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In final opening arguments, House managers turn to obstruction of Congress charge

The House impeachment managers tasked with prosecuting the case for removal of President Trump are completing their opening arguments Friday. Meanwhile, an audio recording was released in which Trump allegedly urges the removal of former Amb. Marie Yovanovitch. Nick Schifrin reports and Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest news and the Friday session.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The impeachment trial of President Trump is nearing its halfway point.

    One hundred United States senators listened today to prosecutors from the House of Representatives taking turns as they sought to wrap up their case.

    Once again, Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, House Democrats are ending their opening arguments the way they began, portraying President Trump as a clear and present danger.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    The president's scheme to pressure Ukraine to do his political dirty work harmed our national security, undermined our free and fair elections, and even today, even today, threatens the very foundation of our democracy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lead House manager Adam Schiff and a half-dozen other House managers focused today on the second article of impeachment, obstruction of Congress.

  • Quote:

    "In the history of the republic, no president has ever ordered the complete defiance of an impeachment inquiry or sought to obstruct and impede so comprehensively the ability of the House of Representatives to investigate high crimes and misdemeanors."

  • New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries:

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffires, D-N.Y.:

    President Trump tried to cheat. He got caught. And then he worked hard to cover it up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They argued that cover-up began on July the 10th, when administration officials told visiting Ukrainian officials that Ukraine would have to investigate the 2016 election and Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden before getting a coveted White House meeting.

    On July 25, President Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and repeated the investigation requests. And, in August, an intelligence official working at the White House filed a whistle-blower complaint.

    Today, House manager Jason Crow said the White House covered up each step.

  • Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo.:

    It started with the White House's lawyers' failure to stop the scheme after the July 10 meeting was reported to them, continued with attempts to hide the July 25 call summary, and escalated with the White House's illegal concealment of the whistle-blower complaint from Congress.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    During the investigation, Democrats subpoenaed and asked for documents from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg.

    All refused to comply, even though Eisenberg knew of internal concerns about the president's actions.

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries:

    Because the president blocked Mr. Eisenberg from testifying, without any justification, the record is silent as to what, if any actions he or the White House counsel took to address President Trump's brazen misconduct and abuse of power.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump has argued that there was no cover-up, because nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine was eventually released.

    But Democrats today said it was released only under pressure.

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries:

    After the House launched an investigation, and after Congress learned about the existence of a whistle-blower complaint, the $391 million in security aid was only released because President Trump was caught red-handed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, President Trump portrayed the Democrats as tedious, writing on Twitter: "The do-nothing Democrats just keep repeating and repeating, over and over again, the same old stuff on the impeachment hoax. They want to use up all of their time, even though it is the wrong thing to do. They ought to go back to work for our great American people."

    That was echoed by Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer during an interview with Judy Woodruff.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was wrong of the president to ask the president of Ukraine to conduct an investigation into Vice President Biden and his son. Do you accept their premise that that is what President Trump did?

  • Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.:

    I don't. You know, I'm waiting to hear from the defense starting tomorrow. That's what a jury is supposed to do. We don't make decisions based on one side's presentation. And we will hear what the president's counsel says tomorrow.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the Senate, there are 47 Democrats and independents; 20 Republicans would have to join them to get to two-thirds, 67, to convict the president and remove him from office.

    But only four Republicans would have to switch to get to a majority of 51 to allow witnesses and new evidence.

    Today, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer made that appeal personal.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    Will four Republican senators, just four, rise to the occasion, do their duty to the Constitution, to their country, to seek the truth?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Democrats also focused today on former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. She testified how she was dismissed by the director general of the Foreign Service in a hurry.

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    She said I needed to get on the — home — come home immediately. Get on the next plane to the U.S.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, today, we learned more about how long President Trump had been discussing her removal.

    One year before she was dismissed, President Trump was having dinner with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, associates of his attorney Rudy Giuliani.

    They were criticizing her. And according to a recording heard by ABC News, President Trump said: "Get rid of her. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out, OK? Do it."

    Today, Republicans argued ambassadors serve at the president's pleasure and that President Trump was well within his power to fire an ambassador, as he had fired so many would-be apprentices.

  • President Donald Trump:

    You're fired.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio:

    My guess is, we're probably not surprised that a guy who had a TV show where he talked about firing people is willing to recall the ambassador.

    The president of the United States can put in place the people he thinks who are best there to — who will do the best job implementing the policies that he was elected to implement. I think that's what he's doing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    During this trial, senators are supposed to sit silently at their desks, but in this chamber-turned-courtroom, the days are long, and the chairs are hard.

    Sketch artist Bill Hennessy caught a fidgety senator's desk left empty, a notepad left behind, a fidget spinner in another senator's hands, and another on a nearby desk.

    During a break, Republicans strategized. The president's side will begin its turn tomorrow, when they start up to 24 hours of opening arguments and try to rebut Democrats' central argument.

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries:

    There's a toxic mess at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And I humbly suggest that it's our collective job, on behalf of the American people, to try to clean it up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to share their reporting on this ongoing trial, our own Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol and Yamiche Alcindor at the White House.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, Lisa, you were watching it all, and you were telling us that you are seeing something new today in terms of how these senators are taking it in.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    From our spot above the Senate chamber, generally above the Republican side of the chamber, I have to tell you, Judy, I saw for the first time today every single senator taking notes or looking through the graphic presentation in paper form that Democrats had given out.

    Up until today, Republicans had been given the choice whether to get that presentation in paper form or not. Some Republicans have chosen not to look at it.

    And I had seen several senators who were watching and listening, but not taking notes, not looking through any paperwork. Today, these desks are full of documents, every single one of them.

    Also, Judy, didn't see a single senator nodding off. And I know that's kind of a funny thing to talk about, but these are long days. The desk are — the chairs are hard, as Nick wrote. And it's very common to see for brief moments senators nodding off. Didn't see that today.

    I think this is an alert Senate. Why is this? Speaking to senators, there's two factors. I think there is anticipation of the president's side presenting his case very soon, and people are focusing on getting ready, preparing for that.

    I also think there is a lot of consideration of the questions senators will get to ask once the president rests his case in his opening statements, and senators are starting to hone in on that fact that they will get the chance to ask questions. They're trying to sort out what they want to ask.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And to Yamiche, you have obviously been talking to the White House. How are they, how is the president responding to what is going on today and in these other days? And there's this new recording of the president?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's right, Judy.

    President Trump and the president's legal team have spent most of the day lashing out at Democrats, saying that they are really after the president for this partisan political act.

    I have been texting with Rudy Giuliani again today. He's been telling me that there are too many lies to push back on, so his take is that Democrats are really making things up.

    Of course, Democrats disagree with his statements there. But then there's this new recording of President Trump that appears to show him saying a year before Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, was fired, a year before that, saying, get rid of her.

    Now, I have been talking the Lev Parnas' attorney. He's an associate of Rudy Giuliani's who is facing federal charge. His lawyer says this bolsters his client's claim that President Trump was engaged in a scheme to get Marie Yovanovitch out of the way, so that he could pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.

    The lawyer also says that this new recording shows that there needs to be more evidence and more witnesses added to this Senate trial. Of course, President Trump has been pushing back on this. The White House is saying, of course, that the president can do whatever he wants.

    But the president also attacked Marie Yovanovitch while she was testifying, famously, saying that she was someone who was a bad ambassador, and everywhere she went turned bad.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa, back to you on — this was the day when Democrats turned to the second article of impeachment.

    It really wasn't until mid to late afternoon before they got around to the second article, which has to do with obstruction of Congress. What are you hearing unfold in that regard?

  • Lisa Desjardins:


    And we saw this on the floor very clearly. Democrats produced letters, some from officials within the executive department, some from the Department of Defense specifically, saying to House impeachment at that time, chairmen, that they wanted to comply, they were trying to help them get documents, but, eventually, they were ordered not to submit those documents.

    Also, they were showing letters from individuals and attorneys that were saying, my client has no choice but to follow the direct orders of his boss, President Trump.

    And Democrats sort of summed it up, Zoe Lofgren summed it up, as saying that the president's orders were indiscriminate, categorical, and they were wrong, and that that shows obstruction.

    Another interesting note, Zoe Lofgren — a lot of times, we're talking about Adam Schiff. But I spoke to a few senators today that say Zoe Lofgren of California actually is reaching through to senators in a way — in a sort of plainspoken way that seems to be having an effect on both sides.

    Now, what will they do the rest of the night, Judy? By my calculation, as of dinnertime here in Washington, the Democrats have about three hours remaining of that 24 hours. Can you believe we're already nearly at the end of it?

    And we will see if they continue with these arguments. I also am looking, though, for the personal stories of these managers, talking about why they care so much and their own personal histories.

    That was one of the most effective parts of the House impeachment hearings back last year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So interesting. And we will all be listening for that tonight.

    And, meantime, finally, Yamiche, starting tomorrow, it's the turn of the president's legal team. They're going to have up to 24 hours, up to three days. What do we know that we can expect so far?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, a source working on the president's legal team says that they're eager to present the rebuttal to the Democrats' case.

    A quick note on the president's tweet, a tweet that the president sent out. He said: "My lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in TV."

    Essentially, the president is saying, look, I don't like the fact that we have to present our case, not in prime time. That said, the president's lawyers say that they are going to take about three hours tomorrow to have what they call a trailer. They say it's a coming to attractions — coming attractions trailer, saying that they're going to preview some of their arguments, but not make the bulk of their arguments until Monday.

    And then, on Monday, they say that's the main attraction. They're using these words that are kind of Hollywood words. And, of course, the president had a successful TV show, so we can see where that language is coming from.

    But they're saying that they're going to start rebutting the Democrats and that they're going to talk a lot about Joe Biden and make the case that the president was right to bring up Joe Biden.

    And they say that they're doing that, in part, because Democrats spent a lot of time defending Joe Biden. So we're going to see a pretty large and expansive defense by the president's attorneys.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are going to remain on the edge of our seats.

    Yamiche Alcindor at the White House, Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, and we will be seeing you tonight.

    And you can you join our ongoing coverage of the Senate trial for the remainder of the evening. Check your local listings for that, and online on our Web site or on YouTube, and again tomorrow, Saturday, when, as you heard, the trial resumes at 10:00 a.m. Eastern.

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