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

Philbin: Bolton book held up because of classified information

Asked about when Trump's lawyers learned about Bolton's manuscript and whether they or anyone in the White House tried to block its publication, White House lawyer Pat Philbin didn't have a clear timeframe on when people learned of the manuscript but said top-secret information was a problem for its publication. Philbin told senators that the book had been reviewed by career National Security Council officials and found to have “significant amounts of classified information,” including some at the top-secret level.  

Government officials are now working with Bolton, through his attorney, to eliminate classified material from the book before publication, he said.

Romney jokes after being name-dropped during question: 'I’m giving a quick call to Tagg'

NBC News asked Mitt Romney during the break how he felt about being name-dropped during the question-and-answer session.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas had asked Schiff whether President Barack Obama would have had the authority to ask for a corruption investigation if Mitt Romney's son was being paid by a corrupt Russian company.

Romney laughed and, referring to the oldest of his five sons, told NBC News, "I’m giving a quick call to Tagg right now to make sure he disabuses himself of that million dollars he got."

White House mood on witnesses: 'Cautiously optimistic'

Witness watch

The mood in and around the White House on the witness vote seems to be shifting into a more "cautiously optimistic" position, in the words of one source familiar with the matter. They get the sense some Republicans are wary of opening a Pandora's box with multiple witnesses. Another source frames the witness question to NBC News this way: It's a "jump ball, but we have the taller player." But there's an acknowledgement that news-of-day events could intervene, with one official using another sports analogy, saying the ball could still get fumbled between now and Friday. 

Notable Q&A moment

Alan Dershowitz is getting a lot of attention for making the argument that it cannot be an impeachable quid-pro-quo offense "if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest." That has some outside legal experts scratching their heads, given what it implies if taken to its logical conclusion. 

Bolton latest

The White House is releasing a letter sent to John Bolton's attorney warning him his manuscript "appears to contain significant amounts of classified information," invoking the law and Bolton's NDA and demanding "the manuscript may not be published or otherwise disclosed without the deletion of this classified information." Worth noting that Bolton's attorney pre-butted, in effect, this exact argument just a few days ago, writing the manuscript "contained no information that could reasonably be considered classified."

Schumer: Dems directed questions to managers to give them a 'chance to rebut the false arguments'

"We thought it was a good morning, a good afternoon for us," a cheerful Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters during a short break from the question-and-answer session of the Senate trial.

He also nodded toward the Democrats' strategy so far.

"The reason we directed so much of our questions to the House managers is because they needed the chance to rebut the false arguments, the fallacious reasoning, the half-truths, and even no truths that the three days of the president’s counsel made, and this was their first chance to do it," he said.

Harris quotes from 'Access Hollywood' tape, compares Trump to Nixon

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., quoted from the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape during a question about executive power in which she compared Trump to former President Richard Nixon.

"President Nixon said, quote, 'when the president does it that means that it is not illegal.' End quote. Before he was elected, President Trump said, quote, 'when you're a star they let you do it, you can do anything,' end quote," Harris said. That last remark was a quote from the "Access Hollywood" tape on which Trump was caught making vulgar comments about women.

Harris continued: "After he was elected, President Trump said that Article Two of the Constitution gives him, quote, 'the right to do whatever he wants as president.' End quote."

"These statements suggest that each of them believed that the president is above the law, a belief reflected in the improper actions that both presidents took to affect their re-election campaigns. If the Senate fails the hold the president accountable for misconduct, how would that undermine the integrity of our system of justice?" Harris asked.

Schiff responded by saying, "I think this is exactly the fear.”

"I think if you look at the pattern in this president's conduct and his words, what you see is a president who identifies the state as being himself," Schiff said. "When the president talks about people that report his wrongdoing, for example, when he describes a whistle-blower as a traitor or a spy. The only way you can conceive of someone who reports wrongdoing as committing a crime against the country is if you believe you are synonymous with the country, that any report of wrongdoing against the president, to the person of the president, is a treasonous act."

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.