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Senate GOP grows more confident it can block witnesses in impeachment trial

U.S. senators are preparing for a critical vote on whether to allow new witnesses to testify as part of President Trump's impeachment trial. On Thursday, they had their second and final chance to ask questions of House impeachment managers and Trump's legal team. Amna Nawaz reports on their different interpretations of truth, and Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States Senate may be on the eve tonight of deciding whether to call witnesses, before deciding President Trump's fate.

    But, first, the senators spent more long hours today posing questions to lawyers representing the president and the managers from the House of Representatives.

    Amna Nawaz begins our coverage.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    On this, the last day of questions in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, the battle of words began well before proceedings.

    Lead House manager Adam Schiff:

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Yesterday, the president's defenders argued that a president of the United States could do whatever he wanted to secure his reelection.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That a reference to this argument made by Alan Dershowitz:

  • Alan Dershowitz:

    And 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 impeachment.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This morning, Dershowitz tweeted to clarify, writing: "I didn't say or imply that a candidate could do anything to reassure his reelection, only that seeking help in an election is not necessarily corrupt."

  • John Roberts:

    The chaplain will lead us in prayer.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When today's session began, the spotlight was on truth.

  • Barry Black:

    Lord, keep them from fear, as they believe that your truth will triumph through them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Though the senators' questions revealed very different ideas on how to get there, especially as a bigger question looms, whether or not 51 senators will vote to allow witnesses, like John Bolton, whose upcoming book reportedly confirms that President Trump linked U.S. aid to Ukraine to an investigation into a possible political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

  • Woman:

    Mr. Chief Justice, I send a question to the desk for the House managers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Democrats continued to build a supporting case for their articles of impeachment.

    Senator Tim Kaine asked the president's alleged obstruction of justice.

  • John Roberts:

    "What is to stop President Trump from complete refusal to cooperate with Congress on any matter?"

  • Amna Nawaz:

    House Manager Adam Schiff responded.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    We impeached him for a far more fundamental reason, because he issued an order categorically directing the executive branch to defy every single part of every single subpoena served by the House.

  • John Roberts:

    The question from Senator Cramer and Young is for the counsel for the president.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Republicans, as with this question from senators Kevin Cramer and Todd Young, teed up the president's team's to respond.

  • John Roberts:

    "Is the president the first innocent defendant not to waive his rights?"

  • Patrick Philbin:

    The answer is obviously no.

    We heard manager Nadler say, only the guilty hide evidence. Only the guilty don't respond to subpoenas, and manager Nadler — excuse me — manager Schiff say that this is not the way innocent people act.

    Well, of course, that's contrary to the very spirit of our American justice system.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But Schiff's frustration with the fight to enforce House subpoenas in court unfurled on the Senate floor.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    So the judge says, if the Congress can't enforce its subpoenas in court, then what remedy is there? And the Justice Department lawyer's response is impeachment. Impeachment.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    You can't make this up.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Republican Senator Rand Paul left the chamber to share his frustration, after his question which included the name of the suspected whistle-blower was rejected.

  • John Roberts:

    The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted.

  • Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.:

    My question is not about the whistle-blower. My question's about two people who are — have been overheard talking about impeaching the president years in advance of a process that was then created to get the impeachment process going.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Back in the chamber, both sides warned senators about the precedent they will set in the trial. The president's team argued, conviction would undo a democratic decision.

  • Jay Sekulow:

    That we are literally at the dawn of a new season of elections. I mean, we're at that season now. And yet we're talking about impeaching a president.

  • Pat Cipollone:

    They want to slow it down and take up the election year and continue this political charade. It's also wrong. It's also wrong. Let's leave it to the people of the United States.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    House managers countered, an acquittal would endanger democracy.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    The president has made no bones about the fact that he's willing to seek foreign intervention to help him cheat in the next election.

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.:

    This is not a banana republic. This is the democratic republic of the United States of America. It's wrong.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Which of these warnings resonated with senators and which version of the truth they will pursue will be revealed in their upcoming votes.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And our Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor are at the Capitol today, and they join me now.

    So, Lisa, we are listening as the Senate questions and answers continue, but we also are watching closely to see about the decision on witnesses. And I know you and the rest of the team have been looking at that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    We have a lot of reporting today, including from Tess Conciatori and Daniel Bush. They heard from the — one of the leading Senate Republicans, Senator John Barrasso, who runs the conference — he is one of the political leaders here — who said he's confident that they do have the vote to block witnesses.

    Since then, I have now had conversations with half-a-dozen other sources, both Republican and Democrat, who confirm that. They do believe that Republicans either are on their way or do have the votes to block witnesses.

    And one of the key swings seems to be Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. I have two sources saying they believe he is now in favor of blocking witnesses. He has not made that announcement. His office has not confirmed that.

    But that seems to be one of the forces leading this confidence — this newfound confidence for the Republicans on this question.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, what are they saying at the White House about their ability to block witnesses, to make sure that witnesses are not called?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Now, about last week, the White House was feeling very, very nervous about the fact that they were not going to be able to block witnesses.

    That has completely changed. I talked to a senior White House source today who is working on the president's legal team. And that person said, look, we're going to be cautious. This is still the Senate. Nothing's really settled into there's an actual vote. But we feel better than we do yesterday.

    But he said, are we where we want to be? And he said, not yet.

    Now, that person also told me that the senator they are looking at is that Senator Alexander, as Lisa said. And what they're really looking at is the fact that this is a senator who's close, reportedly, to Mitch — to Mitt Romney. And, as a result, they're wondering whether or not that he might change his mind.

    But they're feeling as though the president is going to get what he wants, which is the trial to be over by this week, and then for him to be able to have a State of the Union address where he can say, I was acquitted, that the Democrats impeached me, they tried to remove me from office, but that instead I'm actually still here.

    The other thing to note, Judy, I had a pretty tense exchange with Kellyanne Conway — she's the senior White House counselor — today. I was at the White House, and she had a rare briefing.

    And I asked her specifically about reports that — and about public statements that the former Chief of Staff John Kelly, General John Kelly, has said that he believes John Bolton, if the manuscript that he's written says that the president directly tied at Ukraine to investigations of Democrats.

    She wouldn't answer the question at first. And then she said: I don't make anything of it. But I do respect General Kelly.

    So what you see there is the White House saying, look, we don't exactly know what John Bolton has said, at least publicly. He's not said anything. But what we want to do is not attack the people who say that they believe John Bolton.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, given all this, you're talking to Democrats. How do they plan to approach these next couple of days and what could now lead to an acquittal of the president?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, I get a sense of discouragement from some Senate Democrats behind closed doors. But they also say the fight is not over. They hope to still sway some votes their way.

    If they do lose the votes on witnesses expected tomorrow around dinnertime, then we expect Senator Schumer, on behalf of Democrats, to begin filing a series of motions at some point. He has a few opportunities when he can do that.

    One opportunity could be the motion to acquit the president himself. This gets a little weedy, Judy, but that motion is amendable. That means, in this trial setting, Democrats can propose as many amendments on as many topics as they want, including John Bolton.

    We may see a repeat of that very long night we had last week. Also, Judy, though, I think, on the horizon, we see another divide, potentially.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this morning said she does not believe it would be an acquittal without any witnesses. That seems to be filtering into the Senate. Independent Angus King of Maine is saying now, it would not be an exoneration with no witnesses.

    So, even defining what has happened could be another division in this country after this trial.

    One more thing, Judy, I think that Senate Republicans are considering seriously the idea of an investigation of the Bidens in some form. Is that a hearing? Is it a more formal investigation? Is that just talk during the trial? I don't know.

    But it is something that's in the air right now after this trial is over.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating.

    So, Yamiche, meantime, the president himself has taken off for Michigan and Iowa today. What is he saying about this trial right now?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, both he and his legal team are saying that this is a trial that's going well for them.

    Alan Dershowitz was tweeting today. And he said, essentially, that his statements were being taken out of context. Yesterday, he got a lot of pushback because he said, look, the president going after something that's in his national interest and in the interest of the country can be one and the same if it's really about being elected.

    And he got a lot of pushback for that. And, as a result, Alan Dershowitz has been trying to really make the case that he's being taken out of context.

    And we have seen in the Senate trial several members of the president's legal team also doing that.

    But onto the president, of course, the president has been in Michigan. He was supposed to be talking about trade, but he then turned to impeachment and said that this was all a disgraceful thing that was happening in our nation.

    He's supposed to be also now on his way to Iowa, where he's going to have a campaign rally. But, again, the president is focused on the impeachment. So, as he wants to talk about getting reelected next year, he's still very much focused on making sure that his — that his legacy remains intact, and that he's not going to be removed from office.

    The White House, of course, has felt all along that he would be acquitted. But this feels even better for the White House, that they might not even have to deal with the witnesses or deal with a court fight when it comes to Ambassador John Bolton.

    So they're feeling great tonight, and we can expect that the president will be in good spirits as he goes to Iowa.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, terrific reporting from both of you.

    Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, we thank you.

  • Editor’s note:

    This transcript wrongly identified Sen. Tim Kaine as speaking when U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts spoke. Roberts read a question submitted by Kaine.

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