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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

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.

Schiff offers to limit witness depositions to a week after defense laments a protracted trial

Schiff offered to limit witness depositions to one week after Trump's defense warned that calling witnesses could delay the trial.

"I will make an offer to opposing counsel who have said that this will stretch on indefinitely if you decide to have a single witness: Let's cabin the depositions to one week," Schiff said. 

"In the Clinton trial, there was one week of depositions and you know the Senate did during that week, they did the business of the Senate. The Senate went back to its ordinary legislative business while the depositions were being conducted. You want the Clinton model? Let's use the Clinton model." 

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.