Politics

Trump impeachment trial: Senators seek answers on John Bolton, Ukraine aid timing and the president's motives

Key Points
  • Senators in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial peppered House Democrats and defense lawyers with questions Wednesday, ahead of a crucial vote on whether to allow new witnesses and documents into the proceedings.
  • The legal teams took turns fielding a range of pointed queries from the Senate as it weighs the ultimate question of whether to convict and remove Trump from office over his efforts to have Ukraine announce investigations into his political opponents.
  • The partisan climate on Capitol Hill was frequently visible in the senators' questions, which sometimes sounded less like earnest inquiries than as springboards for one of the teams to launch attacks against the other's case.
President Donald Trump listens to a question while speaking to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Senators in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial peppered House Democrats and defense lawyers with questions Wednesday, ahead of a crucial vote on whether to allow new witnesses and documents into the proceedings.

The legal teams took turns fielding a range of pointed queries from the Senate as it weighs the ultimate question of whether to convict and remove Trump from office over his efforts to have Ukraine announce investigations into his political opponents.

The partisan climate on Capitol Hill could often be felt in the senators' questions, which sometimes sounded less like earnest inquiries than springboards for one of the teams to launch attacks against the other's case.

The House voted to impeach Trump last month on articles of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Democrats accuse Trump of withholding nearly $400 million in congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine while pressuring the country to announce probes into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, as well as a debunked conspiracy theory about 2016 election interference.

It's highly unlikely that two-thirds of the Senate will vote to throw a Republican president out of office. But a few key swing votes in the GOP could still change the trajectory of the impeachment trial, when the Senate votes on whether to call witnesses or subpoena additional documents.

That vote is expected to occur Friday, after the question-and-answer period of the trial ends. House managers have spent much of the trial arguing that the Senate should hear new witnesses — especially former national security advisor John Bolton, who reportedly directly heard Trump tie the Ukraine aid to the political probes he sought.

The senators submitted their questions in writing to Chief Justice John Roberts, who read them aloud in the chamber.

Roberts, who is presiding over the trial, alternated between Republicans and Democrats when posing the questions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asked the teams to keep their responses under five minutes each.

Here are the day's top moments:

Three GOP senators seen as crucial votes in Dems' push for witnesses ask first question

Three of the Republican senators seen as the most likely candidates to side with Democrats in favor of additional witnesses and documents posed the first question of the day to Trump's legal team.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska jointly asked the defense lawyers how the Senate should assess the abuse of power charge against Trump if he had more than one motive in his dealings with Ukraine.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) speaks to reporters as she arrives for the continuation of the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol on January 29, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Mario Tama | Getty Images

Attorney Patrick Philbin argued that if Trump had motives that served both a personal and a public interest, then "that cannot possibly be the basis for an impeachable offense" under the terms that the House managers had established.

The standard Democrats must meet, Philbin argued, is that there is not a "smidgen" of legitimate public interest in investigating Hunter Biden's membership on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company while his father Joe Biden was vice president.

Trump and his allies have raised suspicions of corruption in then-vice president Biden's efforts to have Ukraine fire a prosecutor there while his son was on the board of the company, Burisma Holdings.

The Bidens have not been credibly accused of wrongdoing. Multiple witnesses testified in the House impeachment inquiry that Joe Biden's actions aligned with U.S. policy at the time, and that numerous other countries had also called on Ukraine to fire that prosecutor, who was himself accused of corruption.

There are no established standards of proof or concrete rules about the production of evidence in a Senate impeachment trial. But Philbin argued that the House managers failed to live up to the absolutist standard of evidence they had established for themselves.

Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning at least four GOP senators will have to break with their party in order to pass votes in the trial for additional witnesses and documents.

Romney told reporters Wednesday that "I'm going to be one of those in favor of calling witnesses."

Democrats in Q&A keep pressure on Senate to subpoena Bolton

Bolton's possible testimony in the trial was a main focus from the start of the proceedings Wednesday.

In the first question directed to the House managers, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asked if senators could possibly render "a fully formed verdict in this case" without first hearing from Bolton and other witnesses, such as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

"The short answer to that question is no," leading House manager Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in response.

Bolton, who interacted with the president directly during his time in the White House, is "plainly relevant" as a witness, Schiff said.

Then- National Security Advisor of the United States John Bolton holds a news conference during his visit to Ukraine, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, August 24, 2018.
Tarasov | Barcroft Media | Getty Images

To vote against hearing from Bolton, who vowed he was willing to testify if subpoenaed, goes against the Senate's obligation to act as an "impartial juror" in the trial, Schiff argued.

The House managers say that they have already made a compelling case for removing Trump. But they have also pushed throughout the process for new witnesses and documents to be brought into the Senate, arguing Wednesday that the trial itself would be incomplete without testimony from key witnesses such as Bolton.

"If you have any lingering questions about direct evidence … there is a way to shed additional light on it," Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., told the Senate on Wednesday. "You can subpoena Ambassador Bolton and ask him that question directly."

The White House refused to hand over any documents and pressured potential witnesses not to comply with the House during its impeachment probe.

But some of the witnesses who did comply described Bolton as being concerned about the president's Ukraine dealings. Ex-White House official Fiona Hill told the House that Bolton was so disturbed by the efforts to get Ukraine to announce investigations that he called it a "drug deal."

And on Sunday, The New York Times reported Bolton's claim in his upcoming memoir that Trump himself told Bolton he was tying a military aid package to Ukraine with the probes he sought.

After Schiff answered Schumer's question, another senator simply asked Trump's lawyers for a response, prompting chuckles from the chamber.

Philbin took to the podium, arguing that it was the House's role, not the Senate's, to coerce Bolton's testimony.

"They didn't even try to get his testimony," Philbin claimed, even though the House did ask Bolton to testify in its inquiry. Bolton refused to voluntarily appear before the House at that time; he was not subpoenaed.

Philbin argued that the House's rush-job would set a bad precedent for the Senate should have to deal with future impeachments.

Trump lawyer argues that, for Trump, getting reelected is 'in the public interest'

One of the most head-turning moments of Wednesday's questioning came from Alan Dershowitz, a member of Trump's legal team.

Dershowitz argued that if Trump had agreed to release congressionally appropriated foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for help in his reelection campaign — the central allegation in the impeachment trial — then Trump's actions still would not amount to an impeachable offense.

Dershowitz's reasoning? If Trump believed his reelection was "in the public interest," then anything he did to help achieve that — up to and including using foreign aid to force Ukraine to help his campaign — could not be considered corrupt.

In this screenshot taken from a Senate Television webcast, Legal Counsel for President Donald Trump, Alan Dershowitz speaks during impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol on January 27, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Senate Television | Getty Images

"Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest. And mostly, you're right. Your election is in the public interest," Dershowitz said on the Senate floor. "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."

"There are three possible motives that a political figure can have. One, a motive in the public interest. The second is in his own political interests. And the third … would be his own financial interest," Dershowitz claimed.

It would only have been purely corruption, Dershowitz said, if Trump had demanded a personal payment from Ukraine in order to release the U.S. government funds. But Dershowitz saw Trump's demand for help with his reelection campaign in exchange for releasing the taxpayer funds as "a complex middle case."

Trump could hypothetically say to himself, "'I want to be elected. I think I'm a great president. I think I'm the greatest president there ever was. If I'm not elected the national interest will suffer greatly,' and then act, believing that he was acting in the national interest," Dershowitz said.

"That cannot be impeachable," he claimed.

His argument left Democrats scratching their heads. "All quid pro quos are not the same," Schiff said. "Some are legitimate and some are corrupt, and you don't need to be a mind reader to figure out which is which."

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