Democratic House managers and President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team on Wednesday faced the first day of questioning from senators. Lawmakers pressed for specifics on the president’s effort to push Ukraine to announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Senators heard arguments on whether Trump’s actions were in part motivated by concern for the public good, whether abuse of power constitutes an impeachable offense and when exactly Trump raised the issue of Ukrainian corruption and the Bidens.
The lawmakers will get a second day on Thursday to ask questions before making a critical decision on whether to subpoena new witnesses and documents — a debate that has consumed much of the trial. In Wednesday’s question period, the House managers and Trump’s lawyers each addressed the issue of witnesses repeatedly.
Senate Democrats will need four Republicans to vote with them on the issue to expand the scope of the trial. Late Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly told colleagues in a private meeting that he does not have the numbers yet to prevent more witness testimony. But throughout the day on Wednesday, more ‘swing’ senators confirmed they’d likely vote against hearing witnesses.
Here are five moments from the first day of questioning:
Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz pushed back against charges that the president engaged in a quid pro quo by conditioning a White House visit and military aid on an announcement of investigations. Public officials like Trump believe their election to office is in the public interest, said Dershowitz.
“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 an impeachment,” Dershowitz added.
“Everybody has mixed motives,” Dershowitz said, warning senators that it is dangerous to “psychoanalyze” Trump.
The House managers and defense team each responded to public comments made Monday night by former White House chief of staff John Kelly, who said he believes former national security adviser John Bolton would tell the truth in his unpublished manuscript. Bolton reportedly wrote that Trump told him that millions of dollars in military aid should be held from Ukraine until that nation agreed to announce investigations into the Bidens.
Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow disputed a New York Times report discussing those alleged details from Bolton’s upcoming book. Sekulow argued that if the Democrats are allowed to subpoena Bolton, then Trump’s team should be able to have their own witnesses to testify.
Lead House manager Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told the senators they should all have the opportunity to hear what Bolton has to say.
“It’s really at the end of the day not whether I believe John Bolton, or whether Gen. Kelly believes John Bolton, but whether you believe John Bolton. Whether you’ll have the opportunity to hear directly from John Bolton, whether you’ll have the opportunity to evaluate his credibility for yourself,” Schiff said.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, asked Trump’s legal team when the president first connected the Bidens to corruption in Ukraine and whether it took place before Joe Biden entered the 2020 presidential election in April 2019.
Trump lawyer Patrick Philbin stated that the House investigation record does not show Trump specifically mentioning the Bidens before Joe Biden announced his candidacy, but Philbin added that there is a record of Trump expressing concern about corruption in Ukraine.
Philbin said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s promises to address Ukraine’s problems with corruption opened up an opportunity for Trump to raise questions about Zelensky’s efforts.
Schiff said that, due to a backlash over the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment, his staff members now fear for their safety as a result of online threats.
“I am very protective of my staff, as I know you know,” Schiff told the senators. “There’s no one who could understand the plight of Ambassador [Marie] Yovanovitch more than some of my staff who have been treated to the same kind of smears,” Schiff said. Yovanovitch testified during the House impeachment inquiry that there was a campaign to remove her from her post in Ukraine. New video evidence made public over the weekend records the president telling two associates of his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that they should “get rid” of Yovanovitch.
Schiff also criticized demands from Republican lawmakers to subpoena testimony from the whistleblower.
“You wonder why we don’t want to call the whistleblower,” Schiff said. Suggesting that everyone already knows what the whistleblower wrote, he added that there’s no need for the whistleblower in the trial, “except to endanger that person’s life.”
2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked a pointed question about Trump’s credibility.
“Given the media has documented President Trump’s thousands of lies while in office … why should we be expected to believe that anything President Trump says has credibility?” Sanders wrote in his question, which was read by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts.
Like the other Senate Democrats running for the White House, Sanders’ question offered him a brief moment in the spotlight while he’s off the campaign trail in the last days before the Iowa caucus.
In response, Schiff urged senators not to accept Trump’s “false exculpatory” because “at the end of the day, we have people with firsthand knowledge.”
Schiff argued that the president’s “track record” of false statements discredits Trump’s denial that a quid pro quo took place.
“If every defendant in a trial could be exonerated just by denying the crime, there would be no trial. It doesn’t work that way,” Schiff said.
Candice Norwood is a former digital politics reporter for the PBS NewsHour.
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