(UPDATED FRIDAY, JAN. 31, 2020)
WASHINGTON — Wrapping up two days of impeachment trial questions Thursday, senators revisited key assertions made by Trump’s lawyers: presidents’ actions that aid re-election are not impeachable if they’re in the nation’s best interest, and taking political information from a foreign country is not illegal.
The hours of questions, read out by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, were a preamble to a dramatic vote, expected Friday, on whether the Senate should hear from new witnesses and seek additional evidence.
That possibility seemed to become more remote after Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, announced after the proceedings that while he believed the House Democrats had proved their case against Trump, there was no need for more witnesses. Alexander also said he would not vote to convict the president.
“If this shallow, hurried and wholly partisan impeachment were to succeed, it would rip the country apart, pouring gasoline on the fire of cultural divisions that already exist,” Alexander said in a statement.
It is possible that if the 53-seat Republican majority holds on to at least 50 senators, the House Democrats prosecuting the case not only will be denied witnesses, but also may see a quick vote to acquit Trump on the two articles of impeachment for abuse of office and obstruction of Congress.
Thursday’s session focused heavily on what constituted an impeachable offense. The president is charged with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in connection with his withholding of military aid to Ukraine until that nation announced investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
“If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” Alan Dershowitz, a member of the defense team and a constitutional scholar, said during Wednesday’s question-and-answer session.
Democratic senators like Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York blasted this argument as “nonsense.”
“By Dershowitz’s logic, President Nixon did nothing wrong in Watergate,” Schumer said in a news conference Thursday morning. “He was just breaking into the DNC to help his re-election, which, of course, is in the public interest, according to Dershowitzian logic.”
In a series of tweets Thursday, Dershowitz attempted to clarify his remark, which he said was distorted by Democrats and the media: “Let me be clear once again (as I was in the Senate): a president seeking re-election cannot do anything he wants. He is not above the law. He cannot commit crimes. He cannot commit impeachable conduct.”
“But a lawful act — holding up funds, sending troops to vote, breaking a promise about Syria — does not become unlawful or impeachable if done with a mixed motive of both promoting the public interest and helping his RE-election,” he said in a follow-up tweet. “Please respond to my argument, not a distortion of it.”
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, questioned the House Democrats on Thursday about their take on Dershowitz’s interpretation of impeachable presidential actions.
“Do you believe there’s any limit to the type or scope of quid pro quo a sitting president could engage in with a foreign entity, as long as the intent of sitting president is to get re-elected in what he or she believes is in the public’s best interest?” Tester asked.
In his response to Tester’s question, lead House manager Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, called Dershowitz’s argument “astonishing,” adding that it proves the “desperation” of Trump’s lawyers.
“The only reason you make that argument is because you know your client is guilty and dead to rights,” Schiff said.
One line of questioning focused on how the United States would be perceived in light of the Ukraine controversy and impeachment.
Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colorado, replied that if America did not preserve its reputation as a consistent and predictable country that followed a national, not personal, interest, it would suffer the ramifications.
“The American handshake will not matter,” said Crow, who served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Deputy White House Counsel Patrick Philbin underscored his team’s argument that the impeachment process has been a Democratic attempt to not only undo the 2016 presidential election but also take Trump off the ballot in 2020.
“We’ve never been in a situation where we have the impeachment of a president in an election year with the goal of removing the president from the ballot…That is the most massive election interference we’ve ever witnessed,” Philbin told senators Thursday. “It’s domestic election interference.”
Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lawyers, too, highlighted the timing of the impeachment trial.
“We’re discussing the possible impeachment and removal of the President of the United States not only during the election season — in the heart of the election season,” he said, “and I think this is a disservice to the American people.”
House Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has been working to secure enough votes to block testimony from additional witnesses in the Senate proceedings. McConnell has been growing more confident that he has the 51 votes needed to reject new evidence and acquit Trump by Friday.
McConnell encouraged senators to not give any indication, in the Senate Chamber or to the media, of whether they will vote in favor of subpoenaing witnesses and documents, according to The Hill.
A few Republicans, like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, however, have suggested that they’ll likely support hearing from new witnesses when the question is put to a vote. Romney has made it clear he thinks the Senate should hear from former National Security Adviser John Bolton, whose forthcoming book has been the talk of the Capitol since Monday.
The manuscript allegedly confirms a quid pro quo — military aid for Ukraine in exchange for that nation investigating Biden and interference in the U.S. election, per Trump’s request — multiple unnamed sources who have read the book told The New York Times.
An official from the National Security Council sent a letter to Bolton’s lawyer Jan. 23 claiming the book contains details that “reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave harm to the national security” of the United States and can’t be published until they’re deleted.
Charles Cooper, an attorney for Bolton, released his Jan. 24 response to the White House on Thursday. His email said Bolton was preparing for the possibility that the Senate would call him to testify in the trial and asked for the results of the NSC’s review.
“We do not believe that any of that information could reasonably be considered classified, but given that Ambassador Bolton could be called to testify as early as next week, it is imperative that we have the results of your review of that chapter as soon as possible,” Cooper wrote.
Cooper said in a statement Wednesday that he had not received a response.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s Democratic whip, expressed fears that the manuscript won’t see the light of day before the trial ends because it’s in the hands of an administration that hasn’t been forthcoming in sharing documents when requested.
“I think the John Bolton manuscript is now in the same desk drawer as the president’s tax returns,” Durbin said in a news conference before Thursday’s proceedings. “Instead of an IRS audit, the John Bolton manuscript is going through a security audit that I’m sure will not be completed until after this trial is over.”
Despite Democrats rejecting a “witness trade,” some Republicans continued expressing an interest in hearing from additional witnesses if they could also hear new testimony from officials they wish to call.
“I don’t know if we will call additional witnesses in addition to the 17 witnesses who already testified in the House proceedings. I don’t know on Friday if there will be 51 votes to call yet more witnesses, but I’m confident of this…if we call John Bolton, I promise you we’re calling Hunter Biden too,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters Thursday.
Republicans — and Democrats like Joe Manchin from West Virginia — have said Hunter Biden, who previously sat on the board of Ukraine-based Burisma Holdings, is a relevant witness in the impeachment proceedings.
To counter GOP concerns that calling new witnesses would prolong the trial, Schiff proposed a one-week timeframe to collect witness depositions, which would allow senators to conduct other business.
“Can’t we take one week to hear from these witnesses?” he questioned Thursday. “I think we can. I think we should. I think we must.”