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

OPINION: Getting John Bolton to testify at Trump's impeachment trial is only half the battle

Former national security adviser John Bolton’s potential first-hand evidence — allegedly chronicled in his forthcoming book about his time in the administration and hinted at in a phone call with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Elliot Engel in September — about President Donald Trump’s actions at the heart of the abuse of power impeachment article mean that two battles will most likely be fought in the Senate this week.

While the focus has been on the crucial first fight over whether the Senate will subpoena Bolton (and other witnesses) at all — sources said Wednesday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has admitted he doesn’t have the votes to prevent — an equally critical fight will then ensue over the ground rules under which any witnesses would testify.

More here.

Philbin answers about timeline of Trump's interest in Biden, Ukraine corruption

Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine asked the deputy White House counsel whether the president ever mentioned the Bidens in the context of corruption in Ukraine before Joe Biden declared his candidacy for president in spring of 2019, and if so, when and to whom. 

Pat Philbin referred to Biden's anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, which sought to oust a top prosecutor there who had said he was investigating Burisma, where Hunter Biden was a board member. Philbin then said the election of President Zelenskiy in Ukraine in April 2019 opened up “an opportunity” to start looking at anti-corruption issues because that was the platform that he ran on. Philbin added that Rudy Giuliani began asking questions about Ukraine in the fall of 2018 and in November 2018, and was given tips about what to look into. Philbin said that in March 2019, Giuliani gave a dossier of information to the State Department and Biden announced his White House bid the following month. 

Philbin then referred to the May 23 Oval Office meeting Trump held with several key figures in the impeachment inquiry in which he directed them to speak with Giuliani. 

Republicans push for details on whistleblower's identity

Two Republican senators appeared to attempt to find out more about the identity of the CIA whistleblower whose complaint led to the impeachment inquiry. 

Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas asked Trump’s legal team whether it was true certain House Intelligence Committee staff members "and the alleged whistleblower were employed by or detailed to the National Security Council during the same time period between January 2017 and the present? Do you have reason to believe they knew each other?"

They also asked whether the president's defense had "any reason to believe" the whistleblower and an Intelligence Community staff member "coordinated to fulfill their reported commitment to quote, 'Do everything we can to take out the president,' end quote?"

The question was the first of the day about the whistleblower.

Philbin responded cautiously, saying that "the only knowledge that we have, that I have of this, comes from public reports."

“I gather there is a news report in some publication that suggests a name for the whistleblower, suggests where he worked, that he worked at that time while detailed of the NSC staff for then-vice president Biden and there were others who worked there. We have no knowledge of that, other than what's in the public reports and I don't want to get into speculating about that,” Philbin said. 

About 25 minutes later, Cruz — this time with Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Josh Hawley, R-Mo. — submitted another question about the whistleblower, asking Schiff if the whistleblower worked "at any point for or with Joe Biden."

Schiff said he did not know who the whistleblower is and also explained the need to protect the person's identity.

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