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What we learned from the 1st day of Trump’s Senate impeachment trial

What did we learn from the first day of substantive proceedings in President Trump’s Senate impeachment trial? Brookings Institution’s Margaret Taylor, John Hart of Mars Hill Strategies, former Democratic Secretary of the Senate Martin Paone of Prime Policy Group and former Republican Secretary of the Senate Elizabeth Chryst of Congressional Global Strategies join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we turn now to several individuals who have extensive experience working in the Senate and in the House.

    Martin Paone, the Democratic Senate secretary from 1995 to 2008, he is a 30-year Senate veteran who sat beside Senator Tom Daschle, who was then the Senate minority leader during President Clinton's impeachment trial. He's now a — currently a senior adviser at Prime Policy Group here in Washington.

    Elizabeth Chryst, she was the Republican Senate secretary from 1995 to 2001. She's a 26-year Senate veteran. She sat beside Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott at the time during President Clinton's trial. She's currently a principal at Congressional Global Strategies.

    Margaret Taylor worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2013 to 2018 as deputy chief counsel, then as Democratic chief counsel and deputy staff director. Margaret Taylor was also an attorney at the Department of State for 10 years. She's currently a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution and a senior editor at Lawfare.

    And John Hart, he worked for Congressman Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, during the Clinton impeachment trial. He's currently a GOP consultant for Mars Hill Strategies. He works on congressional campaigns, and he works for corporate and nonprofit clients.

    And hello to both — to all of you. You have been here with me during our live coverage today. We appreciate your sticking around. I know you're going to be here on into the evening.

    But what I want to get a sense from you — and I will start with you, Marty Paone — right now is, what do you think was accomplished today?

    We saw the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, pull back a little on the rules that he had wanted to employ. What did we learn from that? And does that — is it going to materially change what unfolds?

  • Martin Paone:

    Well, time will tell.

    I mean, Senator McConnell is extremely pragmatic. And he realized he had to make those changes. Probably heard from a number of his colleagues that he needed to make those changes, and if he did, that they would be OK.

    So — and you then went on to the first vote today, and it was a strictly party-line vote. So, right now, it looks like he's in good control. We will see how the votes go today and maybe into tomorrow.

    But then the key votes will occur next week, after people have had a chance to give their arguments, both sides, and we will see if enough Republicans vote with the Democrats to call witnesses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What are you taking away, Elizabeth Chryst, because it is the case we saw Mitch McConnell pull back a little bit? Then we saw the vote on whether documents should be subpoenaed from the White House, and the vote was right along party lines, as Marty Paone just said.

  • Elizabeth Chryst:

    I think we expect to see several more of these, unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it.

    And, presumably, they will all be party-line. And then, eventually, prior to the close of business today, hopefully, we will get to see the actual vote on the rules that will outline the next handful of days, leading up to and including the questioning period of the senators.

    And I think it's important for the viewers to know that the last time they did this in the Clinton impeachment, there were 150 questions from various senators. So that's important to get to that, not just the statements between the two lawyers and the legal team, to have the senators ask the questions.

    And maybe, at that point, is there a need for more evidence? Is there need for more witnesses? That's the way it went during the Clinton trial. And that's really what the majority leader is trying to get through today, as long as the day will be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

    And, Margaret Taylor, we're waiting. We know that they're trying to settle the rules questions today. There was another — they were debating the last time we were able to pay attention to the Senate floor. They were debating another motion — or, rather, amendment by the minority, by the Democrats, asking for a subpoena of State Department documents.

    We expect that's going to go along a party-line vote as well. At the end of the day, if it's all party-line, what does that tell us?

  • Margaret Taylor:

    Well, it tells us that this proceeding is really turning out along party lines.

    Just as, you know, in the House, it was largely a partisan process, it's looking like it's now going to be largely a partisan process in the Senate as well.

    It's, I guess, hard to say exactly where we will be at the end of 24 hours, potentially, of argumentation by both sides, questions — 16 hours of questions from senators to the parties. It's hard to say.

    But, right now, what we what we learned today is that both sides are really kind of drawing the lines of where — where they are, what their arguments are going to be, previewing some of their arguments that I'm sure we will see again.

    So I think, in addition to being a an argument about process, it was also a preview of the substantive arguments we're likely to see going forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, John Hart, party-line so far, as far as we can see.

    And yet, as Elizabeth was just saying, there is going to be an opportunity for questions. Could that tell us something different?

  • John Hart:

    Well, it could conceivably.

    But I think it's important to note that the vote that already happened was 53-47. So, that means they're 20 votes short of removing him from office and then about four votes short, because there's — in a tie, it doesn't prevail — of having additional witnesses.

    So even if Mitt Romney and Susan Collins vote for additional witnesses, that motion still wouldn't carry. So we haven't — we have not seen any movement or shift from where we were at the beginning of the day.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, to call additional witnesses, you need how many votes?

  • John Hart:

    You would need 51.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You need 51.

    It's possible. We know that's possible. A few — it would take a few Republicans to join with Democrats for that to happen. We know it's a possibility.

  • John Hart:

    It's a possibility, but I think it's — at this point, it's probably unlikely.

    And there's been a lot of focus on John Bolton. Well, John Bolton is a wild card as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is a White House former national security…

  • John Hart:

    He's a former national security who's been allegedly at the center of this — of this matter.

    And he may not say things that are favorable to Democrats, necessarily. And he may come at a cost of having someone like Hunter Biden or Joe Biden testify as well.

    So, it's not a clear-cut win for Democrats to get more witnesses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to talk to all of you — or ask each one of you about some of the issues that have come up today.

    And one of them, Marty Paone, is executive privilege. I mean, you hear — you heard it from the president's attorneys, that we're not — we don't have to share information. It's within the president's prerogative to keep confidential, privileged conversations privileged and confidential.

    So how much of a role do we see that playing?

  • Martin Paone:

    Well, every administration always tries to wrap themselves around executive privilege to protect themselves from intrusive Congresses.

    But, as Mr. Schiff pointed out, the Supreme Court in the Nixon trial ruled that the body politic — the good of the country was over — overwhelmed that. So we will just have to see.

    I mean, I don't think much will change. As John and Liz has — and everybody has pointed out, the votes are there.

    But if — it will be interesting if three Republicans vote for witnesses. Will the chief justice want to hear witnesses? At that point…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If it — you mean if it's a…

  • Martin Paone:

    If it was a tie vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If it's a tie, and then if you went from 47 — I mean, from…

  • Martin Paone:

    Forty-seven to 50.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Martin Paone:

    But — anyway, but executive privilege, Margaret is far more intimate with that subject.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Excuse me.

    I want to ask you, Margaret, about that.

  • Margaret Taylor:

    Yes.

    So, for the viewership here, you saw a lot of argumentation back and forth on both sides talking about the term executive privilege. And I saw the parties sort of talking past each other almost.

    Executive privilege, it is a constitutionally based privilege, even though it's not mentioned in the Constitution. The Supreme Court has recognized it.

    But it is a limited privilege, as the Supreme Court has also said. So it's qualified. It's limited. And what the House managers are saying here is, this president has asserted such a sort of broad notion, such an absolute notion, almost, of executive privilege, so as to obstruct the work of the Congress.

    And that is really the basis for article two, the second article of impeachment. And so they're — they're talking about it in a different way on both sides. It's a little confusing, but that's sort of the heart of it, is, the House managers are saying, no, it's not such an absolute privilege that there's no documents and no witnesses. It's a limited privilege.

    And that's how other presidents have used it, as a limited privilege. This president is using it in an unlimited way, and that's unacceptable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Elizabeth, how much of a — how much of a debate, of a question do you think that is likely to be in coming days?

  • Elizabeth Chryst:

    I'm guessing not much of a real debate, because there is — they talk past each other, and many of them are not lawyers. I think it's just going to basically come down to, is it fair? Is this process fair? You say it's not. I say it is, and basically break it down.

    That's the way today's debate has basically gone.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Speaking of fairness, John Hart, the Democrats keep saying, wait a minute. If you're saying that we're going to — we're going to have the arguments, and when the arguments are over, then we're going to have a vote on whether there should be evidence of witnesses, some people would say that sounds like putting the cart before the horse.

  • John Hart:

    Well, I think what Republicans are saying is, it's the House's responsibility. When they bring impeachment to the Senate, they need to bring their case.

    And what the White House lawyers argued repeatedly today is that it is not the Senate's job to redo and relitigate what the House failed to do.

    And so that's — so — and Republicans are making the point too that Nancy Pelosi withheld the articles of impeachment for 33 days, which undermines her argument that this is an urgent threat against the Constitution to have President Trump in office.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Marty Paone, what about that, I mean, this cart before the horse, if you want to characterize it that way?

  • Martin Paone:

    Actually, in '99, the resolution that was adopted 100-0 pretty much lined it up the same way.

    You had the 24 hours. You had the 16 hours. You had a Byrd motion to dismiss. And then a House manager made a motion to call witnesses. And so, McConnell, Senator McConnell is correct in saying he's done — he's tried to replicate that as far as they're concerned.

    And so we will see how that goes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you're saying that's not a strong argument for Democrats to make?

    Elizabeth — how do you see that, Margaret?

  • Margaret Taylor:

    So, I think, for Americans watching this, it's — the important thing to keep in mind is the respective roles of the House and Senate.

    So the House has the sole power of impeachment. And, as lawyers, we think of that as sort of the indictment phase, gathering enough evidence to say, has something happened here? There's enough to really think something has happened here.

    Then the trial phase, generally — so the Senate has the sole power to try the impeachment — that would normally be where witnesses would be called and fleshed out.

    So I think, intuitively, how the — it's — someone's going to have to reconcile how we think of what a trial is here. If the president's team and Republicans are going to say, we can't have any new witnesses, because that's not the Senate's role, it's really at odds with what we think of as a trial in the Senate.

    And I think that Republicans and the president's team haven't quite explained why it is that it's improper to call witnesses or get new documents.

  • Martin Paone:

    Also, in '99, in the Clinton impeachment, even the president himself had sat down for depositions.

    Like, the Starr report, everyone at the White House had sat down for depositions. In this case, you have the White House stonewalling subpoenas, whereas, in the Clinton administration, they all went out and witnessed.

  • Elizabeth Chryst:

    Well, let me just add to that a little bit, that this is the fastest trial in history that — I think other people have said that, the House trial.

    I think it was 78 days, the House had — had their play in this. And all but the last six, the president couldn't call witnesses. He couldn't cross-examine anybody. He couldn't ask for documents.

    That's the polar opposite of what happened during the Clinton trial in the House of Representatives. His legal team was involved every single day. So, it smacks as a little bit of unfair coming from the House coming over here.

    And then you have Senator McConnell literally mirroring — mirroring exactly how the Senate resolution was done previously. And it was 100-0. So that's where we are with all of it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Different set of circumstances, but some similarities.

  • Elizabeth Chryst:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we're going to continue to thread our way through those in the coming days.

  • Elizabeth Chryst:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you all, John Hart, Elizabeth Chryst, Marty Paone, Margaret Taylor.

    Thank you. And we will see you again tomorrow.

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

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