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What Senate’s rejection of witnesses means for Trump impeachment trial

A majority of the Senate voted Friday not to allow witnesses in President Trump's impeachment trial. As a result, the proceedings will likely end soon with his acquittal -- despite new reports about potentially relevant information former National Security Adviser John Bolton could share if subpoenaed. Nick Schifrin reports, and Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United States Senate will not call witnesses or subpoena documents in the impeachment trial of President Trump.

    Senators rejected the idea in a vote this evening 51-49, as Mr. Trump appeared to gather momentum toward acquittal.

    Nick Schifrin reports on how this day unfolded.

  • John Roberts:

    The Senate will convene as a court of impeachment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In this court of impeachment, the fate of the debate on new witnesses and documents was all but certain before President Trump's attorney Jay Sekulow argued against it.

  • Jay Sekulow:

    So this idea that they haven't had witnesses is — that's the smokescreen. You have heard from a lot of witnesses. The problem with the case, the problem with their position is, even with all of those witnesses, it doesn't prove up an impeachable offense.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It was all but certain before House manager Val Demings pointed out the Senate has never held an impeachment trial without witnesses.

  • Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla.:

    Is this a fair trial? Without the ability to call documents and witnesses, the answer is clearly and unequivocally no.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the fate of that debate was all but certain before The New York Times revealed today that former National Security Adviser John Bolton had more firsthand knowledge to which he could testify.

    In an unpublished manuscript, Bolton writes that, in May, with White House counsel Pat Cipollone in the room, President Trump told him to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and make sure he met with Rudy Giuliani to discuss investigations into the 2016 election and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

    Lead House manager Adam Schiff used The Times' report to urge senators to vote to subpoena witnesses and documents.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    The facts will come out. They will continue to come out. And the question before you today is whether they will come out in time for you to make a complete an informed judgment as to the guilt or innocence of the president.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, President Trump denied the report, saying — quote — "I never instructed John Bolton to set up a meeting for Rudy Giuliani to meet with President Zelensky. That meeting never happened."

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    So, here you have the president saying, John Bolton is not telling the truth. Let's find out. Let's put John Bolton under oath. Let's find out who's telling the truth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued a trial without witnesses would lead to an acquittal without meaning.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    If my Republican colleagues refuse to even consider witnesses and documents in this trial, this country is headed towards the greatest cover-up since Watergate.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But two key Republican senators weren't convinced and are votes against new witnesses. Today, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska criticized the speed of Democrats' case and said: "There will be no fair trial in the Senate. I don't believe the continuation of this process will change anything. It is sad for me to admit that, as an institution, the Congress has failed."

    Late last night, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee wrote: "There is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that doesn't meet the United States Constitution's high bar for an impeachable offense."

    He went on to write: "It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States' aid to encourage that investigation."

    Democrats seized on that criticism.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer:

    Senator Alexander, a senior Senate Republican, a retiring member, said out loud what I think most Senate Republicans believe in private, that, yes, the president did withhold military assistance to try to get Ukraine to help him in his elections.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Democrats have promised to take only one week for new witnesses. The president's lawyers called that unrealistic, and warned they would call all 17 officials who publicly testified during the House investigation.

  • Jay Sekulow:

    You're not going to have a witness wand here, where we just say, OK, you got a week to do this and get it done. There's no way that would be proper under due process.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At the heart of impeachment's politics is presidential policy toward Ukraine.

    For five years, Ukrainian soldiers have used American weapons and training to confront Russian-backed separatists and Russian soldiers; 14,000 Ukrainians have died.

    Today, in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited a memorial honoring those killed. And in a press conference, Pompeo and Zelensky tried to convey a united front, unaffected by impeachment.

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky (through translator):

    It seems to me this is a new step in our relationship, a new sentiment, a new attitude. We have had multiple meetings, and I don't think that these friendly and warm relations have been influenced by the impeachment trial of President Trump.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Democrats accuse President Trump of withholding a White House meeting with Zelensky until Ukraine launched investigations.

    Today, Pompeo said there was no such quid pro quo, but still wouldn't set a date for a White House meeting.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    There's no condition of the nature you described for President Zelensky to come to Washington and have that visit. It's just simply not the case.

    We will find the right time. We will find the appropriate opportunity. We want to make sure that it happens at a time when there are substantial progress, things that we can deliver between the two of us, and there's a lot of work.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the Senate's work is beginning to wind down. Senators and White House officials predict President Trump will be acquitted by the middle of next week.

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

  • Judy Woodruff:

    After today's vote, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reacted to the move to deny any further witnesses or evidence.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer:

    To not allow a witness, a document, no witnesses, no documents, in an impeachment trial is a perfidy. It's a grand tragedy, one of the worst tragedies that the Senate has ever overcome.

    America will remember this day, unfortunately, where the Senate didn't live up to its responsibilities, where the Senate turned away from truth and went along with a sham trial.

    This — if the president is acquitted with no witnesses, no documents, the acquittal will have no value.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn now to our Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor.

    Lisa, to you first.

    With this vote now, 51 against witnesses and 49 for, tell us about those swing senators we were keeping an eye on and their decision to swing against this. What went into their thinking?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    In the end, the two decisive votes for the president were those of Senators Lisa Murkowski and Lamar Alexander. And if you dig deeper into the statements — Nick posted some good parts of those statements — you see that they had very serious problems with the House process.

    Let's look at what Lisa Murkowski wrote last night in her statement.

  • She wrote:

    "The House chose to send articles of impeachment that are rushed and flawed. She continued: "It has also been cleared some of my colleagues intend to further politicize this process and drive the Supreme Court into the fray, while attacking the chief justice."

    That actually seems to be a reference to Senator Elizabeth Warren, who asked a question of the chief justice yesterday — or asked the question of the two parties involved, but the chief justice was at the heart of that.

    Her question was whether the chief justice himself was compromised and whether the confidence in the Supreme Court was undermined by him presiding over this trial.

    That was something that rubbed Lisa Murkowski the wrong way so much that she talked about it. On that topic of partisanship, same problem for Lamar Alexander.

    Let's read some of his statement.

  • He wrote that:

    "If the shallow, hurried and wholly partisan impeachment were to succeed, it would rip this country apart."

    That is a sign to me that the White House's pounding argument that the House was moving in a partisan way succeeded with those members, and it was a rebuke of Adam Schiff, who apparently wasn't able to defend himself against those arguments with these two senators.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, Yamiche, one of the witnesses the Democrats very much wanted to hear from was the former national security adviser to the president, John Bolton.

    New York Times reporting today new information from this book that John Bolton has written. What about that? And what is the White House saying about it?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The White House is celebrating the fact that Republicans were able to block witnesses, new witnesses from being called to testify as part of the Senate impeachment trial over whether or not to remove President Trump from office.

    President Trump has been denying this drip, drip, drip of new information coming out of this manuscript written by John Bolton. The White House has put out statements from both the vice president, as well as Mick Mulvaney.

    And they have been saying, whatever John Bolton is writing about is not true. However, with that being said, the White House is very happy that John Bolton will not be testifying at the Senate. And, as a result, they're really celebrating the fact that no other people in the White House, including Mick Mulvaney, will be subject to being asked whether or not what John Bolton supposedly wrote about or allegedly wrote about is true.

    The other thing to note, the White House is already in some ways feeling like they're celebrating the fact that the president is being acquitted. The vote hasn't happened yet, but we have someone, including Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, saying that acquittal will mean that the Senate had rendered justice.

    He's also saying that it would prove that Democrats weaponized the impeachment process and made it a partisan process.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Yamiche, I know you have been talking to the president's legal team about how they see this coming to a conclusion.

    What are they telling you about the next few days, where they see this going exactly?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Things are very, very fluid at this hour.

    The White House's — president — the president's team, as well as the White House legal team, is stressing that they want the president to be acquitted as soon as possible. But a little bit about the calendar.

    The president could be acquitted as late as Wednesday or as early as tonight. There's — it's not really clear. What is clear is that the White House is pushing for an accelerated calendar. They want the president to be able to deliver the State of the Union on Tuesday by — and be able to say, I was acquitted, the Democrats lost.

    However, it's not clear that they will do that. The other thing to note is that, even on a busy day like today, the White House is stressing that the president isn't focused only on impeachment.

    Just today, the president had this travel ban where he added six countries and put new immigration restrictions on that, including the largest country in Africa, Nigeria.

    So, what they're saying in that is that the president is focused on a signature issue, which is immigration. And they're saying, as much as the president would like to be acquitted, he's not waiting to be acquitted to do other things.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, how — what about in the Senate?

    I mean, what is the thinking there about how this wraps up?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right now, Judy, it's completely unclear.

    I had one source text me back: "Chaos."

    Both parties right now are meeting separately in their kind of luncheon and dinner rooms, trying to figure out the way forward. It doesn't look like Senator McConnell has 51 votes for any one path forward among his Republicans only.

    Or it's also possible that Senator McConnell understands that Democrats can just keep this process going as long as they want, because the motion to acquit the president on impeachment, Judy, Democrats can amend that motion. And they can propose as many amendments as they like for as long as they like.

    Democrats told me — or Senator Schumer's office — that they feel like they have a lot of leverage because of that, that they can keep this process going as long as they want.

    Right now, it doesn't look like the two sides are really talking with each other. The Democrats are seeing if McConnell can get 51 votes for any one way forward. And there's pressure on McConnell from those allies of the president that Yamiche is talking about to move this along as quickly as possible.

    Democrats want it to take longer. They want the vote after the State of the Union. Right now, it's completely up in the air, a kind of Friday night cliffhanger, I suppose.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I know the both of you are going to continue to watch this very closely. We will be reporting on it here and online as soon as we know anything.

    Thank you, Yamiche. Thank you, Lisa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And one other note. A key figure in the impeachment story, Marie Yovanovitch, has retired from the State Department. She was forced out, you will remember, from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine by the White House last year.

    Our special live coverage of the impeachment is continuing on air and online tonight. Check your local PBS station or join us online at PBS.org/NewsHour, or on our YouTube pages.

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