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Trump impeachment trial live coverage: Senators probe prosecution, defense

Senators have a total of 16 hours over two days to probe House impeachment managers as well as the White House defense team.
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 grilled both the House managers and the defense team on Wednesday during the first day of the question-and-answer period of President Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

Senators have a total of 16 hours over two days to probe House impeachment managers as well as the White House defense team, which have had three days each to deliver their arguments.

Senators are still divided on whether to hear from witnesses.

Highlights from the impeachment trial so far

Live Blog

White House objects t publication of Bolton's book, demands classified info be removed first

In a letter to former national security adviser John Bolton's attorney, the White House said Bolton's upcoming book contains classified information that must be removed before it can be published.

In the letter to the lawyer, Charles Cooper, dated Jan. 23, a National Security Council aide wrote: "Based on our preliminary review, the manuscript appears to contain significant amounts of classified information. It also appears that some of this classified information is at the top-secret level."

"The manuscript may not be published or otherwise disclosed without the deletion of this classified information," added Ellen Knight, NSC senior director for records, access and information security management.

Read the story.

Feinstein asks managers about Trump team's insistence there's 'no evidence' aid and investigations were linked

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, asked House impeachment managers: "The president's counsel stated that, quote, 'There is simply no evidence anywhere that President Trump ever linked security assistance to any investigations.'"

"Is that true?" she added.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., responded, saying it was not and adding there was "overwhelming evidence" that Trump withheld the aid until Ukraine announced the investigations into Democrats that he sought.

Crow cited testimony from Gordon Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the European Union, who detailed  a September phone call with the president in which Trump denied any quid pro quo but then outlined that alleged quid pro quo. He also pointed to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who said in October that aid was partially tied to an investigation of so-called Ukrainian electoral interference in 2016. Mulvaney walked those remarks back soon after.

Crow said that if senators have "any lingering questions about direct evidence, there is a way to shed additional light" — call Bolton as a witness "and ask him directly."

The former national security adviser reportedly claims in a manuscript of his upcoming book that Trump linked aid and investigations during an August conversation. That contradicts the president's impeachment defense, as Trump and allies have said the hold on military aid and investigations were not linked. 

Trump denied such a conversation with Bolton took place.

ANALYSIS: Senators aren't taking any chances, yet

So far, all of the questions have been softballs from Democrats to the House managers and from Republicans to the president’s lawyers. The senators are looking to highlight the main points that were made ad nauseam through the six days of presentations of the opposing counsels.

The only way to draw blood — at the risk of losing a fight — is to ask a pointed question of the other side. When Democrats put the White House lawyers on the spot or Republicans dig into the House managers, things might get interesting. Until then, they're circling the chamber under a caution flag.

Sen. Mike Lee asks if president has right to conduct foreign policy

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked of the Trump defense team:

"The House managers have argued aggressively that the president's actions contravened U.S. Foreign policy. Isn't it the president's place, certainly more than the place of career civil servants, to conduct foreign policy?"

Philbin replied, saying, "It is definitely the president’s place to set foreign policy, and the Constitution makes this clear."

The question seemed geared at making the point that Trump can conduct whatever foreign policy he sees fit — and that "career civil servants" lack the authority to take actions to contradict that policy if they disagree.

Schiff complains about 'duplicity' of Trump lawyer's arguments against Bolton testimony

Asked to correct the record on how House investigators pursued Bolton’s testimony, Schiff complained that Trump and his lawyers were denying that the House Committee had authority to secure testimony from witnesses in court while also insisting in the Senate that the panel hadn’t tried very hard to get such testimony.

“It takes your breath away, the duplicity of that argument," Schiff said. "They’re before you saying, ‘They should have tried hard to get these witnesses, they should subpoena, they should have litigated for years,’ and down the street, in a federal courthouse, they’re arguing, 'Judge, you need to throw them out,'” Schiff said. “Are we really prepared to accept that?”

Sen. Gardner says he will vote against calling witnesses

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., will vote against witnesses, his office confirmed Wednesday.

“I do not believe we need to hear from an 18th witness," Gardner said in a statement released by his office. "I have approached every aspect of this grave constitutional duty with the respect and attention required by law, and have reached this decision after carefully weighing the House managers and defense arguments and closely reviewing the evidence from the House, which included well over 100 hours of testimony from 17 witnesses.”

Third question is a GOP follow-up about Bolton testimony question

The third question, from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., was aimed as a follow-up at Schiff's response to Schumer's questions about the significance of Bolton's testimony.

"To the president's counsel. Would you please respond to the arguments or assertions the House managers just made in response to the previous question?" Roberts read on behalf of Thune.

Top Democrat reveals private call with Bolton that contradicts Trump claims

Rep. Eliot Engel pushed back on President Donald Trump's claims that John Bolton didn't complain about the president's conduct toward Ukraine as the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman revealed a September call with Bolton in which the former NSA chief told him to examine the ouster of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

"President Trump is wrong that John Bolton didn't say anything about the Trump-Ukraine scandal at the time the President fired him," Engel, D-N.Y., said in a statement. "He said something to me."

Engel said that he reached out to the former national security adviser on Sept. 19 to ask if he would speak before the Foreign Affairs Committee regarding U.S. foreign policy. Engel said the two then had a call days later, on Sept. 23, when Bolton "suggested to me — unprompted — that the committee look into the recall of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch."

"He strongly implied that something improper had occurred around her removal as our top diplomat in Kyiv," Engel continued. 

Read the story.

Second question, from Schumer, is about importance of testimony from Bolton

The question, from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was directed to the House managers.

"John R. Bolton's forthcoming book states that the president wanted to continue withholding $391 million in military aid to Ukraine until Ukraine announced investigations into his top political rival and the debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 election. Is there any way for the Senate to render a fully informed verdict in this case without hearing the testimony of Bolton, Mulvaney and the other key eyewitnesses or without seeing the relevant documentary evidence?" Roberts stated.

Schiff, before launching into a lengthy answer, first replied, "The short answer to that is no."

First question comes from key GOP cohort of Collins, Romney and Murkowski

The first question came from Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — who announced that she was asking on behalf of herself as well as two fellow Republicans, Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Collins introduced her question but the question itself, directed at Trump’s defense team, was read by Chief Justice John Roberts:

“If President Trump had more than one motive for his alleged conduct, such as the pursuit of personal political advantage, rooting out corruption and the promotion of national interests, how should the Senate consider more than one motive in its assessment of Article One?"

Collins, Murkowski and Romney are among the small list of GOP senators who could vote in favor of calling witnesses in the Senate trial. 

Deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin answered that a mixed motive — one involving both personal and public interests — "can’t possibly be an offense."

"Because it would be absurd to have the Senate trying to consider, 'Well, was it 48 percent legitimate interest and 52 percent personal, or was it the other way? Was it 53 percent and 47 percent? You can't divide it that way."

Philbin added, "If there is something that shows a possible public  interest, and the president could have that possible public interest motive, that destroys their case. So once you're into mixed-motive land, it's clear that their case fails, there can't possibly be an impeachable offense at all."