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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

Article II - Q & A

Today, on Article II, Steve Kornacki talks to Leigh Ann Caldwell, NBC News Correspondent covering Congress, about the first round of the question and answer period in the Senate trial.

The two discuss:

  • The Democrats’ effort to convince their fellow senators to call new witnesses in the trial
  • The Republicans’ strategy to argue that the president’s conduct is not impeachable
  • Where the math in the Senate stands on witnesses as we head into day two of Q&A

Democrats furious about Trump team's comments on foreign interference

Democratic senators were incensed Wednesday night at the White House defense team’s argument that a president can ask a foreign leader for information against a political opponent.

They emerged from the Senate chamber in shock, almost speechless after deputy counsel Pat Philbin said that asking a foreign leader for information "is not something that would violate campaign finance laws."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said the comments set "a stunning new precedent that is unheard of in our country."

"It’s dangerous dangerous dangerous," she said.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said that "there were audible gasps on the Democratic side" during Philbin's answer.

He added, "that's a pretty extraordinary message to put on the record in the middle of an impeachment trial about that very kind of corruption."

"This idea that you would take information from a foreign government seeking to impact an election and then weaponize that or use that just because it may be credible, I've just never heard anything like that, I think it's absolutely unconscionable, and I just think we're in new territory," said Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Schiff: Trump, GOP defense 'a remarkable lowering of the bar'

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that the White House and Republicans are lowering the bar for what is acceptable and lawful for the president to do in his re-election efforts. 

"It’s now okay to criminally conspire with another country to get help in a presidential election," Schiff said the White House legal team's arguments.

"We have witnessed a remarkable lowering of the bar to the point now where everything is okay as long as the president believes it's in his re-election interest,” he said, adding, "It is not okay to solicit foreign interference and a failed scheme doesn't make you innocent."

Schiff said that there has been a "remarkable evolution" in the White House’s response to the impeachment inquiry, from the Trump legal team arguing that none of what witnesses said involving Trump occurred and later saying it was okay for Trump to pursue quid pro quo if it was in the country's best interest.

Oops! Blunt refers to Sen. McSally as McCaskill

Dershowitz: 'The president is the executive branch. He is irreplaceable'

Dershowitz said Wednesday that there’s an "enormous difference" between impeaching a judge and impeaching a president because the president is "irreplaceable."

"The president is the executive branch. He is irreplaceable," Dershowitz said emphatically in response to a question by five GOP senators who asked how the framers would view removing a president if only one political party supported the president's impeachment. 

On the other hand, he said that "no judge, not even the chief justice, is the judicial branch." 

Dershowitz said that the House acted like it could do whatever it wanted in determining what is impeachable in the case of Trump. 

"The House of Representatives is not above the law," he said. 

"But to use that criteria, that it's whatever the House says it is whenever the Senate says it is, turns those bodies into lawless bodies in violation of the intent of the framers."

Nadler argues Giuliani's role proves Trump was not concerned about corruption in Ukraine

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked House impeachment managers whether Trump bringing up Guiliani on the July call showed the true purpose since Giuliani admitted he was working on behalf of the president in Ukraine.  

Nadler noted that Giuliani had a key role and was only interested in getting investigations into the Bidens specifically and not corruption in general, rebutting the argument from Trump’s defense team that the president was deeply concerned about corruption in Ukraine. 

"Mr. Giuliani confirmed President Trump's knowledge of his actions with regard to Ukraine, stating: 'He knows what I'm doing. Sure, as his lawyer.' He added: 'My only client is the president of the United States. He's the one who I have an obligation to report to,'" Nadler said. 

ANALYSIS: Rival campaigns say Trump's attacks are warning to Biden

As Joe Biden barnstorms Iowa before Monday's all-important caucuses, his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination are cautiously flagging a high-intensity battery of Republican attacks on him as warning signs for the party.

Andrew Yang suggested Wednesday that it was wrong for Biden's son Hunter to sit on the board of a foreign company when Biden was vice president.

That kind of subtle contrast is about as far as any of Biden's Democratic rivals will go toward publicly criticizing him, because they see little benefit to their own campaigns — and tremendous risk — in piling on at a time when Republicans are barraging voters here with allegations that members of Biden's family benefited improperly from his positions in elected office.

That's especially true given the fact that Trump himself has amplified unsubstantiated charges against Biden.

Read more here

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'