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Trump impeachment trial live coverage: The president's defense delivers closing arguments

After the arguments phase of the trial, senators will turn to questioning the Democratic House managers and Trump's lawyers.
Image: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House voted to send impeachment articles against President Donald Trump to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell officially received the House managers on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House voted to send impeachment articles against President Donald Trump to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell officially received the House managers on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

President Donald Trump's lawyers on Tuesday wrapped up their final day of arguments in his impeachment trial, calling the charges against him unfounded and politically motivated.

After previewing their case in a short session on Saturday, Trump’s legal team doubled down on Monday, insisting there was nothing improper about his dealings with Ukraine's government and casting blame on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

The president's defense largely avoided direct mention of a bombshell report involving John Bolton.

Highlights from the impeachment trial

McConnell concludes Tuesday's trial by laying out Q&A rules

The White House defense team used just under 10 hours to give their defense.

McConnell then said that a deal has been made on the Q+A period of the trial, which will include:

  • WEDNESDAY: At 1 p.m, 8 hours alternating between majority and minority sides.
  • THURSDAY: Up to 8 hours alternating between sides for up to eight hours.
  • Chief Justice Roberts said he will go with the 1999 precedent of giving 5 minutes per response.

Schiff rejects Sekulow claim that Bolton allegations are irrelevant

Schiff, responding to an argument Sekulow made that Bolton's claims about Trump and Ukraine are inadmissible, said, "Once again, the president’s team, in only a way they could, have further made the case for calling John Bolton."

Earlier Tuesday, Sekulow dismissed Bolton's claim that Trump had admitted to tying Ukraine aid to the Biden investigation, an assertion made in an unpublished manuscript by Bolton as reported by The New York Times on Sunday, saying the claims were inadmissible at trial.

"Are you going to allow proceedings on impeachment to go from a New York Times report about someone that says what they hear is in a manuscript?" Sekulow said. "Is that where we are? I don't think so. I hope not."

Schiff also responded to Sekulow's argument that the issues surrounding Ukraine are merely due to a policy disagreement.

"I suppose that’s the difference: Americans don’t believe as a matter of policy the president should be able to behave as corruptly as he chooses," Schiff said.

He added that "there’s a subtext here which is essentially the president’s defense team saying, yes, he’s guilty, we know he’s guilty, and we have to fall back on the fallback of all time, which is, 'So what?'"

GOP Sen. Braun on Trump's conduct: 'We knew what we were getting'

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., during a brief break in the trial, said of Trump's behavior: Well, this is what we signed up for.

"I've been a Trump supporter for the agenda," Braun, who was elected in 2018, told NBC News. "I've come here to work on health care, I was one of the first guys to join the Climate Caucus. I think it's a big deal."

"When it comes to the president's behavior and style, we knew what we were getting here," he added, saying Trump was elected to shake up the establishment.

It's an interesting argument to make as the president faces impeachment over his behavior, pushing Ukraine to probe the Bidens and Democrats as he withheld aid and an official White House visit to the country's president. Democrats alleged he abused his power and obstructed Congress' investigation.

Cipollone delivers last defense presentation: 'I think we’ve made our case'

White House counsel Pat Cipollone began the last presentation of the Trump defense team by telling senators, “I think we’ve made our case.”

“All you need in this case is the Constitution and your common sense,” Cipollone said. 

“You know what the right answer is in your heart. You know what the right answer is for your country. You know what the right answer is for the American people,” he added.

Cipollone, whose presentation lasted only about 10 minutes, then played a video of several members of the House who spoke during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 — including Rep. Jerry Nadler and then-Rep. Chuck Schumer, both New York Democrats. 

Cipollone then wrapped up his remarks.

"This should end now, as quickly as possible," he said. 

OPINION: Trump's impeachment trial defense hinges on six arguments. They can all be rebutted.

President Donald Trump’s lawyers began their impeachment arguments on Saturday with what football fans might call a “prevent” defense. Under that strategy, a team with a lead late in the game plays cautiously to avoid giving up a big play.

And now we know why.

Trump’s defense team is now offering its closing arguments. Over the course of the past few days, the group has offered six predictable defenses, each of which can be rebutted. It now appears that their goal was to simply provide Republican Senators with sufficient talking points and avoid changing anyone’s mind.

But on Sunday, that strategy appeared to backfire when it was reported that former national security adviser John Bolton’s upcoming book contradicts at least one of Trump’s defenses. By avoiding witness testimony that could have been high risk or high reward rather than addressing those facts head-on at his trial, Trump is now seeing the facts trickle out in other forums where it is difficult to control.

Read the opinion piece.

More on the view from the White House ...

Dershowitz and Trump spoke today

Alan Dershowitz tells NBC News that Trump called him this morning and they had a long talk. Without getting into specifics, he indicated the president was pleased with his presentation. Dershowitz himself thought things went okay yesterday but emphasized the Middle East peace plan announcement (the reason why he was at the White House today) was more a priority.

View from the West Wing

There’s less confidence than before the Bolton book revelations that this trial will end this week; a senior administration official still thinks there’s a “strong chance” it happens but acknowledges everyone is watching for the Senate Q&A to determine more.

On the upcoming Senate Q&A

A source close to the defense team says preparations are happening for a “variety of questions” from Democrat side that they think will be “largely predictable,” but acknowledges those questions could still contain curveballs, so lawyers want to prep to make sure they can address them factually. The source says that on the Republican side, the questions will likely aim to provide greater clarity on “areas of interest” that senators have talked about privately.

John Kelly on Bolton 

An administration official aimed to downplay the comments made by John Kelly about John Bolton, telling NBC News: “We don’t even know exactly what Bolton said. John Kelly doesn’t know what Bolton said.” More on that here.

 

What's next for the trial

As the defense makes its way through closing arguments, senators and observers are preparing for the next phase of the trial: the question and answer portion.

After speaking to aides and looking at historical precedent, here’s what we are currently expecting:

  • The organizing resolution allows for 16 hours of Q+A. That’s not specified to be equally divided, but we expect the questions to alternate between parties.
  • The questions must be written and are delivered, one-by-one, from either McConnell or Schumer on a piece of paper (via a clerk) to the Chief Justice at the dais.
  • The Chief Justice will then read the names of the senator or senators offering the question, the specific trial team to which the question is directed, and then the question itself.
  • In 1999, the person answering the question had 5 minutes to respond, and each question was to be directed to only one side.
  • If one side runs out of questions, then the other party with questions keeps going.
  • Hypothetically, if both sides come to the conclusion that they no longer have questions before the 16 hours has concluded then they could agree to conclude early.
  • There’s no specification of how many days this will take. In 1999, it was done over three days, but that third day also included a debate and vote on the second organizing resolution to establish witness depositions.
  • There is no rebuttal baked-in to the rules, but the 1999 trial allowed for some responses. 
  • There can be bipartisan questions. In fact, in 1999 Sen. Susan Collins was part of the only bipartisan question submitted as a part of that trial.

Senate Democrats were asked to submit their questions to Schumer’s office by midnight on Friday (that doesn’t preclude new questions from being introduced after Friday, though.)

Senators are not expected to begin the Q&A portion on Tuesday.

Klobuchar flying to Iowa campaign event between impeachment sessions

Dershowitz responds to Warren criticism

Sekulow compares impeaching Trump over request for Biden probe to limiting free speech

Sekulow compared impeaching Trump over asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens to the limiting of free speech on college campuses.

"Do we have like a Biden-free zone? Was that what this was?" Sekulow said. "That it was — it's a — you mention someone or you're concerned about a company and it's now off-limits? You can impeach a president of the United States for asking the question?"

Trump asked Ukraine to probe the Bidens and Democrats as he withheld Ukrainian aid and an official White House visit with Zelenskiy. 

Meanwhile, Sekulow said the impeachment amounted to a "policy difference" and "disagreement" with Trump withholding the aid.

The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan government watchdog, assessed that Trump violated the Impoundment Control Act through his administration's monthslong withholding of the aid.

Romney's vice, and other things senators are doing during closing arguments

As Tuesday’s session got underway, a number of senators were tardy getting to their seats. Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas, Tim Scott of South Carolina and a handful of other Republicans trickled in late. 

One person who was seated and ready: Mitt Romney of Utah. He was drinking a glass of chocolate milk, the first senator I’ve seen do so. Students of Romney may know this is his only vice.

Among those appearing especially engaged in their note-taking duties on the final day of defense arguments: Collins, Murkowski, Cassidy and Toomey.

Lamar Alexander was reading and editing something — it wasn't one of the impeachment handouts or other documents the lawyers occasionally pass around. Lindsey Graham was largely absent. 

On the Democratic side, most senators appeared engaged, although Sanders seemed somewhat less so as the defense's arguments continued. 

Sekulow hammers on the significance of removing a sitting president

Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow, delivering the second of three presentations Tuesday by the president’s legal team, seemed to appeal to Republican senators with a political argument, not a legal one.

Sekulow, raising his voice and pointing his finger,  hammered on the fact that senators were being asked to convict and remove a president — and in an election year.

"I want to focus today, on my section, on what you're being asked to do. You are being asked to remove a duly-elected president of the United States and you're being asked to do it in an election year,” Sekulow said. “In an election year,” he repeated.

Sekulow even mentioned the Democratic senators running for president “in this chamber right now that would rather be someplace else.” 

“Why would you rather be someplace else? Because you're running for president, the nomination of your party. I get it,” he said.

ANALYSIS: Philbin acknowledges limits on Trump’s power

One of the key arguments of the president’s defense has been that it’s the president, not his aides, who set foreign policy. Patrick Philbin made that case on the Senate floor to contend it’s impossible for the president to execute foreign policy that is counter to that of the United States simply because he overrules what Cabinet secretaries and national security officials say is in America’s interests.

That is “fundamentally anti-constitutional,” Philbin said. And he’s right about that. The president is elected, and his assistants, no matter how high their rank are not. 

But Philbin had just acknowledged a truth about policy-making that is equally important and which speaks directly to the view of administration officials that releasing funds to Ukraine was in American interests. 

Philbin noted that the laws passed by Congress limit the president’s power and he sets policies “within those constraints.” One of the laws passed by Congress was a spending measure directing the president to provide aid to Ukraine on a specific timetable. Administration officials urged him to act consistent with that law, which he signed, rather than outside its constraints. The Government Accountability Office has found that the administration violated the law in withholding the funds.

'You did a good job on her': Trump praises Pompeo for confrontation with NPR reporter

President Donald Trump took a moment from presenting his plan for peace in the Middle East on Tuesday to praise his secretary of state — for blasting an NPR reporter.

"That reporter couldn't have done too good a job on you yesterday. I think you did a good job on her, actually," Trump told a chuckling Mike Pompeo during his speech at the White House alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Trump was referring to an interview Pompeo did with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly last week, which the he cut off after she pressed him on why he has never publicly defended former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

After Pompeo abruptly ended the interview, an aide called Kelly back to Pompeo's private living room where the correspondent said he "shouted" and "used the F word."

Read the full story.

Defense's closing arguments to wrap up before 'dinner time'

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said they expect Tuesday’s session to be “several hours” with probably one quick break in the middle.

Deputy White House counsel Pat Philbin started opening arguments and Jay Sekulow will be next, followed by a break, and then White House counsel Pat Cipollone will wrap up arguments, Cipollone said.

"Our goal is to be finished by dinner time and well before," he said.

Romney spotted with a new beverage: chocolate milk

'You can't predict him': Lamar Alexander key in vote for witnesses at Senate trial

His political hero is former Sen. Howard Baker, the Republican Tennessee lawmaker remembered for his impartiality during the Watergate impeachment hearings.

Now, all eyes are on Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., as he could be a pivotal vote on whether there are witnesses in President Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial.

Alexander hasn't tipped his hand and no one is totally sure of which way he'll go.

'You can't predict him," Tom Ingram, Alexander's former chief of staff, told NBC News. "He will hold his counsel, make his own decision and you won’t be sure of it until he makes it known in due course."

Alexander, who is retiring at the end of this term and has a history of working with Democrats on major issues, has been zeroed in on along with GOP Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski as the top targets for Democrats hoping to have witness testimony and documentary evidence at the Senate trial.

Read the full story.

Ex-White House chief of staff John Kelly: 'I believe John Bolton'

John Kelly, the retired Marine general who served as Trump's chief of staff for 18 months, said Monday that he believes the reported allegations made by Bolton in an upcoming book.

"If John Bolton says that in the book, I believe John Bolton,” Kelly said at a lecture series appearance in Sarasota, Fla..

Kelly added, "John’s an honest guy. He’s a man of integrity and great character, so we’ll see what happens,” according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The former White House chief of staff said "the majority of Americans would like to hear the whole story," adding, "I think if there are people that could contribute to this, either innocence or guilt ... I think they should be heard.”

Bolton reportedly claims in the upcoming book that Trump linked Ukrainian aid with the investigations he sought into the Bidens in an August conversation with his former national security adviser. Trump denies having done so.

Senate GOP to meet Tuesday on calling witnesses

Senate Republicans are expected to meet after the impeachment trial adjourns Tuesday afternoon to discuss whether to call witnesses, four GOP aides told NBC News.

The meeting is for “starting to check the conference on witnesses,” a GOP leadership aide said. Other topics likely will be discussed as well.

The Senate Republican Conference's conversations on witnesses are taking on a new sense of urgency with Trump's defense team's arguments set to conclude Tuesday and the question-and-answer phase expected to start Wednesday. 

Once the 16 hours of senators' questions of the House managers and Trump's lawyers are finished (likely taking two days), there will be up to four hours of debate on whether to consider subpoenas for witnesses.

Read the full story.

Schiff rips Starr, Dershowitz, says defense wants to sweep Bolton testimony 'under the rug'

Lead House manager Adam Schiff ripped into Trump's defense team Tuesday morning, saying they are afraid to let John Bolton testify because "he would tell, in a captivating way that the public would watch, the most pernicious part of the president's scheme — the withholding of hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to an ally at war in order to coerce these sham investigations.

"They don't want the country to hear it," he continued. "They just want to sweep  it under the rug."

Appearing on appeared on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," Schiff singled out arguments about Rudy Giuliani, who was central to the Ukraine saga, and those presented by Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz.

"It's hard to know where to begin with the arguments that Giuliani is just a bit player here, even though, of course, the president brought up Rudy Giuliani, I think, more than anyone else in that phone call with Zelenskiy. It was 'talk to Rudy,'" Schiff said. The argument presented by Trump lawyer Pam Bondi that Giuliani is "merely a distraction" wasn't "the least bit credible," he added.

On Starr and Dershowitz, Schiff said, "I was leaning over to my staff counsel and basically saying, 'This is the same Ken Starr that we're talking about, right? This is the same Ken Starr?' And then you've got the debate between 60-year-old Alan Dershowitz and 81-year-old Alan Dershowitz. You know, the weight of their own legal team doesn't believe their legal constitutional theory."

"But I think, at the end of the day, it all boils down to this: You know, they're reading between the lines of their defense," Schiff continued. "It's  basically, 'Yeah, he did it, we know he did it, the president knows he did it. We just don't want the American people to see any more evidence that he did it.' 

Romney: Each side choosing witnesses 'has some merit'

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Tuesday that the idea of Democratic House managers and Trump's defense team each choosing one or more witnesses "has merit."

When asked by NBC News' Peter Alexander whether he is confident at least three other Republican senators would support hearing from witnesses, Romney said, "I don’t think they’re all settled, as a group or as individuals, as to exactly how they’re going to vote. But I’d like to hear from John Bolton, and I think the idea that’s been expressed in the media about having each side be able to choose a witness, or maybe more than one witness on a prepared basis, has some merit."

Romney added, "I think if you’re going to have one side call witnesses, the other side ought to be able to do the same."

Asked what will happen if Democrats don't go along with the idea, he said, "If you don’t have 51 votes, nothing happens."

Schumer: 'Steady drip, drip, drip' of info against Trump 'further implicates' him

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted Tuesday that the longer President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial goes on, “the more likely that more new evidence will come out that further implicates the president.”

Schumer said there had been a “steady drip, drip, drip of information” with “one explosive article after another coming out” — most recently The New York Times’ reporting on “several stunning chapters from (former national security adviser John) Bolton’s book.”

The minority leader said the steady stream of additional facts pertinent to the charges against Trump was “reminiscent of Watergate.”

Schumer also dismissed calls by Republican senators for testimony from Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden during the trial.

“What can Hunter Biden tell us about the president’s conduct with Ukraine?” Schumer asked, or about Trump’s “obstruction of Congress,” he added.

“Nothing obviously,” he said.

Graham supports making Bolton's manuscript available to senators

What to expect from Trump's defense team Tuesday

It wouldn't be surprising to see extended wrap-up arguments from White House counsel Pat Cipollone and lawyer Jay Sekulow on Tuesday. (Note that by now, we’ve seen every attorney from the president’s legal team present at least once: Pam Bondi, Cipollone, Alan Dershowitz, Eric Herschmann, Jane Raskin, Robert Ray, Sekulow and Ken Starr.) Remember, Sekulow has repeatedly pledged to be “efficient” in the team’s presentations.

Timing-wise: A Republican close to the legal team told NBC News, “Bolton news makes those who wanted to vote for witnesses a lot less resolved. It makes the task for the Trump defense team more important to keep this moving quickly and be done this week.” The source also said the Bolton reporting "has sucked a lot of energy out of the room. They are having to build that back with a compelling case.”

Plus: A person close to Bolton told NBC News that a single hard copy of his book was delivered last month to the White House for the National Security Council to review. What happened to the copy of the book is unknown to Bolton’s team, but it appears copies of it were made. Bolton’s team submitted the book “in good faith” and now feels that process was corrupted. Bolton doesn’t intend to speak publicly about the Ukraine issue until questions about his potential testimony are resolved. If he were to testify, he plans to do so as a fact witness.

Have on your radar: More from the Bolton manuscript, per NYT: that he told Barr last year about concerns the president was effectively granting personal favors to the leaders of Turkey and China. 

FIRST READ: For the GOP on impeachment, it's Trump's way or the highway

After Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, voiced support Monday for calling witnesses after news of John Bolton’s claims from his new book, the newest GOP senator — Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler — fired back at her colleague.

“After 2 weeks, it’s clear that Democrats have no case for impeachment. Sadly, my colleague @SenatorRomney wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander the @realDonaldTrump during their 15 minutes of fame. The circus is over. It’s time to move on! #gapol,” Loeffler tweeted.

(Later on Monday, we learned why Loeffler might have fired off that tweet — Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., one of Trump’s biggest defenders in the House, is planning to primary her.)

It’s all a reminder that, for Republicans in the Trump Era, there is no breathing room — unless you’re a Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski.

Get more of First Read.

Rep. Crow: Trump's legal team 'peddled Russian propaganda'

Everything you need to know about the impeachment trial

Tuesday marks the third and final day of arguments from Trump's defense team.

Here's a brief recap of the trial so far: