EVENT ENDED

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

Alexander a 'no' on witnesses, Collins to vote in favor

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., revealed late Thursday that he plans to vote against hearing from witnesses during the Senate trial. 

“The question then is not whether the president did it, but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did," Alexander, who is retiring this year, said in a statement on Thursday. "I believe that the Constitution provides that the people should make that decision in the presidential election that begins in Iowa on Monday."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, meanwhile, said Thursday that she will vote in favor of hearing from witnesses during the Senate trial. 

“I believe hearing from certain witnesses would give each side the opportunity to more fully and fairly make their case, resolve any ambiguities, and provide additional clarity. Therefore, I will vote in support of the motion to allow witnesses and documents to be subpoenaed,” she said. 

Collins, who is running for re-election this year, said that if the motion passes, she believes the most sensible way to proceed “would be for the House Managers and the President’s attorneys to attempt to agree on a limited and equal number of witnesses for each side. If they can’t agree, then the Senate could choose the number of witnesses.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has made it clear that he plans to vote in favor of witnesses. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she will review her notes and then decide. Democrats need four Republicans to vote with them in order for the trial to advance to a witness stage. 

Collins says she's supporting witnesses

Collins makes it official: she's supporting calling witnesses.

"I believe hearing from certain witnesses would give each side the opportunity to more fully and fairly make their case, resolve any ambiguities, and provide additional clarity," she said in a statement.

Democrats need at least three other Republican votes to be able to pass a resolution allowing for new witnesses and documentary evidence. The fate of the resolution, which is expected to be taken up Friday, remains uncertain.

Murkowski to review notes and decide whether she needs to 'hear more'

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, a key swing vote on whether to call witnesses in the Senate trial, said after the conclusion of the question-and-answer period that she's going to review what she's heard and then decide whether she needs to "hear more." 

“I am going to go reflect on what I have heard, re-read my notes and decide whether I need to hear more," she said. 

Trial adjourns for the day

Trump's trial has adjourned for the day, ending hours of questions — 180 in total, according to an NBC News count — from the senators and leaving one big one still unanswered: Will Democrats be successful in their push to call additional witnesses?

Here are the key moments from Thursday, which marked the conclusion of the question-and-answer portion of the Senate trial. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a key impeachment swing vote, plans to reveal later tonight whether he supports calling witnesses. 

The trial will resume at 1 p.m. Friday.

Philbin suggests other ways for Congress to confront 'presidential conduct'

Three GOP senators asked the president's defense if Congress has other means for “consequential responses” to a president's conduct other than impeachment — especially in an election year. 

In response, Philbin said that Congress can put pressure on the executive branch by not funding the president’s policy priorities or cutting funding; not passing legislation that the president favors or passing legislation that the president opposes or holding up presidential nominees in the Senate.

“They all should be used, they all should be exercised in an incremental fashion,” said Philbin, who also said, “impeachment is the very last resort.” 

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead House manager, said, “And what's the remedy that my colleagues representing the president say that you have to that abuse? Well, you can hold up a nominee.”

“That seems wholly out of scale with the magnitude of the problem,” he said. “That process of appropriations or nominations is not sufficient for a chief executive officer of the United States, who will betray the national security for his own personal interest.”

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.