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
- Dershowitz says Trump pursuing quid pro quo to help re-election isn't impeachable.
- Trump defense attorney says Burisma probe in the U.S. interest.
- Nadler argues Giuliani's role proves Trump was not concerned about corruption in Ukraine.
- Former Nixon WH counsel: 'Dershowitz unimpeached Richard Nixon.'
Asked to correct 'falsehoods' from White House lawyers, Lofgren contests several of their major points
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., asked the House managers if they “care to correct the record on any falsehoods or mischaracterizations in the White House's opening arguments?"
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said in response that Trump’s defense team argued six facts and that “all six of those so-called facts are incorrect.”
Among them, Lofgren said, were the defense’s claim that nothing improper occurred on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy — a claim she said was disproved by “all of this evidence” presented by the House managers “that makes us understand that phone call even more clearly.”
Another item Lofgren mention was the claim by Trump’s defense that Zelenskiy “never felt pressured” to open the investigations desired by Trump.
“Of course they didn’t say that publicly,” Lofgren said. But she pointed out that Zelenskiy had said that he didn’t want to be involved in U.S. domestic politics and that he “resisted announcing the investigations.”
Another claim Lofgren contested was the claim made by the defense that “Ukraine didn’t know Trump was withholding the security assistance.”
“Many have contested that,” she said.
Dershowitz says a quid pro quo in Trump's political interest is fine and not impeachable
Alan Dershowitz argued that a quid pro quo involving a president's political benefit was fine because all presidents believe their elections are in the public's interest.
Essentially, if Trump withheld nearly $400 million in aid to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations of Democrats to help his campaign, that's fine because Trump thinks his election is to the country's benefit.
"If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment," he said.
Dershowitz said there were three possible motives for a quid pro quo in foreign policy: the first is the public interest; the second, personal political interest; and the third, personal financial interest.
In the end, only the latter instance is corrupt, he said.
"Every public official I know believes that his election is in the public interest," Dershowitz said.
Schiff was given the chance to respond to Dershowitz's argument, one he said he thought was providing "carte blanche" for such quid pro quos in the future. The lead House manager used a hypothetical scenario to make his point. What if former President Barack Obama told Russia that he would withhold aid to Ukraine only if they launched an investigation into his 2012 Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.
"Do any of us have any question that Barack Obama would be impeached for that conduct?" he asked.
White House may have little chance of blocking Bolton testimony
If the Senate voted to hear John Bolton's testimony during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, the White House would face long odds in trying to get a court to prevent it.
The president has already suggested Bolton's testimony might violate executive privilege.
"The problem with John is that it's a national security problem," Trump said last week in comments in Davos, Switzerland. "John, he knows some of my thoughts, he knows what I think about leaders. What happens if he reveals what I think about a certain leader and it's not very positive, and then I have to deal on behalf of the country? It's going to be very hard, it's going to make the job very hard."
The first challenge for the White House is a procedural one. Without an order from a court blocking Bolton from testifying, he's free to do whatever he wants. That's the opposite of the way these disputes normally play out, when administration officials are prevented by the White House from appearing before Congress unless a court orders them to do so.
Leahy asks about White House claim there was no wrongdoing because aid was released
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked the House managers about the administration’s claim that, because the aid to Ukraine was eventually released, there was no wrongdoing.
“The president's counsel argues that there was no harm done, that the aid was ultimately released to Ukraine, the president met with Zelenskiy at the U.N. in September and that this president has treated Ukraine more favorably than his predecessors. What is your response?" Leahy’s asked in a question stated by Roberts.
Rep. Val Demings, R-Fla., replied by referring to the Ukrainians who had died in the country’s war with Russia during the Trump administration’s watch, and said that the withholding of the aid, no matter how long, was not “legitimate” and sent a bad signal to Russia.
“Holding the aid for no legitimate reason sent a strong message that the relationship between the United States and Ukraine was on shaky ground,” Demings said.
An hour in, no questions from Democratic presidential candidates
We are more than an hour into today’s question-and-answer session of the Trump impeachment trial.
And despite the rapid-fire pace, there have still been no questions from any of the senators who are running for the Democratic presidential nomination (Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Michael Bennett of Colorado).
Does a impeachable offense need to be a crime?
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked the House managers if an impeachable offense had to be a crime, with a pointed illustration of what precedent that would set: "Does this reasoning imply that if the president does not violate a criminal statute, he could not be impeached for abuses of power such as ordering tax audits of political opponents, suspending habeas corpus rights, indiscriminately investigating political opponents or asking foreign powers to investigate members of Congress?"
House manager Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, said that "the simple answer is a president can be impeached without a statutory crime being committed.”
She went on to note that criminality was not required of impeachment by the Constitution or its framers, as well as future courts and impeachments.
“A strong majority of impeachments voted by the House since 1789 have included one or more allegations that did not charge an allegation of criminal law,” she said.
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.
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.