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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

Trump attorney won't say when Trump first ordered hold on Ukraine aid

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has expressed an openness to hearing witness testimony in the trial, asked the White House legal team, "On what specific date did President Trump first order the hold on security assistance to Ukraine and did he explain the reason at that time?"

White House lawyer Patrick Philbin, however, never answered the question and instead identified several dates related to the hold on Ukraine aid. 

"The evidence in the record shows that the president raised concerns at least as of June 24, that people were aware of the hold as of July 3. The president's concerns about burden-sharing were in the email on June 24. They're reflected in the July 25 call," he said. 

Philbin cited a June 24 email, a follow up to an earlier meeting with Trump, that addressed questions about funding for U.S. firms and what other NATO members spend to support Ukraine. 

He said that there is testimony in the record that Office of Management and Budget officials were "aware of a hold as of July 3" and there is evidence in the record of the president's rationales from even earlier than that.

Multiple witnesses testified during the House impeachment inquiry that they were informed by an OMB staffer on July 18 that a hold had been placed on Ukraine assistance. That hold wasn’t lifted until Sept. 11. 

Rand Paul: Discussions about whistleblower question 'ongoing'

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has reportedly been pushing to ask a question about the whistleblower's identity.

Asked about the status of that question, Paul said: "It’s still an ongoing process. It may happen tomorrow."

But another Republican senator, John Thune of South Dakota, said he suspects a question that could name the whistleblower "won't happen."

Schiff tells Trump team: 'We're not here to indulge in fantasy or distraction'

Trump attorney Jay Sekulow repeatedly urged senators against calling witnesses, warning that it could delay the trial significantly.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., asked the Trump team why the Senate shouldn’t assume lengthy litigation and decide, like the House, not to subpoena John Bolton’s testimony. 

"If the Senate goes this road of a lengthy proceeding with a lot more witnesses and then I want to ask this question: Is that going to be the new norm for impeachment?" Sekulow said, noting that litigation could set "a very dangerous precedent."

Several Republican senators are still on the fence about whether they will vote to call witnesses, and Sekulow's answer appeared to appeal to those lawmakers directly.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asked the House managers to respond. 

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead manager, said that the White House legal team is making the argument that if the Senate calls witnesses, that will make the trial endless by calling Schiff himself to testify, the Bidens or the whistleblower. 

"We will make you pay for it with endless delay," Schiff said about the Trump team’s case against witnesses. 

"Mr. Sekulow wants me to testify? Well, I'd like Mr. Sekulow to testify about his contacts with Parnas," said Schiff. "We're not here to indulge in fantasy or distraction."

He added, "They're doing the same thing to the Senate they did to the House, which is: You try to investigate the president, you try to try the president, we will tie you and your entire chamber up in knots for weeks and months."

Former Nixon WH counsel: 'Dershowitz unimpeached Richard Nixon'

Trump defense attorney says Burisma probe in the U.S. interest

A group of GOP senators asked the White House legal team whether evidence in the record shows that the investigation of Burisma is in the interest of the U.S. in its efforts to stop corruption.

“The answer is yes, the evidence does show that it would be in the interest of the United States. In fact, the evidence on that point is abundant,” said Patrick Philbin, one of Trump’s defense lawyers. 

Philbin said that shortly after then-Vice President Joe Biden was made the “point man” on Ukraine policy during the Obama administration, Biden’s son Hunter was named to the board of Burisma. 

“And even in the transcript of the July 25 telephone call, President Zelenskiy himself acknowledged the connection between the Biden and Burisma incident, the firing of the prosecutor who reportedly had been looking into Burisma,” Philbin said, referring to Viktor Shokin. 

Philbin said it was “a perfectly legitimate issue” for Trump to raise with Zelenskiy because he said the Biden-Burisma connection undermined the U.S. message on anti-corruption. 

He said it was acceptable for Trump to raise it “to make clear that the United States did not condone anything that would seem to interfere with legitimate investigations and to enforce the proper anti-corruption message.”

Demings brushes aside questions about Trump, Biden children: This is about the president

Democratic senators asked House managers about Trump's personal dealings and his children maintaining significant business interests in foreign countries while the president's defense criticizes Hunter Biden's work with Burisma.

"By the standard the president's counsel has applied to Hunter Biden, should Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump's conflicts of interest with foreign governments also come under investigation?" Sens. Blumenthal, Leahy, Whitehouse and Udall asked.

House manager Rep. Val Demings of Florida answered the question by saying that bringing up Biden's son is as much a distraction as singling out Trump's kids. She said this is about the president abusing his office by allegedly pressuring a foreign government to interfere in the election for his personal benefit. 

"The reason why we're here has nothing to do with anybody's children. As we talked about, the reason we are here is because the President of the United States, the 45th president, used the power of his office to try to shake down— I will use that term because I am familiar with it— a foreign power to interfere into this year's election," Demings, a former police chief, said.

"In other words, the President of the United States tried to cheat and then tried to get this foreign power, this newly elected president to spread a false narrative that we know is untrue about interference in our election."

We're back. Here's the current state of play on a witness vote.

We're back from the dinner break for more questions. Republicans currently believe they are on track to collect the votes necessary to block additional witnesses, including Bolton, when the vote is called Friday afternoon.

A number of Republicans went public today as “no” or “likely no” votes on witnesses, including Sens. Cory Gardner, Pat Toomey, Steve Daines and Pat Roberts.

Democrats would need four GOP senators to vote with them in support of calling additional witnesses. 

 

Schiff rebuts Dershowitz's argument: 'There is a crime here of bribery or extortion'

Schiff rebutted Dershowitz's argument that only criminal acts are impeachable offenses, specifically bribery, which is enumerated in the Constitution as an example of high crimes and misdemeanors. 

The lead House manager argued that when Trump allegedly conditioned a White House meeting and the release of aid to Ukraine on investigations, it was bribery. 

"The counsel acknowledges that a crime's not necessary but something akin to a crime," Schiff said. "Well we think there is a crime here of bribery or extortion, conditioning official acts for personal favors; that is bribery, it's also what the founders understood as extortion. You cannot argue — even if you argue. 'Well, under the modern definition of bribery you've got to show such and such' — you cannot plausibly argue that it's not akin to bribery. It is bribery, but it's certainly akin to bribery."

Schiff added, "But that's the import of what they would argue, that now the president has a constitutional right, under Article II he can do anything he wants. He can abuse his office and do so sacrificing our national security and undermining the integrity of the elections, and there's nothing Congress can do about it."

Schiff says senators should have more information about Russia-backed Trump/Giuliani conspiracy theories

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has asked the House managers if they "know about additional information related to Russia disseminating President Trump's or Rudolph Giuliani's conspiracy theories?"

And if they do, Warner added, "Should the Senate have this information before we deliberate on the articles of impeachment?"

Schiff, in his response, appeared to suggest that there was additional information in this category that the Senate should have — but that it’s been withheld by the executive branch.

Schiff first mentioned the supplemental testimony of Pence aide Jennifer Williams — which was declassified and made available to lawmakers but not released publicly.

But he later mentioned, without providing further details, another "category of intelligence" that "raises a very different problem and that is that the intelligence communities are for the first time refusing to provide to the intelligence committee."

"And that material has been gathered, we know that it exists but the NSA has been advised not to provide it. Now the director says that this is the director's decision but nonetheless there is a body of intelligence that is relevant to request that we have made ... that is not being provided," Schiff said. 

Schiff addressed the issue this month in an interview with ABC's "This Week."

The intelligence communities "appear to be succumbing to pressure from the administration," Schiff said. "The NSA in particular is withholding what are potentially relevant documents to our oversight responsibilities on Ukraine, but also withholding documents potentially relevant that the senators might want to see during the trial.

"That is deeply concerning," Schiff continued. "And there are signs that the CIA may be on the same tragic course. We are counting on the intelligence community not only to speak truth to power but to resist pressure from the administration to withhold information from Congress because the administration fears that they incriminate them."

White House, Bolton lawyer spar over questions about classified info

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."

Cooper responded to the White House in a letter dated Jan. 24, which he released on Wednesday.

In the letter, Cooper said that Bolton is "preparing" to testify and that he would likely discuss some of the material contained in a chapter of his book on Ukraine. Cooper said he did not believe any of the material was classified but wanted to White House to review it "as soon as possible."

Cooper said Wednesday he had yet to hear back from the White House.