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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

Lawyer says Trump not 'necessarily' pushing Biden investigation. Call summary shows otherwise.

Trump lawyer Patrick Philbin argued on Thursday that Trump wasn't "necessarily" asking for a probe of the Bidens, he just wanted to look into the firing of former top Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin

"All the president says is 'so if you can look into it, that sounds horrible, it sounds like a bad situation,'" Philbin said, pointing to the White House summary of Trump's July 25 call with Zelenskiy. "That's not calling for an investigation necessarily into Vice President Biden or his son, but the situation in which the prosecutor had been fired, which affected anti-corruption efforts in the Ukraine.'

"And President Zelenskiy responded by saying 'the issue of the investigation of the case is actually the issue of making sure to restore the honesty, so we will take care of that,'" Philbin added.

Shokin, who had investigated the energy company that Hunter Biden sat on the board of, was seen as ineffective by the international community and pushed out for not more aggressively tackling corruption. Trump and allies have accused Biden of acting with his son's interest in mind when, in 2016, he called on Ukraine to oust Shokin, threatening to withhold loan guarantees if Ukraine did not remove the prosecutor.

His call, on behalf of the Obama administration, was backed by a number of other countries and international authorities.

There has been no evidence that Biden acted improperly in handling Ukraine policy while his son was on the board of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that Shokin was at one time investigating. The investigation into Burisma was reportedly dormant by the time Biden pushed for Shokin's ouster.

In the call summary, Trump said to Zelenskiy: "The other thing, there's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great."

"Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... It sounds horrible to me," he continued.

Will the Senate trial end Friday night? Maybe.

What is going to happen after the Q+A period wraps up at the end of today? It’s a giant open question. It’s totally possible the trial ends Friday night. There is also a very real possibility that the trial continues past Friday.

WHAT WE KNOW WILL HAPPEN ON FRIDAY:

  • They’ll start with up to four hours of debate (equally divided) on the witness/documents question.
  • There are no motions in order after that debate, so the next vote would be on whether to even start discussions and additional votes on subpoenaing additional witnesses or documents.

THEN, THE WILD WEST:

Once the witness question is dispensed with, any senator can introduce a motion or resolution.

  • That could be a motion to dismiss, a motion to go straight to the final vote, a motion to move to final arguments, or even more motions for witnesses.
  • McConnell COULD introduce a second organizing resolution here to lay out the rest of the trial. Again, that would be subject to up to two hours of debate (equally divided), and as many amendments as Democrats would want to introduce (like we saw when they passed the original organizing resolution.)

SOME OPEN QUESTIONS:

  1. Will they have closing arguments? Will those be on Friday? How long will they be?
  1. In 1999 there were up to 6 hours (equally divided) of closing arguments. That took an entire day of trial.
  2. It’s worth noting, that in 1999, closing arguments were following additional witness depositions. If they vote to not have witnesses, they might not feel the need to spend this much time on closing arguments.
  3. When those will start will be based on what 51 Senators agree to.
  • Will there be deliberations? How long will they be? Will they be closed?
  1. In 1999 there were four days of CLOSED door deliberations. 67 Senators can vote to open that up.
  2. In 1999, each Senator had 10 minutes to speak during those closed-door deliberations. We wouldn’t see that on camera, but we could see offices release their speeches.
  • If the witness vote fails, could they have a final vote on whether to acquit on Friday night?
  1. Yes. But that would require 51 Senators to agree to do that and an agreement from Democrats to not introduce endless motions or amendments to a second organizing resolution.  
  • Could this go past Friday night?
  1. YUP! Again, flipping on our hypothetical hat again, they could set up a situation where they do closing arguments Saturday, deliberations on Monday, and a vote either late Monday or even Tuesday. Again, that’s just spitballing.

Trump attorney gives State of the Union preview to defend Trump

Trump's attorney Eric Herschmann, in what amounted to a State of the Union preview, listed a bunch of Trump's accomplishments in response to a question about the president having the American people in mind in his decision-making.

The House charged Trump with abusing his power by attempting a corrupt quid pro quo with Ukraine to benefit him politically. Trump's actions with regard to Ukraine were not in the public interest but an attempt to "cheat" in the upcoming election, Democrats alleged.

In response to a question from Sens. Braun and Barrasso on whether Trump has the American people in mind — but not specifically in regard to his actions in Ukraine that he was impeached over — Herschmann cited a long list of things Trump has either done as president or have happened during the Trump presidency.

Herschmann cited unemployment numbers, the USMCA, tax cuts, criminal justice reform and more, even invoking the State of the Union to say Trump's economic accomplishments will "resonate with Americans" when the president gives the address next week.

"If all that is solely, solely in their words, for his personal and political gain, and not in the best interests of the American people, then I say God bless him, keep doing it," he said. "Keep doing it, keep doing it."

Herschmann did not, however, get into Trump's conduct toward Ukraine.

Schiff: DOJ lawyer argued in court Thursday that House can impeach if subpoenas are ignored

Schiff drew laugher after he referred to an exchange that took place in federal court Thursday.

"We’ve been debating whether a president can be impeached for essentially bogus claims of privilege for attempting to use the courts to cover up misconduct” and after the Justice Department has resisted House subpoenas," Schiff said. 

"So the judge says, 'Well if the Congress can’t enforce its subpoenas in court, then what remedy is there?'" said Schiff.

"And the Justice Department lawyer’s response is: 'Impeachment. Impeachment.' You can’t make this up," said Schiff, drawing laughter from senators in the chamber. 

Who's paying Rudy? Giuliani's compensation brought up in Senate trial

Democratic Sens. Jack Reed, Tammy Duckworth and Kamala Harris asked who is paying Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, whose legal work for the president is unpaid.

Reuters has reported that Giuliani's indicted associate Lev Parnas paid Giuliani $500,000 for consulting related to Parnas' firm. Parnas and another indicted associate, Igor Fruman, worked with Giuliani in Ukraine as part of his efforts there.

Schiff said, "I don't know who's paying Rudy Giuliani's fees," but "if other clients are paying and subsidizing his work in that respect, it raises profound questions."

Sekulow responded by pointing at Hunter Biden sitting on the board of a Ukrainian gas company when his father oversaw Ukraine policy in the Obama administration, adding, "and you're concerned about what Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, was doing when he was over trying to determine what was going on in Ukraine?"

Bondi, Demings get fired up

The energy in the chamber seems flatter on Thursday. Several senators were absent shortly after the proceedings began, and the press and public galleries have lots of empty seats.

That changed, however, when White House lawyer Pam Bondi got up to take a friendly question on the Bidens. After getting criticized online for fumbling through her large binder on Wednesday, Bondi took the podium with just two pages of notes, including Sharpie bullet points, which she read through at a much higher volume than most senators have done. 

In rebuttal, Rep. Val Demings seemed fired up, too, and repeatedly looked directly at Bondi during her response.  

During an answer from Schiff about subpoenas, and when and how they were issued, both Sens. Collins and Murkowski appeared very engaged, listening and taking notes.

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.