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Is Trump’s legal defense resonating with Republican senators?

President Trump’s legal team has begun its defense in his Senate impeachment trial. The central argument: Trump did nothing wrong, and the summary of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shows no evidence of conditioning military aid on investigations. But John Bolton reportedly says that did occur. Amna Nawaz reports and Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This has been a day for President Trump side to present his arguments in his Senate impeachment trial.

    His lawyers are fighting the charges against him, while supporters try to fend off damaging new disclosures.

    Amna Nawaz reports on a dramatic turn of events that began over the weekend and continue today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    President Trump's defense began on Saturday, day five of his impeachment trial.

  • Pat Cipollone:

    Thank you for your time, and thank you for your attention.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    With a brief two-hour presentation in which his lawyers outlined their strategy, attacking House Democrats working to impeach Trump and disputing a central premise of the impeachment effort, that the president abused his power by withholding U.S. military aid to Ukraine, while pressing the Ukrainian president to announce an investigation into a possible political rival, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter.

    The president, they argue, did nothing wrong.

  • Pat Cipollone:

    The transcript shows that the president didn't condition either security assistance or a meeting on anything. The paused security assistance funds aren't even mentioned on the call.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But before the president's lawyers could detail their defense:

  • Woman:

    New revelations from former National Security Adviser John Bolton's upcoming book.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Breaking news late Sunday night appeared to undermine their arguments, The New York Times reporting that leaked excerpts from the upcoming memoir of former National Security Adviser John Bolton included Bolton's recollection that Trump told him in August — quote — "that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with the investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens."

    The "NewsHour" has not independently reviewed the manuscript.

    Mr. Trump, whose administration was given a copy of Bolton's book for security review in December, was asked about the reports this morning.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Well, I have not seen a manuscript, but I can tell you nothing was ever said to John Bolton. But I have not seen a manuscript. I guess he is writing a book. I have not seen it

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But the reported revelations from Bolton, who left the administration in September, further fueled Democrats' calls for him to testify in the impeachment trial.

    Bolton has previously said he would testify publicly if the Senate subpoenas him, and said today that offer still stands.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    We have a witness with firsthand evidence of the president's actions for which he is on trial. He is ready and willing to testify. How can Senate Republicans not vote to call that witness and request his documents?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    At least four Republican senators would need to vote with Democrats to subpoena Bolton and other witnesses.

    Today, two indicated they might. Susan Collins of Maine said reports on Bolton's book — quote — "strengthen the case for witnesses."

    Mitt Romney of Utah agreed.

  • Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah:

    I think, at this stage, it's pretty fair to say that John Bolton has a relevant testimony to provide to those of us who are sitting in impartial justice.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Even one of President Trump's staunchest allies, Senator Lindsey Graham, left the door open, but urged patience.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    I don't know what's in the manuscript. I haven't seen it. If there's need to add to the record, my view is that we are going to completely add to the record, not selectively. And I will let you know Thursday if I think there's a need.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    All this…

  • Man:

    Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    … before today's impeachment proceedings even began.

    Jay Sekulow, one of the president's attorneys, quickly resumed his defense.

  • Jay Sekulow:

    It is our position, as the president's counsel, that the president was at all times acting under his constitutional authority, under his legal authority, in our national interest, and pursuant to his oath of office.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Using simple, bold-faced graphics, Trump's team pushed back on the first article of impeachment: abuse of power. In their words, there was no quid pro quo.

  • Michael Perpura:

    The House manager's record reflects that anyone who spoke with the president said that the president made clear that there was no linkage. The security assistance flowed, and the presidential meeting took place, all without any announcement of investigations.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the president, his team argued, has been denied due process, part of what they describe as a rushed, partisan process to undo the 2016 election and influence the upcoming 2020 election.

    On the second article of impeachment, attorney Patrick Philbin argued that president has not obstructed Congress.

  • Patrick Philbin:

    When the rights the president is asserting are based on executive privilege, when they are constitutionally grounded principles that are essential for the separation of powers and for protecting the institution of the office of the presidency, to call that obstruction is to turn the Constitution on its head.

  • Ken Starr:

    Like war, impeachment is hell, or at least presidential impeachment is hell.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The proceedings included a familiar face in America's modern impeachments. Ken Starr, who led the 1999 probe into President Clinton and pushed for his impeachment, today argued that the process has devolved into a political tool.

  • Ken Starr:

    We are living in what I think can aptly be described as the age of impeachment. How did we get here, with presidential impeachment invoked frequently, in its inherently destabilizing, as well as acrimonious way?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And a familiar name from the Democrats' opening arguments, Rudy Giuliani, was also mentioned by attorney Jane Raskin, who defended his role in the Ukraine affair.

  • Jane Raskin:

    It's a central and essential premise of the House managers' case that Mr. Giuliani's motive in investigating Ukrainian corruption and interference in the 2016 election was an entirely political one, undertaken at the president's direction.

    But what evidence have the managers actually offered you to support that proposition? On close inspection, it turns out, virtually none.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The one name not mentioned by a single one of President Trump's impeachment attorneys was the one dominating headlines outside of this room for much of the day, John Bolton.

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

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor are with us both from the Capitol.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, Yamiche, this news that we have just heard Amna reporting about the Bolton manuscript from the book released over the weekend, how much of an effect does that seem to be having on this trial? And how is it affecting the White House argument that there doesn't need to be any more witnesses?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    John Bolton's manuscript, the news of the details in it, is really upending the Senate trial.

    Even though no one was talking about it inside the chamber, it was all people were talking about in the halls of the Capitol today. And what you saw was multiple White House officials pushing back on it.

    And we can put up a graph showing some of the people who are pushing back on it. There's President Trump, who said that he never had a conversation where he directly tied aid to Ukraine to investigations of the Bidens.

    You also have Vice President Mike Pence, along with his chief of staff, Marc Short, both pushing back, saying Bolton never gave them any sort of indication that he was concerned.

    And you have Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff to the president. He also is saying that none of this is true and that he's pushing back on that.

    The other thing to note, there's a source telling for "PBS NewsHour" tonight that John Bolton might actually come out with this book earlier than expected. They're also pushing back on the idea that John Bolton is doing this because he wants to sell the book.

    He said that he signed his contract to have this book before this Ukraine controversy happened. The other big thing, the White House was — set out to try to block witnesses and try to block any more testimony from happening. That has made it a lot harder.

    There are a lot of allies and Republicans now saying that they want to hear from John Bolton.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Yamiche, I guess the president's legal team is about seven hours into their arguments now.

    They are still speaking at this hour before the Senate. Tell us what your sense of the heart of the argument is that they're making.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    We have seen a number of lawyers for the president come up and really take this subject by subject.

    Some of them are talking about history. Some of them are talking about the process. But here are some of the main arguments that they're making. We can put up a graph for people.

    There's one that noted there's no testimony directly tying President Trump to the military aid to actually saying that he needed to have those investigations to give the aid to Ukraine.

    They're also saying there was no quid pro quo and that the process is unfair and too political. Now, we should add, though, that they left out the fact that, of course, if John Bolton testifies, they might actually have someone who's directly tying the president to this aid.

    The other thing to mention is that now there's a new argument that the president's lawyer just made, which is that President Obama did something similar, that he was also tying his aid and his missile defenses with Russia to the 2012 election.

    So, what we're seeing is a number of arguments that the White House is making, but those were the main ones.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To Lisa now.

    So, Lisa, I know you have been trying to talk to senators. How are these arguments resonating with them? What are they telling you?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think, in speaking to a handful of senators' offices — we have kind of been speaking to them more than senators themselves, because senators have been, just like us, in the trial for most of the days — there was actually some — something achieved by the president today, especially speaking to Republican offices.

    There was a sense that this argument that this is a trial that is going beyond precedent, that, if senators follow the House impeachment managers' lead, that they will breaking — they will be breaking with history, and doing so in a way that might be questioned by the Constitution, that is an argument that seemed to be hitting some fertile ground with Republicans of all stripes.

    And it was a smart one when you think about the audience. This is an audience generally of institutionalists. They believe in Congress and the Senate. Also, many of these folks have a strong sense of history.

    So arguing that history is something that is being broken by the House impeachment case is something that I think really was starting to resonate.

    On the other hand, Judy, in observing the Senate and also talking to some of these offices, it's possible that the president's team went too far in saying that Speaker Pelosi herself was breaking with the Constitution, sort of kind of questioning whether she is even in line with the Constitution.

    That's something that literally was raising some eyebrows as we watched the floor. All of the talk about Biden and Burisma, I saw a lot of attention paid during those presentations, but very few notes being taken.

    I don't know if that's something that senators are bringing into account fully in terms of the John Bolton witness discussion. And I think that, in all, we saw senators all paying very close attention today. Very little movement in the chamber, relative to the past days. That's something, of course, the president's team was hoping to see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, what about this debate, this discussion over witnesses? What are you picking up? And are there senators you're able to identify who might be prepared to vote for witnesses?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    And, as Amna reported, we heard from Mitt Romney today that he would like to talk — hear from John Bolton. And, already, we know Susan Collins has said she thinks that he — that the case is being made even more strongly by the excerpts The New York Times printed from their book.

    So that's two out of four votes that are needed to call any witnesses.

    Let's look at a list that I have composed of other possible Republicans. This is from talking to senators and Republican staffers across the Hill, Senators Alexander, Braun, Gardner, Kennedy, Lee, Moran, Murkowski, Portman, Roberts, and Toomey.

    These senators have a few things in common. Some of them are moderate, some not. Many of them are people whose states voted closely for Trump — closely — Trump-Clinton divide.

    And, also, something most of these senators have in common, Judy, they have been taking a lot of notes. Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is someone to watch. We know from reporting and I have from one source telling me he is trying to have conversations about witnesses and try and get some kind of deal where Republicans and Democrats each get a witness they can live with.

    But I want to make sure viewers understand something about the witness discussion. There will be multiple votes on witnesses, likely. It looks like there would be an opening vote.

    Let's look at a graphic for how this could work. There will be an opening vote on whether to even talk about witnesses in general, no specific witness. And there seems to be growing momentum for that to pass, just the discussion of witnesses, for that to happen.

    But, Judy, after that, there would have to be a vote about specific witnesses.

    Do you call John Bolton? Do you call Hunter Biden?

    And, Judy, right now, it's not clear there are 51 votes for any specific witnesses. There may be 51 votes for the idea of witnesses in general.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, several, several steps to go, and we are not even at the end of the argument yet.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins, Yamiche Alcindor, thank you both.

    And you can join our ongoing coverage of the Senate trial for the remainder of this evening. Check your local listings for that and online on our Web site or YouTube, and again tomorrow, Tuesday, when the trial resumes at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

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