ROBERT COSTA: Democrats make their case to the Senate and the nation.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) You can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country. You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump. This is why, if you find him guilty, you must find that he should be removed, because right matters – because right matters.
MR. COSTA: An emotional plea from Chairman Adam Schiff rounds out the first week of President Trump’s impeachment trial, but many Republicans remain skeptical as the president’s team begins its defense.
SENATOR JAMES LANKFORD (R-OK): (From video.) There is nothing wrong with the president saying to the president of Ukraine, hey, can you help us be able to figure out if there’s anything to this. So I really don’t see the issue.
WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL PAT CIPOLLONE: (From video.) They’re not here to steal one election; they’re here to steal two elections.
MR. COSTA: Will Senator McConnell keep his tight grip on the GOP, and is a witness deal on the horizon? Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.
MR. COSTA: Good evening. All week House Democrats have made their case against President Trump, but to what end? Are Senate Republicans convinced, and what about you and every American? For now, here is what we know. A new Pew Research Center poll reveals a sharply divided nation. Roughly half of U.S. adults – 51 percent – say the president should be removed from office and 46 percent say he should remain. Eighty-six percent of Republicans say he should remain, while 85 percent of Democrats say he should be removed. Beyond that divide, House Democrats are dealing with a frenzied media environment, a president who dominates the Republican Party, and limited tools, with no guarantee that any witness will appear. They have nonetheless pushed ahead, thrusting a moral argument to the fore. Here is the lead impeachment manager, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff.
REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): (From video.) We have for generations been the shining city upon a hill that President Reagan described. America is not just a country, but also an idea. But what worth is that idea if when tried we do not affirm the values that underpin it? And who will come to fill the void that we leave when the light from that shining city upon a hill is extinguished? The autocrats with whom we compete, who value not freedom and fair elections but the unending rule of a repressive executive.
MR. COSTA: Joining us tonight are four top reporters here to talk through the challenges and the political dynamics that are driving this trial and this moment in history: Kimberly Atkins, senior news correspondent for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station; Carl Hulse, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times; Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN; and Carol Leonnig, investigative reporter at The Washington Post and co-author with Philip Rucker of the much-discussed new book on the Trump presidency, A Very Stable Genius.
But let’s start with Chairman Schiff, as we see, who has been driving the Democratic side. Carl, has he been able to break through with any Republican senators?
CARL HULSE: I don’t think so. And he gave a rousing speech and there was a great response from the people who are critical of Trump, but the Republicans actually were really put off by that speech, which was an unusual thing. But they were offended, and they said he’s basically impugning them for being behind a president who he also said puts his own interests first and, you know, is selfish, basically, and would risk the national security of the country. I talked to – first thing this morning I ran into Senator Durbin, Richard Durbin. I said, what do you think? He said, Schiff was phenomenal; I’m skeptical he moved any votes. We’re not seeing much movement up there from the Republicans.
MR. COSTA: What mattered, Kim, about the case that Schiff and others made on the Senate floor, the facts that matter? What stood out to you?
KIMBERLY ATKINS: Well, they did a very good job. Look, they had two competing interests, right, one saying we have this locked case of impeachment against the president but at the same time we need these documents and we need these people to testify, and they did a really good job sort of painting a picture but then pointing out the holes in it that they say can be filled in with the testimony of people like John Bolton, with documents that can come from OMB or the Defense Department. So overall they had that eye on the ball of trying to move forward. I mean, it looks like, realistically, the best win that they could possibly get would be getting that testimony, and it seemed that that was a core part of both their obstruction case and even their abuse of power case, really trying to make the case to the Republicans who are movable and also the American people that they would really like to hear from John Bolton. And whether they accomplish that, I think that’s really uncertain. It doesn’t seem so far that they have moved anybody, even on witnesses.
JEFF ZELENY: I think that’s right. I mean, when you talk to senators and sitting in the gallery just watching their level of interest, it’s been a long proceeding but you can just see the – you know, the look on a lot of the Republican senators’ face. They have their minds made up. What’s interesting as the week wore along, the White House made a decision to have the Republican senators out talking about the case – oh, it sounds repetitive, this sounds old, we’ve heard this before. So we still don’t know exactly what is going to happen between now and the end. We know the outcome of this almost certainly. It’s still a possibility that a Lamar Alexander from Tennessee could potentially say I want witnesses, but it seems sort of a stretch. But one thing I thought was interesting watching this, listening to President Trump’s own voice. It was echoing throughout the Senate chamber again and again.
MR. HULSE: It was.
MR. ZELENY: Everything that he has said, even John McCain’s voice on Friday afternoon was used by Chairman Schiff. He of course was a big supporter of Ukraine. So the Democrats I think have put together a skilled argument, but this cake is baked. I think it’s hard to imagine that Republicans would change their minds.
MR. COSTA: But you look at the case they’re making, there’s also news happening outside of what’s happening on the Senate floor. Just on Friday, Carol, Lev Parnas says he now has a tape of President Trump calling for the ambassador’s firing, Ambassador Yovanovitch, Marie Yovanovitch. How does all this new information that’s occurring outside of the trial affect the trial?
CAROL LEONNIG: I think it’s really interesting because on the one hand it’s corroborating for Democrats and it’s not penetrating at all Republicans. They’re like, yeah, yeah, Lev Parnas, some guy who we don’t really know who took some selfies – apparently a lot of them – with the president and Rudy Giuliani. There are moments that corroborate the fundamentals of this case of the Democrats. That tape recording of him saying we got to get rid of her, fire her, get her – get her now, was prompted basically by Parnas saying, you know, she’s talking about impeachment, isn’t that interesting, she thinks you’ll be impeached, and that set the president off. A fascinating moment.
MR. HULSE: John Barrasso this morning very dismissive of that. They said there’s new information coming out; he said there’s going to be plenty of new information coming out, let the House keep investigating it. It is totally not sinking in.
To go back to Jeff’s point about the floor, we’ve all covered the Senate. Those senators do not like being locked out there on the floor without their phones. We’ve all reported that. But I think what’s interesting and the argument that’s catching on with them is from Mitch McConnell saying if you go down the witness rabbit hole you’re going to be here for months, we’re going to be in big legal fights, and I think that really hits home with them. They’re, I don’t want to be doing this for months. So I think as the week wore on that was one argument that – Lisa Murkowski, who was someone thought maybe to be for witnesses, was repeating that.
MR. COSTA: And the president’s legal team will soon make its own case, as soon as Saturday, mounting a defense of the president’s conduct and a critique of House Democrats. It’s a big team full of personalities, from former special counsels to hard-charging House conservatives. Here’s one of the president’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow.
JAY SEKULOW: (From video.) We’re hearing the same things over and over. That’s the way they’re going to do the case. I will assure you this, we will be putting on a vigorous defense of both fact and rebutting what they’ve said. Our job here is to defend both the president, the office of the presidency, and the Constitution. We’re going to do that. I see nothing that has changed in the last now day and a half of their two-and-a-half days that we’ve been going here.
MR. COSTA: Carol co-wrote in a new book that a crowded and combative legal team is nothing new for the president. During the Russia probe, for example, Sekulow, quote, “a rock music fan,” adopted a Zen attitude and gallows humor to try to roll with the punches. Quote, “welcome to Hotel California,” he said, in a joking reference to the Eagles hit. You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.
Carol, terrific book. Jay Sekulow, the Trump legal orbit right now, who’s in charge? Is it Alan Dershowitz? Is it Ken Starr? Pat Cipollone? Jay Sekulow? What do you know, based on your reporting?
MS. LEONNIG: So I want to mention something about Jay Sekulow, who’s been with the president the longest and has been through thick and thin. And his remark about Hotel California was based on the fact that John Dowd had just quit/been fired. He quit. But it was like Jay was trying to basically, like, withdraw and have less of a role, and then the lead lawyer was gone. So now you actually have a surfeit of lawyers. We’ll see how long they all last.
Clearly Ken Starr is going to view himself as the most cerebral in terms of the chops. And Dershowitz and he will be a little bit smacky with one another, I would think, behind the scenes. Jay Sekulow’s the glue that holds it together. He’s the sweetheart who says: We can all get along. It’s all going to be fine. But remember – and this actually goes to some points that Carl and Jeff made earlier about the president’s voice – what does the president want consistently, time and time again in these events? Somebody on TV telling everybody how innocent he is and that this is a terrible cloud, a disgrace to our country. And you’ll see a lot of that.
MR. COSTA: What do we know, though, about the specifics of the argument coming from the president’s side? Is it going to be detailing and rebutting the facts that Democrats have laid out, the arguments that Democrats have laid out? Or will it be about Hunter Biden, and Ukraine, and Joe Biden?
MS. ATKINS: I think it’ll be a little of all of the above. We’ll see how much of the rebutting will happen. Jay Sekulow said today that there will be some of that. But I am expecting this to be – if you look at the brief, it’s essentially the president’s argument on Twitter that’s laid out in legal form. And they say that the abuse of power article is something that Democrats made up, that it doesn’t exist, and therefore isn’t impeachable. The brief basically said: Look at the transcript. It was a perfect call. It’s going to be the same arguments laid out that the Democrats failed to put on a case because it is a politically motivated witch hunt – to put it briefly.
And, you know, at first – but I also think that the president is going to want that television show. They’re going to want that really robust, full-throated defense of the president and his team. He’s not going to want someone like Ken Starr to lay out a lot of legal arguments, which he will see as boring. He’s going to really want them to get out there and give it a – give it a shot.
MR. ZELENY: That’s one the tensions, though, because when you do talk to Republicans, if you ask the senators: Do you approve of the president’s conduct? Almost to a person they say no. Some will say it privately. So a lot of them wish you would have said, OK, we don’t love this conduct, but is it impeachable? But they are not going to do that. They are going to double down. I mean, a shocking thing, there’s been very little discussion on the president’s side of the underlying circumstances. You know, it’s – not much is in dispute.
But he’s going to say it’s a perfect call. That may potentially be off-putting to some Republican senators who don’t find this perfect at all. Rob Portman last night, Republican of Ohio, said: No, I don’t think this is appropriate. But it doesn’t rise to the level of impeachable. But the White House dismissed that line of thinking a long time ago. They’re doubling down here. And the president in back in the U.S. from Davos. He’s watching every minute of it. So for the president’s lawyers it’s a tougher job than you think, because he’s in charge.
MR. HULSE: I think that’s an interesting point. You are going to hear more of this, it’s just not a big enough thing to impeach him for. But there’s another interesting conflict. So the Trump White House, they don’t want to put on too big a defense, because they’re very dismissive of the whole thing and they don’t want to look like, well, we’re really having to push back. But there’s Republican senators who know they’re going to have to vote to acquit the president. And they want to be able to say: Well, they put in a really good defense.
MR. COSTA: What about that point though, Carl, about dismissing the whole thing? I was talking to Senator Rand Paul this week at the Senate and he says he can’t wait to have a motion to dismiss the whole trial, to move to a vote as quickly as possible.
MR. HULSE: Yeah, I don’t know. I still – I think the president at the end of the day would rather be acquitted, right? Then he can march into the State of the Union, if the time is right, and say: I got acquitted. There was a vote to acquit me, not just a vote to throw the whole case out. I’m still not sure that the votes are there to dismiss, and certainly not before, like, some deliberations, and that sort of thing.
MS. LEONNIG: that makes this look too, no pun intended, dismissive, right? Like, we don’t care about democracy or oversight. And I have heard from sources that they do not plan to file a motion to dismiss. That doesn’t mean a senator wouldn’t try, but the team’s not in favor of that.
MR. COSTA: So we’re going to have some opening arguments on Saturday from the Trump legal team. But the big thing is next week. What about next week? Will there be a deal on witnesses? To get there four Republicans would have to join with 47 Democrats and come up with a compromise. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is juggling demand from the president and uneasy GOP senators. This week they urged McConnell to tweak the trial’s rules. As Carl wrote in the Times, quote, “As the trial marches forward with more conflicts to come, whether to subpoena witnesses or hear new evidence, Mr. McConnell will maintain a sharp focus on keeping Republicans happy.” Carl also wrote, “Mr. McConnell has shown in the past that he can be pushed from his position if internal pressure becomes great enough.
The name at the top of my notebook this week at the Capitol, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is retiring. My sources kept telling me to pay attention to Lamar Alexander, who’s close to McConnell, and once worked for Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee who, you might remember, was a major figure during Watergate, famously asking: What did the president know and when did he know it? Will Lamar Alexander say to Leader McConnell, let’s hold up and have witnesses?
MR. HULSE: Not from what he was saying today.
MR. COSTA: What was he saying?
MR. HULSE: He was pretty soft, saying, well, I want to hear some more information and then we’ll make a decision. But I’ve heard a lot already. I think that people were looking to him – Susan Collins, who’s, of course, right in the middle of all this had really tried to rope him in. But he is very, very close to Mitch McConnell. They’re friends, you know, back to their intern days in the ’60s. It’s just hard to see Lamar Alexander being the key vote to plunge the Senate into what Mitch McConnell thinks would be a disaster.
MR. ZELENY: Also dangerous to get more witnesses, because then what if the evidence becomes more damning if you hear from John Bolton, if you hear from Mick Mulvaney and others? Then some of those that Republicans on the fence who have tough reelection battles of their own, it might be more difficult in the end in the final vote. So I think that’s why, at the end of the day, I’d be surprised if they get witnesses, because that does not help the president’s case most likely.
MR. COSTA: You think McConnell wants to hold back and not have witnesses?
MR. ZELENY: Absolutely. And he wants to get this done before the State of the Union address. He wants to get it done next week. Well, it looks like that’s going to happen, but never predict the timing of something in the United States Senate.
MR. COSTA: And part of the challenge – and part the challenge, Carol, for the Democrats is that if they want to cut a deal on witnesses with the Republicans the White House has said they will assert executive privilege on Bolton and other officials.
MS. LEONNIG: Yeah. It’s a huge problem for Bolton, who’s been sort of like a cat and mouse teasing all of us. I know some things, interested in sharing, but hasn’t really come forward with sharing. You know, Bolton, as described by sources of ours, has the president’s voice on this. And he hasn’t stepped forward to offer it, and has sort of put himself in this catbird seat.
MR. COSTA: But he has a book coming out. (Laughs.)
MS. LEONNIG: A book that could be, you know, not many months away. Many people have asked the question: What if your book says something really damning about the president, and you stayed silent during this time?
MR. COSTA: What do we know about what he has to say?
MS. LEONNIG: Well, remember, Bolton was the one who was telling all of these aides who actually ended up testifying from the National Security Council: Call the lawyers. Go see the lawyers. I’m furious. He actually told Fiona Hill, in what I think is almost a movie about to be made in terms of how cinematic it is, he says: Follow those people downstairs. This was the Ukrainian delegation and Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union – he said, follow them downstairs and find out what the heck they’re doing. And she did, and she bust in and stopped Sondland from his demand of this group: Hey, we need an investigation and maybe you’ll get your aid – maybe you’ll get your meeting, forgive me.
MR. HULSE: You know, I talked to someone at the White House about John Bolton, though. And I said, well, what do you think he would actually say? And they said, he’ll say people were out of their lanes, and the process was flawed, and things about Rudy Giuliani, but maybe not incriminate the president. I think the Democrats really want to hear from Mick Mulvaney.
MR. COSTA: Well, what about the other moderates, or the more centrist Republicans – Senator Romney, Senator Murkowski, Senator Collins up in 2020. What is your reporting, your conversations with your sources, Kim, tell you about where they lean, beyond Alexander?
MS. ATKINS: Yeah. I thought that by how if there was going to be a critical mass of Republicans who might move on the other side on the issue of witnesses, it would have developed by now. And it has not. I think you have seen from the beginning of the week to the end a big shift in the energy on that point. And even though you have someone like John Bolton, who could shed some light, on the other hand he could come out and say: I don’t think what the president did was impeachable, and I don’t think that the Democrats want that. I think that a lot of the air in the balloon of tension on trying to get witnesses was let out this week. And I think in part not just because of everything we talked about, but also pressure from the White House. Don’t forget, the White House has put enormous pressure on Republicans in the Senate not to back this.
MR. COSTA: And what is Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, going to do? You have Republicans saying they will only do a trade, a Biden for a Bolton. Democrats have rejected that so far. Do they buckle at all?
MS. ATKINS: I think there’s no place to buckle, because there’s no appetite on the Democratic side to put forward any – to cut some deal, certainly not to call the Bidens or anything like that. I think it’s just – it’s really nowhere to go at this point. That momentum that they had, they lost it.
MR. HULSE: Schumer’s had a few little victories. He forced some tough votes on these 2020 people. I think that they’ll – they think this is good for –
MR. ZELENY: And the audience only isn’t those Republican senators. I mean, the other play here that Schiff and others are making are making this argument to the American people. So even though there is almost certainly to be an acquittal, what happens in November 2020? Voters will have the ultimate say.
MR. COSTA: Let’s stick with that, 2020 – November 2020. What does this all mean for the Democratic presidential race? The Iowa caucuses – Jeff seems to live there these days – they’re just under two weeks away.
MR. ZELENY: I have to get back. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Here is former – I know. Here is former Vice President Joe Biden on a possible witness deal.
FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) This is a constitutional issue, and we’re not going to turn it into a farce, into some kind of political theater. They are trying to turn it into political theater, but I want no part of being any part of that.
MR. COSTA: While Biden is in Iowa, many of his rivals are stuck in the Senate.
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): (From video.) Look, right now – today I am dealing with impeachment.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From video.) Look, I took an oath of office, and that is to uphold the Constitution. This is only our third impeachment in the history of the United States. I have made a commitment and I will be here.
MR. COSTA: In the style of those senators, look, we’re all in Washington too. (Laughter.) What has it meant for the race, though, and for Biden to take that hard line?
MR. ZELENY: I think it’s uncertain what it means for the race, probably freezes it in place in terms of the horserace. But there are some complaints from Pete Buttigieg as well, who yes is out there in Iowa, but he’s not been in the news at all; it’s hard to break through. Interestingly about Joe Biden, though, his name was mentioned again and again and again on the Senate floor as Democrats were saying, you know, there’s nothing there there. But look in the president’s case next week, Joe Biden’s name is going to be mentioned all the time. We do not know how that plays. I talk to Democratic voters all the time who like Joe Biden and they say, you know, there may not be a smoking gun, but it just doesn’t quite smell right, so the Bidens would prefer this not happening. It is happening, so we don’t know the actual outcome of this.
MR. COSTA: And who’s been taking on Biden but Senator Bernie Sanders, who in the latest WBUR poll at your news organization, he’s inching up in New Hampshire and elsewhere.
MS. ATKINS: Yeah, he took the lead in that poll from Pete Buttigieg, in the lead in New Hampshire. He is surging. Look, I don’t think that the impeachment trial for the senators who are in the race has been as big of a problem as people worried about. I think the voters understand that they have a job to do and that they’re doing it and that this is important, and I think you’re absolutely right. I think this could backfire on Joe Biden with his name in the news every single day coming off the lips of the president’s attorneys, really bringing up a lot of things. I mean, today you had Senator Lindsey Graham calling for a Mueller-like investigation into the Bidens. That could hurt him a lot, especially if voters think if he is elected that it will just spur a lot more investigations, so I think that is an unknown.
MR. COSTA: No, that’s a – so Lindsey Graham’s calling for a special counsel?
MS. ATKINS: He said he wanted some outside attorney like a Mueller to come and do a full investigation of the Bidens to find out what –
MR. ZELENY: And that may help Biden because Democrats would be like, oh, it’s all politics there. But I think – you hear Elizabeth Warren say corruption is going to be a central issue in this general election campaign. She did not rush to Joe Biden’s defense. So we do not know how this is going to play out. It’s one uncertainty. The Biden campaign has a new ad saying defeat Trump, elect Biden; I mean, they’re really pushing electability. But their advisors do not want his name and his son’s name invoked so much on the Senate floor.
MS. LEONNIG: And this hurt him during the House investigation, do you remember? He was like, literally, right before the July 25th infamous call the lead contender, and after this investigation got rolling he started to stumble. Again –
MR. COSTA: But he’s still – he’s still near the top.
MS. LEONNIG: He is, but he fell from the first rung.
MR. ZELENY: Incredibly resilient.
MS. LEONNIG: And actually, what’s – you know, people don’t like to say it out loud, but there is something funky about your son being in charge and getting lots of money – of money from this gas company. It doesn’t mean there was corruption; it means that you got a special break, likely.
MR. ZELENY: Will some of his rivals bring that up? Is Bernie Sanders going to bring that up on the trail? All the candidates back in Iowa this weekend; we’ll see.
MR. HULSE: Well, Lindsey Graham at this event today, he said one of the impeachment managers comes out and says this has all been debunked, there’s nothing to it, and Lindsey said, no, that’s misleading; this could still be investigated, there were things going on. He was very adamant about the idea of a special investigation.
MR. COSTA: That’s all the time we have for tonight. This show goes by quickly. But before we go, let us all pause and remember our colleague and friend Jim Lehrer, a broadcasting pioneer. Jim died on January 23rd at age 85. What a life. What a journalist: debate moderator, co-anchor then sole anchor of PBS NewsHour. He led by the way he lived and worked, no frills, committed to reporting. I will miss him, especially his spirit and his quiet example. He loved his family, politics, and this country, and he personified the values of PBS.
I’m Robert Costa. Good night.