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Trump impeachment trial live coverage: The president's defense digs in

New curveball: An explosive report alleges John Bolton says in his unpublished book that Trump personally tied aid for Ukraine to an investigation of the Bidens.
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

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President Donald Trump's defense lawyers on Monday presented the thurst of their defense against the president, undermining the testimony of key witnesses as well as raising questions about the conduct of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

The defense team has also attacked the impeachment proceedings themselves, arguing a lack of due process and accusing House managers of trying to interfere in this year's election.

They also largely avoided an explosive report that alleges former national security adviser John Bolton says in an unpublished book that the president personally tied aid for Ukraine to an investigation into the Bidens — an account that conflicts with the president's.

Highlights from the impeachment trial

Live Blog

What if the White House were to try to stop Bolton from testifying?

If the Senate votes to hear John Bolton's testimony and issue a subpoena, the White House could fight such a move in court. How would that work?

Probably not very well. Here's why.

In the usual fights between Congress and the White House, Congress demands the testimony of an administration official and the White House says no, claiming executive privilege. In such a situation nothing happens — there's no testimony — unless a judge orders the official to testify. So Congress waits while the issue grinds its way through the courts: Without a court ruling, there's no testimony.

But Bolton is not an administration official, and he has said he would testify if subpoenaed by the Senate. So he would be free to do that unless a court blocks it. The legal process, again, would take time. So this is the opposite scenario: Without a court ruling, he's free to testify.

There's potentially a bigger issue. In 1992, a federal judge from Mississippi, Walter Nixon, was impeached and convicted for lying to a grand jury that was investigating bribery. Nixon challenged his Senate conviction, arguing that the Senate improperly heard the witnesses in committee instead of on the Senate floor. He said that violated the Constitution's requirement that the Senate must "try" all impeachments. No witnesses on the floor, he said, means no trial.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously tossed his case out, ruling that the courts cannot second-guess how the Senate conducts impeachments because the Senate has the "sole power" to try them. The courts "were not chosen to have any role in impeachments," the ruling said. Letting the courts into the process would "expose the political life of the country to months, or perhaps years, of chaos."

For that reason, federal courts might be reluctant to entertain any lawsuits challenging Senate impeachment proceedings

'Debunked,' 'discredited,' 'a fountain of falsehoods': Biden campaign, citing newspapers, slams Trump team's attack

Andrew Bates, the Biden campaign's rapid response director, slammed the argument Pam Bond delivered Monday on the Senate floor, saying in a statement: "We didn't realize that Breitbart was expanding into Ted Talk knockoffs. Here on planet Earth, the conspiracy theory that Bondi repeated has been conclusively refuted. The New York Times calls it 'debunked,' The Wall Street Journal calls it 'discredited,' the AP calls it 'incorrect,' and The Washington Post fact checker calls is 'a fountain of falsehoods.' The diplomat that Trump himself appointed to lead his Ukraine policy has blasted it as 'self serving' and 'not credible.' Joe Biden was instrumental to a bipartisan and international anti-corruption victory. It's no surprise that such a thing is anathema to President Trump."

Pence's chief of staff says he didn't hear Trump tie aid to Biden investigations

Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short said in a statement Monday that he never heard Trump tie military aid to Ukraine to investigations into the Biden family or Burisma. 

“In every conversation with the president and the vice president in preparation for our trip to Poland, the president consistently expressed his frustration that the United States was bearing the lion’s share of responsibility for aide to Ukraine and that European nations weren’t doing their part," Short said in the statement, released by the vice president's office. "The president also expressed concerns about corruption in Ukraine. At no time did I hear him tie aid to Ukraine to investigations into the Biden family or Burisma."

Short added, “As White House counsel presented today, based upon testimony provided by Democrat witnesses in the House hearings, these were the only issues that the vice president discussed with Ukrainian officials — because that’s what the president asked him to raise.”

During a recent interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Lev Parnas, an associate of Rudy Giuliani and a key player in the Ukraine saga, alleged that Pence had canceled his trip to the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last year because Ukraine hadn’t announced investigations into Biden and his son Hunter. He also said Pence was aware of the push for the investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens, which Pence has denied.

Bondi attacks Bidens on Burisma in presentation

Trump defense lawyer Pam Bondi began her presentation Monday afternoon by highlighting what President Donald Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate — former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. 

Bondi, a former attorney general of Florida, noted that the Democratic House managers's trial brief said claims made about the Bidens are baseless. “Now, why did they say that? Why did they invoke Biden or Burisma over 400 times?” Bondi asked. “The reason they needed to do that is because they are here saying that the president must be impeached and removed from office for raising a concern."

Democrats, she claimed, have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was no basis for Trump to have raised concerns about the Bidens. She then discussed how the former vice president was tasked with dealing with corruption in 2014 just before Hunter Biden was appointed to the board of the natural gas company Burisma. 

Trump and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, have alleged that Joe Biden used the prospect of U.S. financial support to pressure the Ukrainian government to fire its top prosecutor in 2016, because the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was investigating Burisma and allegedly Hunter Biden. Shokin was widely believed to be soft on corruption, however, and the United States and other Western countries had called for his removal. The country's Parliament ultimately voted to remove Shokin.

Bondi read a quote from a Washington Post article that said, “The appointment of the vice president's son to a Ukrainian oil board looks nepotistic at best, nefarious at worst.”

There's little evidence, however, that the former vice president acted to help his son. This year, Bloomberg News reported that the Burisma investigation had been dormant for more than a year by the time Biden called for the crackdown on corruption. The then-Ukrainian prosecutor general told the news agency he found no evidence of wrongdoing by either Biden. And PolitiFact reported it found no evidence to "support the idea that Joe Biden advocated with his son's interests in mind."

Dem aide offers point to counter defense's 'high crimes' assertion

A Democratic aide working on the impeachment trial provided a fact check of Trump's defense team's claim that "high crimes and misdemeanors” must be criminal violations.

Response: Every principle of constitutional interpretation rejects that view. President Trump’s conduct constituted the highest of high crimes against our country in abusing his power.

  • The Constitution does not require that an offense be a crime in order for it to be impeachable. Alexander Hamilton explained that impeachable offenses are defined fundamentally by “the abuse or violation of some public trust.”  They are “political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”   
  • The framers were acutely aware of the dangers of foreign influence in American elections. Explaining why the Constitution required an impeachment option, James Madison argued in part that a president “might betray his trust to foreign powers."
  • There has been no dispute about this fact in prior impeachments. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-N.C., when he served as a House manager during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, said: “It doesn’t have to be a crime. It is just when you start using your office and you are acting in a way that hurts people, you have committed a high crime.”

Trump lawyer Raskin: Giuliani is the House managers' 'colorful distraction'

Jane Raskin, one of Trump's defense lawyers, opened her argument by accusing the House impeachment managers of resorting to using Giuliani as a “colorful distraction” to take away from the idea that “both the law and the facts” were not on their side.

"Well, we've heard the House managers do some table-pounding and a little yelling," Raskin said, referring to an aphorism about what lawyers should do when the facts and law are against them. "But in the main, they've used a different tactic here, a tactic familiar to trial lawyers: If both the law and the facts are against you, present a distraction; emphasize a sensational fact or perhaps a colorful and controversial public figure who appears on the scene, then distort certain facts, ignore others, even when they're the most probative, make conclusory statements and insinuate the shiny object is far more important than the actual facts allow.”

“In short,” she continued, “divert attention from the holes in your case.”

“Rudy Giuliani is the House managers' colorful distraction,” she said. 

'I have nothing to defend. This is all a game,' Biden says

Former Vice President Joe Biden told reporters while on the campaign trail in Cedar Falls, Iowa, that if he were still a senator, he would demand that John Bolton testify given the reporting on what he writes about the Ukraine saga in his upcoming book. 

Asked if he should testify as his own best witness, Biden said: “I have nothing to defend. This is all a game.” 

Biden added, "There is no one [who] said I'd done anything that was wrong, period. What is there to defend? The reason he's being impeached is because he tried to get a government to smear me and they wouldn't. Come on."

Sekulow says no witness tied investigations and aid. Bolton revelations allege link

Arguing before the Senate on Monday, Sekulow listed as noteworthy one of the Trump legal team's "six facts" about the president's efforts in Ukraine.

Sekulow said that "no witness" testified to a direct link between the investigations Trump wanted Ukraine to announce and the withholding of nearly $400 million in aid to the country.

However, ex-national security adviser John Bolton reportedly would say just that if the Senate voted in favor of calling him to testify before the trial. He reportedly alleges in his upcoming book that Trump linked the two things — Ukraine aid and an investigation into Democrats, including the Bidens — in an August conversation with him, which the president has denied doing.

Several other Trump administration witnesses testified that they believed there was a link between the aid and the investigations Trump sought.

Starr slams House Democrats for denying Trump 'basic rights' during impeachment process

Former independent counsel Ken Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton, slammed House Democrats in arguments for Trump's legal defense Monday morning, saying they had denied Trump “basic rights.”

Trump, Starr said, was “denied the basic rights that have been afforded to every single accused president in the history of the Republic, even to the racist Andrew Johnson, seeking to undo Mr. Lincoln's great legacy."

Republicans have repeatedly argued that Trump was denied due process during the House impeachment inquiry.

Starr, who was speaking generally about the history of impeachment, accused House Democrats of having "chose to conduct a wholly unprecedented process in this case.”

“They did so knowingly and deliberately,” he said.

Moments later, Starr added that the two articles of impeachment against Trump — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — “come before this court, this high court of impeachment, dripping with fundamental process violations."

'Torture,' 'excruciatingly boring': Starr blasted for opening with long discussion of history of impeachment

Former independent counsel Ken Starr has been speaking for more than 30 minutes about the history of impeachment.

Quoting centuries-old law school deans and what he dubbed the “Rodino Rule,” and citing the minutiae of the Iran-Contra scandal and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, Starr, despite a 30-minute-plus discussion so far, has yet to mention Trump by name. His lecture is beginning to attract the ire of its watchers — even among Trump allies.