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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

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

Protesters near Capitol hold up signs on witnesses and GOP votes

Protesters hold signs near the Capitol during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Jan. 29, 2020.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

Senator speaks to areas where Trump may have waived privilege

ANALYSIS: Witnesses are fine, as long as there’s no venue

In the House, the White House counsel’s office argued that impeachment was a sham and President Trump refused to participate in the investigation in any way. He issued a blanket prohibition on his aides complying with requests for testimony and his agencies producing documents.

In federal court, his Justice Department has argued the House does not have standing to pursue subpoenas. 

In the Senate, White House lawyers are currently arguing the House should have interviewed witnesses or gone to court to force them to testify. The House did both, only to face opposition from the administration.

“There’s a proper way of doing things and an upside-down way of doing things,” deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin said Wednesday in advising the Senate that it is not the right venue for witnesses either.

Dem. senator asks if Roberts has authority to rule on witnesses, executive privilege

A recent question from Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., aimed at the House managers, touched on Chief Justice John Robert's ability to help resolve issues regarding witnesses in an impeachment trial in the Senate.

"Some have claimed that subpoenaing witnesses or documents would unnecessarily prolong this trial. Isn't it true that depositions of the three witnesses in the Clinton trial were completed in only one day each? And isn't it true that the chief justice as presiding officer in this trial has the authority to resolve any claims of privilege or other witness issues without any delay?" Carper asked in a question read by Roberts.

"Mr. Chief Justice, the answer is yes," said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.

Roberts could in theory break a tie among senators on the issue of calling witnesses, legal experts have said. 

Some experts have also said that Roberts has the authority to make rulings that pertain to executive privilege.

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.

Read the story.

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.

Read the story.

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.