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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

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

'Why should this body not call Ambassador Bolton?' Murkowski asks

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, considered a key swing vote on whether to call additional witnesses in Trump's Senate trial, signaled in a question Thursday night that she's leaning in favor of hearing from people like former national security adviser John Bolton.

Murkowski directed her question to Trump’s legal team, reminding them that they "explained that Ambassador Sondland and Senator Johnson both said the president explicitly denied that he was looking for a quid pro quo with Ukraine."

She continued: "The reporting on Ambassador Bolton's book suggests the president told Bolton directly that the aid would not be released until Ukraine announced the investigations the president desired. This dispute about material facts weighs in favor of a calling additional witnesses with direct knowledge. Why should this body not call Ambassador Bolton?"

According to a manuscript of Bolton's book reported on by The New York Times and not seen by NBC News, Trump told Bolton in August that nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine would not be released until it provided all of the information it had in connection to the investigations of Democrats that the president sought. One month earlier, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden and Democrats.

Patrick Philbin, a White House lawyer who is on Trump's defense team, said House Democrats brought the articles of impeachment to the Senate “half baked, not finished." He said that it would be “damaging for the future of this institution” if the Senate calls additional witnesses. 

Bolton, who refused a request to cooperate in the House impeachment inquiry but was not subpoenaed, has said he'd testify before the Senate if subpoenaed to do so. 

Trump complains about impeachment at campaign rally

Alexander to announce witness decision tonight

Sen. Lamar Alexander, one of the few Republicans considering voting yes on witnesses, said that he will announce his decision tonight after the question-and-answer session wraps up.

Alexander has been consistent in his desire to announce his decision on witnesses after arguments from both sides and Q&A is finished.

It's unclear how he will vote.

Senate returns with partisanship question

The Senate is back in session after an hour-long dinner break. The first question is about partisan impeachment.

Sen. Alexander, key swing vote on witnesses, asks question about bipartisanship

Sen. Lamar Alexander’s first question during the Senate trial came Thursday evening when he, along with two other senators, asked the House managers to compare the bipartisanship in the Nixon, Clinton and Trump impeachment proceedings. 

Alexander asked "specifically how bipartisan was the vote in the House of Representatives to authorize and direct the House Committees to begin formal impeachment inquiries for each of the three presidents?"

The question was notable because Alexander, who’re retiring from Congress at the end of the year, is considered a swing vote on whether witnesses should be called during the trial.

It could be a sign that Alexander and other GOP senators were frustrated that the impeachment vote in the House against Trump was not bipartisan. 

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., was a staffer on the House Judiciary Committee during the Nixon impeachment proceedings and a member of the committee during both the Clinton and Trump impeachments. 

"In the Nixon impeachment we look back and we think about the vote on the House Judiciary Committee that ended up bipartisan but it didn't start that way," she said. "When it came to the Clinton impeachment. That was, again, It started out along very partisan lines. And it ended along partisan lines."

In response, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked the White House legal team to respond to Alexander’s question. 

We're on a break

The trial has begun a 45 minute break. There have been 55 questions Thursday so far, 27 from Democrats, 26 from Republicans, and two bipartisan.

Trump lawyer says Pence aide's classified testimony relates to conversation with foreign head of state

A classified document containing testimony from an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, Jennifer Williams, was classified because it related to a conversation with a foreign head of state, a Trump defense lawyer said Thursday. 

"My understanding is that that document is derivatively classified because it refers to another document a transcript that was originally classified,” said lawyer Patrick Philbin in response to a question from Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

Philbin continued, “The memorandum that she submitted is deliberately classified because of that transcript. Now the transcript relates to a conversation with a foreign head of state. Almost all conversations with foreign heads of state are classified and they're classified because the confidentiality related to those communications is important for ensuring that there can be candid conversations with foreign heads of state.”

He did not elaborate on that conversation and made no mention of the people involved. 

Williams provided that testimony to the House late last year during the impeachment inquiry and Chief Justice John Roberts said during the Senate trial last week that the House managers submitted the classified document. Senators can view it in a classified setting but it can’t be released to the public. 

Democrats have been calling on the White House to declassify the document, but they haven’t done so. 

Williams, a State Department aide detailed to Pence's office, "requested in writing an early departure," Pence chief of staff Marc Short said Thursday evening.

"Ms. Williams’ original scheduled departure date was the end of March. The Office of the Vice President is evaluating her request."

Schiff slams GOP senators on whistleblower questions: 'Disgraceful'

Schiff on Thursday ripped into several Republican senators during the Senate impeachment trial after they suggested his staff worked with the anonymous whistleblower who raised red flags about the president's July phone call with Ukraine's president.

The question, from Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Ted Cruz of Texas, Joni Ernst of Iowa and others, asked about allegations that National Security Council staffers had said they had to "take out the president," and that one of those people now works with Schiff and has a relationship with the whistleblower.

The senators named one of Schiff's staffers and asked what role that person had in the investigation.

"First of all, there have been a lot of attacks on my staff. As I said when this issue came up earlier I am appalled at some of the smearing of some of the professional people that work in the intelligence committee," Schiff snapped. "I will not dignify those smears on my staff by giving them any credence whatsoever.

Read more here.

White House's Philbin suggests president will keep using Giuliani as international 'confidante'

Rudy Giuliani wasn't conducting foreign policy when he urged Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin said Thursday.

A bipartisan group of senators — Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin and Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski — asked Trump's lawyers, "Will the president assure the American public that private citizens will not be directed to conduct American foreign policy or national security policy unless they have been specifically and formally designated by the president and the State Department to do so?" 

That was a not-so-veiled reference to Rudy Giuliani and his meetings with current and former Ukrainian officials demanding investigations into the CrowdStrike conspiracy theory and the Bidens. 

Philbin said, "There was no conduct of foreign policy being carried on here by a private person," and "many presidents have relied on people who are trusted confidantes." Philbin added "there would not be anything improper" about continuing to use a private citizen in the same way in the future. 

As for the senators' concern that conduct could potentially violate the Logan Act, which bars private citizens from intervening without authorization in disputes between the United States and foreign governments, Philbin said, "the president's policy is always to abide by the laws."

House manager Adam Schiff called Philbin's comments a "breathtaking admission," given Trump's lawyers have maintained the president withheld aid to Ukraine as a matter of policy. 

"What president's counsel said was that no foreign policy was being conducted by a private party here. That is, Rudy Giuliani was not conducting U.S. foreign policy. Rudy Giuliani was not conducting policy," Schiff said. "The investigations Giuliani was charged with trying to get Ukraine to announce into Joe Biden, into this Russian propaganda theory, they just admitted, was not part of policy."

It was, Schiff said, "a domestic political errand," referring to the testimony of ex-White House Russia expert Fiona Hill.   

Trump's lawyer says no way to tell if political actions are corrupt

One of Trump's attorneys defended the president by essentially arguing that there's no way to tell if political actions are corrupt because you "can't get in someone's head."

Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked: "Would you agree that almost any action the president takes or any action the vast majority of politicians take is — to one degree or another — inherently political. Where is the line between permissible political actions and impeachable political actions?"

Philbin said that for politicians, "there’s almost always some eye to the next election" in every decision made.

"To start getting into motives and calling that corrupt, that's very dangerous," he said. "You can't get in someone's head to parcel out what is corrupt motive and what is not."

This comes a day after Dershowitz argued that a quid pro quo done in a president's political interest is not impeachable because every politician believes their election is in the public interest.

Trump is alleged to have attempted a corrupt quid pro quo with Ukraine by withholding military aid and an official White House visit for the country's president in exchange for investigations into Democrats. The House impeached him for those efforts, charging him with abuse of power and obstructing its investigation of them.

Schiff responded by playing a clip of Dershowitz's remarks and saying if Trump's conduct is deemed OK, then "there is no limit" to what a president will be allowed to do with regard to soliciting foreign help in an election.