicans buy into that. Because what Democrats say is, that just alters, you know, the Democratic process and how our system works.

Kornacki: In terms of the arguments taking shape from the Democratic questions, what was the major thrust of that?

Caldwell: That the White House defense team's case is shoddy and incomplete. We heard from representative Zoe Lofgren.

Zoe Lofgren: We believe that the president's team has claimed basically there were six facts that have not been met and will not change. And all six of those so-called facts are incorrect. Let's be clear, on July 25th, that's not the whole evidence.

Caldwell: Lofgren is saying that, it's not just about one phone call, but it's the totality of everything that they've heard.

Lofgren: But we had evidence of information before the meetings with Mr. Bolton, the text message to Mr. Zelinskiy's people telling him he had to do the investigations to get what he wanted. All of this evidence that makes us understand that phone call even more clearly.

Kornacki: And the drama that's sort of hanging over all of this, Leigh Ann, is what's coming when this question period ends. And that's that vote on whether there's going to be witnesses. And again, we keep saying this, Democrats would need all of their members to stay together, and they would need four Republicans to cross over and join them in voting for witnesses. Do you have any sense right now where the math in the Senate stands?

Caldwell: Yeah, so it's looking pretty good for the president and Mitch McConnell who wants a speedy end to this trial, Steve. I don't think that all the senators are nailed down on how they're going to vote yet. There are still a lot of people who are saying that they're undecided.

But we've heard from some critical senators today who have made up their minds, including, you know, Senator Pat Toomey, who earlier this week said that he was interested in more witnesses. And he didn't only maybe want Bolton, but Hunter Biden as well. He was talking about a witness swap. He came out today saying that, you know, he's very, very skeptical.

Senator Pat Toomey: Very, very skeptical that there's any witness that's going to shed any light that's gonna cause me to change my view on what the final outcome of this trial outta be.

Reporter: Sir, does that mean you're voting against moving for witnesses?

Toomey: So as I say, I remain very, very skeptical that there's any witness that's going to--

Caldwell: And then we heard from Senator Cory Gardner. Well, he told his hometown paper out in Colorado that he doesn't want more witnesses. And that is huge, Steve. He is one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in 2020. That was a huge blow to the supporters of witnesses.

And I was talking to, you know, a senator who doesn't want this trial to be extended. He told me on background that leadership feels very, very good about where they are. They might not have the votes now, just because there are some that are undecided. But it's looking like they're getting very, very close, Steve.

Kornacki: That does sound like a very big development with Cory Gardner. There's no Republican senator running in 2020 in a state that Trump did worse in than Gardner in Colorado. So yeah, that seems extremely significant. Leigh Ann Caldwell, NBC News correspondent covering Congress, thanks so much. This was great.

Caldwell: Great. Thank you, Steve.

Kornacki: Day two of questions continues tomorrow. And on Friday, we're expecting that vote from senators on witnesses. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Today we had help from Bryson Barnes. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Friday.