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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

Key GOP swing votes ask if Bolton's testimony would change trial

Two key GOP swing votes, Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, signed on to a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham and other Republicans asking whether John Bolton's testimony would even make a difference.

"Assuming, for arguments' sake, Bolton were to testify in the light most favorable to the allegations contained in the articles of impeachment, isn't it true that the allegations still would not rise to the level of an impeachable offense and that therefore, for this and other reasons, his testimony would add nothing to this case?" the group of GOP senators asked. 

Trump's defense team responded by arguing that Bolton's testimony wouldn't matter because nothing the former national security adviser says Trump did is impeachable.

"Assuming for the sake of argument that ambassador Bolton would come and testify the way "The New York Times" article alleges, the way his book describes the conversation," Philbin said, referring to an unpublished Bolton book in which he alleged that Trump linked aid for Ukraine to Biden investigations.

"Then it is correct that even if that happened, even if he gave that testimony, the articles of impeachment still wouldn't rise to an impeachable offense."

He added, "Even if everything you allege is true, even if John Bolton would say it's true, that is not an impeachable offense under the constitutional standard. Because the way you've tried to define the constitutional standard, this theory of abuse of power is far too malleable."

Schiff fired back that Bolton's testimony would undeniably be pertinent because it would underscore the House's evidence alleging a link between the withholding of military aid and Ukraine investigating the Bidens. 

"The truth is staring us in the eyes. We know why they don't want John Bolton to testify. It's not because we don't really know what happened here. They just don't want the American people to hear it in all of its ugly graphic detail," Schiff said. 

'The stakes are big here': Both sides weigh in on how verdict could affect power balance

Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, asked both sides whether the verdict of the impeachment trial could alter the balance of power between Congress and the White House. 

Schiff said that if Trump is acquitted it will "irrevocably" alter the balance of power between the two branches because there would no case in which the president can be held accountable by Congress, making impeachment power a "nullity." 

"Article II will really mean what the president says it means, which is he can do whatever he wants. So yes, the stakes are big here," Schiff said. "Article II goes to whether our oversight power, particularly in a case of an investigation president's own wrongdoing, continues to have any weight whether the impeachment power itself is now a nullity." 

However, Cipollone argued that an acquittal that would not alter the separation of powers because the impeachment was "purely partisan" and it would reaffirm the powers of the president and the role of Congress. 

"The final judgment of acquittal would be the best thing for our country and would send a great message that will actually help in our separation of powers," he said.

"Here is why: As I have said repeatedly, and according to the standard articulated so well during the Clinton impeachment - what are we dealing with here? We're dealing with a purely partisan impeachment with bipartisan opposition, no crime, no violation of law, in an election year. Never happened before."

'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.