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Trump impeachment trial live coverage: Senators ask final questions before critical vote on witnesses

The second and final day of questions comes before a critical vote, expected Friday, on whether to call witnesses.
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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Senators on Thursday concluded their final day of questions for House prosecutors and President Donald Trump’s defense team in the president’s impeachment trial before a critical vote, expected Friday, on whether to call witnesses.

The Senate remains divided on the witness issue, with Democrats calling for testimony from ex-national security adviser John Bolton and other top administration officials. Republican leaders are seeking to block additional testimony and documents in a bid for a quick acquittal of Trump.

Senators asked 180 questions Wednesday and Thursday on everything from executive power to the ability to call witnesses — an issue that has lawmakers sharply divided.

Highlights from the impeachment trial so far

Live Blog

Rand Paul criticizes Roberts for rejecting his question, saying it didn't refer to whistleblower

Sen. Rand Paul criticized Chief Justice John Roberts on Thursday after he refused to read Paul's question out loud, apparently because it included the name of the person right-wing media alleges is the whistleblower who set off the impeachment inquiry. 

Paul, a Kentucky Republican, read the question — and the person's name — at a news conference held after he walked out of the president's impeachment trial following Roberts' decision.

Paul, who has repeatedly called for the whistleblower to be identified publicly, claimed he wasn't trying to out the whistleblower with his question, which asked if the person in question had a close relationship with a House committee staffers and had "worked together to plot impeaching the president."

"I think this is an important question, one that deserves to be asked, and makes no reference to anybody who may or may not be a whistleblower," Paul said. 

Paul said he thought Roberts made "an incorrect finding" by failing to read the question, which he'd wanted both House managers and White House lawyers to respond to.

When NBC News asked if he should be attending the trial, Paul said: "Yeah, I will be there very shortly. Thanks for the question."

John Tye, CEO of the nonprofit law office Whistleblower Aid, issued a statement saying: “Senator Paul’s effort to out the whistleblower is reckless and intended to distract and intimidate, not educate. Attaching any name to the identity the whistleblower, whether accurate or not, puts the named individual at tremendous personal risk.”

 

Dershowitz challenges critics to a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate

Schiff says Dershowitz argument amounts to 'normalization of lawlessness'

Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead House manager in the impeachment trial, said an argument made by Dershowitz amounted to the "normalization of lawlessness" and said the Senate trial has witnessed "a descent into constitutional madness" over the past few days.

Dershowitz faced intense backlash Thursday over an eye-opening argument he made against impeaching his client.

Dershowitz argued Wednesday that if a president engaged in a quid pro quo arrangement for his or her own political benefit, it is not impeachable because all politicians believe that their elections are in the public interest.

"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," he said during the first day of the question-and-answer period of the trial.

Schiff said a lawyer only makes an argument like that "because you know your client is guilty and dead to rights."

"That is an argument made of desperation," he said.

Chief justice refuses to read Rand Paul question

Chief Justice John Roberts refused to read the second question of the day at the president's impeachment trial, which came from a Republican senator who's tried to out the whistleblower who raised red flags about the president's July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart.

"The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted," Roberts said after looking at the question from Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, who'd reportedly tried to get a similar question read on Wednesday.

Immediately after Roberts’ decision, Paul stood and left the chamber.

Politico reported that Roberts had let senators know on Wednesday he would not read questions naming or identifying the whistleblower, whose lawyers have said has been subject of death threats. 

A spokesman for Paul, Sergio Gor, tweeted earlier Thursday that Paul planned to keep pushing. 

"Senator Paul will insist on his question being asked during today’s trial. Uncertain of what will occur on the Senate floor, but American people deserve to know how this all came about ..." Gor tweeted.

Lofgren: Trump team's rationale for declining to comply with subpoenas an 'excuse'

The first question Thursday was about the House subpoenas in the impeachment investigation. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., answered that the White House argument that the subpoenas were invalid "is wrong" and "an excuse."

Trump's legal team has said the administration did not comply with subpoenas because they were authorized before the House took a full vote to open the impeachment investigation. Lofgren said that under House rules, they did not need such a vote to launch the investigation. She also said several judges have been impeached without a full House vote launching a probe.

The legal team's rationale for not complying is "just an excuse about President Trump's obstruction."

Trump "refused to comply before the [full] House vote and after the House vote," Lofgren said, pointing to Trump saying that he was determined to fight all the subpoenas.

'Nonsense,' 'preposterous,' 'absurd': Critics lecture Prof. Dershowitz about trial remarks

Alan Dershowitz faced intense backlash Thursday over an eye-opening argument he made against impeaching his client.

Dershowitz argued Wednesday (and then defended at length on Thursday) that if a president engaged in a quid pro quo arrangement for their own political benefit, it is not impeachable because all politicians believe that their elections are in the public interest.

"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," he said during the first day of the question-and-answer period of the Senate impeachment trial.

So if Trump withheld nearly $400 million in aid to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations of Democrats to help his campaign, the retired Harvard law professor said it wasn't an impeachable offense because Trump thinks his election would be to the country's benefit. Therefore, his motive was not corrupt.

The backlash to that legal analysis was furious.

Read the story.

Pelosi hopes 'senators will have the courage and the ability to handle the truth'

Dershowitz tweets to critics: 'I did not say or imply that a candidate could do anything to reassure his reelection'

The question on Wednesday, from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was: "As a matter of law, does it matter if there was a quid pro quo? Is it true quid pro quos are often used in foreign  policy?"

Dershowitz answered, “The only thing that would make the quid pro quo unlawful is if the quo were, in some way illegal.” He added: “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.”

He responded at length on Twitter Thursday morning to the ensuing criticism:

What if there's a tie vote? Everything you need to know about witnesses and Trump's trial

Ahead of the vote on Friday afternoon on whether to call witnesses at President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, GOP Senate leaders believe they will have just enough votes to block additional testimony and documents.

In order for witness testimony to be approved, four Republicans in the Senate would need to vote alongside all Democrats.

So far, only Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, has indicated he will vote in favor of witnesses, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, has said it is likely she will, too. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has hinted at an interest in hearing from witnesses but has not provided a strong indication of how she will vote.

Read the story.

Article II: Inside Impeachment - Q&A time

In the latest episode of Article II, Steve Kornacki talks to Leigh Ann Caldwell, NBC News correspondent covering Congress, about the first round of the question-and-answer period in the Senate trial.

The two discuss:

  • The Democrats’ effort to convince their fellow senators to call new witnesses in the trial.
  • The Republicans’ strategy to argue that the president’s conduct is not impeachable.
  • Where the math in the Senate stands on witnesses as we head into day two of Q&A.