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Senate amends impeachment trial rules, but defers on witnesses

The Senate impeachment trial of President Trump got underway on Capitol Hill Tuesday. The first day of proceedings involved hours of debate over the trial rules Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had proposed; ultimately, some changes were accepted. Nick Schifrin reports, and Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins and The Washington Post’s Robert Costa join Judy Woodruff to discuss the takeaways.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been all impeachment all afternoon in the United States Senate. The lawmakers have spent hours now debating the rules that will govern the trial of President Trump.

    Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the first time this century…

  • John Roberts:

    You will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help you God?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And only the third time in 150 years.

  • Michael Stenger:

    All persons are commanded to keep silent, on pain of imprisonment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Senate launched a presidential impeachment trial.

    White House counsel Pat Cipollone:

  • Pat Cipollone:

    The only conclusion will be that the president has done absolutely nothing wrong, and that these articles of impeachment do not begin to approach the standard required.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lead House manager and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff:

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Conduct that abuses the power of his office for personal benefit, that undermines our national security, that invites foreign interference in our democratic process of an election, it is the trifecta of constitutional misconduct, justifying impeachment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At question, whether President Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations into the 2016 election and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden by withholding nearly $400 million in military aid that Ukraine needs in its conflict with Russia, and whether President Trump obstructed Congress by refusing to hand over documents and blocking senior officials from testifying.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    The president places himself beyond accountability, above the law, cannot be indicted, cannot be impeached. It makes him a monarch, the very evil against which our Constitution and the balance of powers it carefully laid out was designed to guard against.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Four thousand miles away, President Trump joined world leaders in Davos at the world's premiere economic forum. He predicted his exoneration.

  • President Donald Trump:

    And I'm in Europe today because we're bringing a lot of other companies into our country with thousands of jobs, millions of jobs in many cases. So, that whole thing is a total hoax. So, I'm sure it's going to work out fine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senators voting on the trial rules.

    Originally, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted each side to present for 24 total hours across two days. Under pressure from some moderate Republicans, he changed that to 24 total hours across three days. He also allowed the House impeachment investigation to be admitted as evidence.

    The rules allow for several initial trial stages, opening presentations for each side, senators' written questions, and then a vote on allowing additional evidence and witnesses.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    It sets up a structure that is fair, even-handed and tracks closely with past precedents that were established unanimously.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That was echoed by President Trump's personal attorney Jay Sekulow.

  • Jay Sekulow:

    So, we believe that what Senator McConnell has put forward provides due process, allows the proceedings to move forward in an orderly fashion.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 1999, at this stage of President Clinton's impeachment, senators approved the process 100-0. This time, the vote is expected to be partisan.

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused Republicans of manipulating the Clinton trial rules.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    Now Leader McConnell has just said he wants to go by the Clinton rules. Then why did he change them in four important ways, at minimum, to all make the trial less transparent, less clear and with less evidence?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Democrats tried, but failed to amend McConnell's rules to allow senators to subpoena administration documents and interview witnesses blocked from House investigators.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    We're ready. The House calls John Bolton. The House calls John Bolton. The House calls Mick Mulvaney. Let's get this trial started, shall we? We are ready to present our case.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump's impeachment was the fastest in history, and Republicans accused Democrats of a rush to judgment against a president they always wanted impeached.

  • Pat Cipollone:

    They're not here to steal one election. They're here to steal two elections. It's buried in the small print of their ridiculous articles of impeachment. They want to remove President Trump from the ballot.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The trial's jurors are the 100 members of the Senate. It would take two-thirds of them to convict and remove the president from office. They cannot speak inside the trial. So, they visited microphones outside.

    Democrats said the Senate should hear witnesses who didn't testify under oath to the House and might criticize President Trump.

  • Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn.:

    And I haven't seen anyone under oath who's defended him. A lot of people have defended him not under oath. But let's put some people under oath, see how they do.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Most Republicans criticized the House of Representatives' investigation and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

  • Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.:

    Because we're going to be fair. We're going to do our job. Let me say it again. The House proceedings were rigged, and Speaker Pelosi rigged them. They were as rigged — I have said they were as rigged as a carnival ring toss.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But a handful of moderate Republicans indicated they might be willing to hear from witnesses, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who reportedly called President Trump's Ukraine policy akin to a drug deal.

  • Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah:

    Well, I think its important to hear from John Bolton and perhaps other witnesses, obviously, from both the defense, as well the prosecution.

    The right time for that vote, that decision is after the opening arguments. That's how the process was carried out during the Clinton impeachment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senators are expected to debate into the evening, and the Democrats are expected to begin the first of their three days of arguments tomorrow.

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

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For views now from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, I'm joined by our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, and Lisa Desjardins, who is still at the Capitol. She was in the room today.

    Hello to both of you.

    So, Lisa, to you first.

    Nick was reporting, of course, on this change that the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, made early in the afternoon in the rules governing the trial. What is that going to mean exactly going forward?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, it's very significant in terms of the calendar.

    But, first of all, let's just go over really quickly what the change does exactly. It moves from up to — it allows each side up to three days of presentation. It was just two days. And that meant those were going to be two very long days, possibly going into 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. in the morning.

    Now that will shorter days ending in the evening. Also, that change meant that any previous House-gathered evidence will now be admitted as evidence for this trial. That was something that McConnell was going to require a vote for.

    Now that evidence, which includes, as you know, almost 4,000 pages of witness testimony, will be entered into the record as part of this trial.

    So, what does it mean for all of us watching this trial? Well, it means the trial could be a little bit longer.

    Let's look at the schedule going ahead. If they wrap up the rules debate today, as we expect, we believe this now means the next three days will be when the House managers and Democrats present their case for removal of the president.

    Then, Saturday is when we expect the White — or the president's team would begin their defense of the president. They could have up to three days. We're not clear if the White House team, the president's team, will choose to have three days.

    If they do, that will go into the middle of next week. After that, as Nick reported, senators can ask written questions. That could take a couple of days.

    Judy, the bottom line of all this is, now we have a better idea that this trial could, in fact, wrap up next week toward the end of next week. But that's only if they decide not to call witnesses. And that is very much an open question right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, Lisa, much of — getting back to what your reporting was all about, much of today was about whether new evidence should be admitted or whether they're going to depend on just what the House was able to determine in its investigation.

    How is all that turning out? And talk about the precedent for that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:


    It's very important. Both sides are going to say that they have their case based on precedent. But when you look at this question of witnesses, one thing that is unique about this trial is the fact that House Democrats would have liked to have gotten testimony from several White House witnesses and were unable to because the president blocked them.

    They are now arguing that he has that privilege, as an executive. However, the issue here, Judy, is the content. They believe these witnesses, especially John Bolton, the former national security adviser, and also Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff, have information about what the president was doing.

    They want to get it. They believe the Senate can compel that testimony. Now, is there precedent for a Senate trial bringing in new evidence that the House was not able to get?

    Yes, there actually is that precedent. And what's more, Judy, when you look at the rules, it's very clear that Senate — the Senate 100 years ago, the Senate 40 years ago said that each Senate determines if they want to call witnesses or not.

    The question is whether that's fair and appropriate here. But, clearly, the framers, the rule makers for hundreds of years have said the Senate has the right to decide this as it will. New evidence or not, it's up to each Senate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally to you, Lisa, there's something you could see there in the Senate chamber that we watching on television or online couldn't see.

    And that is the faces of many of the senators. How were they reacting? What were they doing during this entire thing?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's so unusual to watch such a silent, completely silent drama from all 100 senators sitting there.

    You could see, Judy, that this was something senators took very seriously. All the senators were alert, certainly at the beginning. I'm told by Daniel Bush, who is now in the chamber, that, actually, there are many more yawns as the day goes on.

    But it stood out that some senators are taking copious notes. Those are some of the swing senators, including Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, also Senator Lindsey Graham. You can tell who's paying attention the most alertly.

    And I think that that's going to bear out throughout the trial. We're going to see questions next week. And how these senators handle this is going to make a big difference.

    It is an unusual scene, for sure. It's hard to describe, but I think it's most like sort of watching a church service from afar.

    One senator said that they thought they would be OK with 12 hours of listening to this testimony, before they actually had to sit in the chamber for two hours. And they said they actually think maybe shorter sessions is going to be better.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Huh. All right.

    Well, we will certainly see in the coming days.

    And quickly to you, Yamiche.

    With this change in the resolution around how this trial is being conducted, all the push for Democrats, by Democrats, for witnesses, for evidence, how's the White House reacting to that?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, Democratic aides are casting this as a major concession by the White House, because they're so connected and working so closely with Republicans and Mitch McConnell.

    This idea now that there's going to be automatic evidence taken from the House process and put into the Senate trial means that a lot of the things that the White House has been saying is unfair and was not part of due process, thought is all now going to be given as evidence to the Senate.

    And the other thing to note, as Lisa said, John Bolton is really figuring out to be a very key person here. And there are reports that the White House is making — is making plans in case John Bolton does plan to testify or does get to testify. He said that he would testify if subpoenaed by the Senate.

    And that would mean that the White House might push for John Bolton to testify behind closed doors. But it might also mean that the White House is, of course, going to continue to try to block witnesses and possibly try to block John Bolton in another way.

    But this is a big deal and a big change on the White House's side.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Separately, Yamiche, we did here today from the president's legal counsel and from the deputy legal counsel. We heard from his personal attorney.

    What are we learning from that about the strategy that the president wants to put forward here?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What we learned today is that the White House legal strategy is going to be really elongating the same defense that President Trump has been putting up on social media and in interviews.

    And that is that this was all a perfect call, that he did nothing wrong, and this is really all about Democrats wanting to both undo the 2016 election, but also wanting to make sure that he doesn't get reelected in 2020.

    It was also really interesting to see Pat Cipollone, the lead White House attorney, up there talking on the Senate floor, because House Democrats are pushing for him to recuse himself. They say he's, in fact, a fact witness and he shouldn't be involved in the actual trial.

    The White House has been pushing back on that idea. And they have also been pushing now that Representative Adam Schiff, who is the lead Democrat in this trial, that he should actually be recusing himself.

    Now, let's listen to what Marc Short — he's the chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence — had to say about the process.

  • Marc Short:

    We find the enormous hypocrisy that in the House Intelligence Committee, you went through a process in which this White House was denied opportunity to have counsel present, denied opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, denied opportunity to bring their own witnesses, all because we were told this has to be rushed through as quickly as possible.

    And yet what you hear from Democrats today is that Senate Republicans are moving too quickly.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So, a fact-check there.

    They're saying that the White House didn't have an opportunity to present witnesses or to cross-examine. In fact, the White House decided that they did not want to be part of the Judiciary Committee process of this.

    So they're really mad about the way that the process went. But they did, in fact, have some input in the House side.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, thank you both.

    And joining us now is Robert Costa of The Washington Post. He's also host of "Washington Week" on PBS.

    So, hello, Bob.

    I know you have been talking to folks on both sides, the White House and the Hill, about this big debate over witnesses, who's going to be called, who isn't.

    What are you learning?

  • Robert Costa:

    Beyond the proceedings today, the real debate on Capitol Hill right now is about witnesses, and will Democrats or Republicans make any concessions at this point?

    For now, there's no agreement. Senate Democrats have proposed they want some top Trump administration officials, current and former, like John Bolton, to testify.

    But, so far, Republicans are only moving forward with floating the idea of trading, for example, Hunter Biden for John Bolton's testimony. But Democrats are very resistant to this idea. They do not believe Hunter Biden is relevant to this trial. And they have so far not engaged in talks with Republicans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, right now, a standoff is what — is what it sounds like?

  • Robert Costa:

    It's a standoff.

    But I just filed a story for The Post and working on a story about how some Democrats may want to start to think about maybe cutting a deal with Republicans on witnesses.

    And one thing to pay attention to is, could Democrats engage on a deal, if not Hunter Biden for John Bolton, some kind of arrangement where Republicans would get a witness they would want from the Democratic side, Hunter Biden, Joe Biden, someone related to Burisma in the Ukraine matter, or not?

    And that's a choice both parties are going to have to make.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So interesting.

    And that brings to mind, of course, Joe Biden himself, who's in Iowa campaigning right now, while several of his leading rivals in Iowa are, frankly, stuck in the Senate for this trial.

    What are you — you have been talking to the Biden campaign. What are they saying about all this?

  • Robert Costa:

    Talking to the Biden campaign in the last few hours, it's clear they feel good about their standing in Iowa.

    While some senators are in Washington, Vice President Biden is in the Hawkeye State talking to voters. They see him moving up in the polls there. even though Senator Sanders and Senator Warren have done pretty well in recent polls, like the Des Moines Register poll.

    They're not paying too much attention to this witness discussion. They don't think Republicans are negotiating in good faith. And so, until this becomes a real possibility of a Biden family member testifying, they're not going to engage with it in any serious way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, Robert Costa reporting for us, and right now from The Washington Post, Robert, thank you.

  • Robert Costa:

    Thank you.

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