Senators take reins of impeachment trial in marathon question session

Senators take reins of impeachment trial in marathon question session
© Greg Nash

Senators on Wednesday used a roughly 10-hour long session to try to poke holes in their opponents' case and assist their own party in filling potential gaps in the impeachment trial of President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichael Flynn transcripts reveal plenty except crime or collusion 50 people arrested in Minneapolis as hundreds more National Guard troops deployed Missouri state lawmaker sparks backlash by tweeting 'looters deserve to be shot' MORE.

Wednesday was the start of a two-day question-and-answer session in the Senate, marking a more direct role for senators who have had to sit silently during the six days of opening arguments. 

Senators asked more than 90 questions and ran the gamut of top targets for both sides, including former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonHave the courage to recognize Taiwan McConnell says Obama administration 'did leave behind' pandemic plan Trump company lawyer warned Michael Cohen not to write 'tell-all' book: report MORE, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, and the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint helped trigger the impeachment inquiry. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The end result was an exercise in shadowboxing as Trump’s team and the House managers tried to use the questions to target arguments made by the other side, in most cases without being able to directly rebut them. 

Senators in both parties acknowledged that they had largely lobbed their questions at their own party to give their side time to expand their case, and to prevent the opposing team from using an opening that could persuade a small handful of potential swing votes. 

“Just like it would be in any debate or any type of courtroom consideration, you want to control the dynamic,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said, while floating that the strategy could “evolve.” 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) added that Democrats were using some of their first day questions to help House managers, but predicted there would be “more” questions to Trump’s team. 

“The reason we directed so much of our questions to the House managers is because they needed the chance to rebut the false arguments, the fallacious reasoning, the half truths and even no truths that the three days of the president’s counsel made,” Schumer said. 

There were notable exceptions as a trio of Republican senators — Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits | House Republicans introduce bill to speed mining projects for critical minerals | Watchdog faults EPA communications in contamination of NC river The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Unemployment claims now at 41 million with 2.1 million more added to rolls; Topeka mayor says cities don't have enough tests for minorities and homeless communities MORE (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocrats broaden probe into firing of State Department watchdog Coronavirus and America's economic miracle Former Romney strategist joins anti-Trump Lincoln Project MORE (Utah) — bypassed the softballs that many of their GOP colleagues asked of Trump’s team. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Instead, the trio used the first question of the marathon debate to ask how senators should approach the first article of impeachment — relating to Trump's abuse of power — if there are potentially multiple motives.

"If the president had more than one motive for his alleged conduct, such as the pursuit of personal political advantage, rooting out corruption and the promotion of national interests, how should the Senate consider more than one motive in its assessment of Article One," Supreme Court Justice John Roberts said, reading the question from the trio.

Romney also asked White House lawyers on “what specific date did President Trump first order the hold on security assistance to Ukraine and did he explain the reason at the time?" 

In another instance, Collins and Murkowski asked if Trump had discussed the Bidens in conversations about Ukrainian corruption during the first two years of his presidency before Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump campaign launches Asian Pacific Americans coalition Biden: 'More than one African American woman' being considered for VP Liberal group asks Klobuchar to remove herself from VP consideration because of prosecutorial record MORE had announced his presidential campaign.

The question caught widespread attention in the Capitol, where reporters and fellow senators are trying to read the tea leaves on which way the pair of moderate GOP senators are leaning when it comes to allowing witnesses and the ultimate votes on whether or not to convict Trump on the articles of impeachment. 

Collins and Murkowski, who sit next to each other, were spotted passing a note before they asked the question. 

Deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin was unable to cite a specific instance in which Trump indicated to other Cabinet officials or top Ukrainian officials that he was concerned about the Bidens contributing to corruption in Ukraine. He also noted that conversations between Trump and his administration officials are not part of the record of the House impeachment inquiry.

Philbin said Trump discussed corruption with former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in June 2017 and September 2017, but did not say whether he mentioned the Bidens in either case.

The question seemed to strike at a key defense argument: that Trump discussed investigating the Bidens because he was motivated by corruption in Ukraine, not personal political gain. As Philbin answered their question, the two GOP senators furiously scribbled notes at their desks. 

A Senate Democratic aide called it the “most important moment of the day” as of approximately 8 p.m., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) also repeated the question later in the evening, telling Trump’s legal team to "give an accurate and truthful answer.” 

But many of their Republican colleagues trained their fire on long-running GOP targets. 

Conservatives in several questions tried to get both the president’s counsel and House managers to shed new light on the whistleblower that sparked the House impeachment inquiry. 

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffFlynn urged Russian diplomat to have 'reciprocal' response to Obama sanctions, new transcripts show The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - George Floyd's death sparks protests, National Guard activation Hillicon Valley: Trump signs order targeting social media legal protections | House requests conference with Senate after FISA vote canceled | Minneapolis systems temporarily brought down by hackers MORE (D-Calif.) largely sidestepped the question, instead using his answer to take aim at conservative speculation that he somehow conspired with the whistleblower

"The conspiracy theory … that the whistleblower colluded with the intel committee staff to hatch an impeachment inquiry is a complete and total fiction," he said. 

The attempt to ask about the whistleblower wasn’t without controversy; a source confirmed to The Hill that Roberts had effectively refused to ask a question about the whistleblower from Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSecond senator tests positive for coronavirus antibodies Senate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Tim Kaine tests positive for COVID-19 antibodies MORE (R-Ky.). The question was expected to name the individual. 

Paul indicated after a closed-door GOP dinner on Wednesday that he was not backing down, and would try to ask the question again during Thursday’s session. 

“It’s still an ongoing process; it may happen tomorrow,” Paul said. 

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, indicated that leadership was not involved in blocking questions, but when asked if the whistleblower’s name would be read on the floor, he added, “I don’t think that happens.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Republicans also used their time to target Hunter Biden over his work during his father's vice presidency for Burisma, a Ukraine gas company, with a group including Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asking: “What did Hunter Biden do for the money that Burisma Holdings paid him?” 

Meanwhile, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) invoked a 2016 "Access Hollywood" tape in which Trump bragged about groping women to suggest that he believes he's above the law. 

"Before he was elected, President Trump said: 'When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,'" Harris wrote. "After he was elected, President Trump said Article II of the Constitution gives him 'the right to do whatever he wants as president.'"

Senate Democrats and House managers also repeatedly raised the discussion of Bolton, who has loomed over the final days of the trial

In response to a question from a Democrat, Philbin said the White House's lawyers were made aware “at some point” that Bolton’s manuscript had been sent to the National Security Council for pre-publication security review.

Schiff also argued that senators should not wait until Bolton’s book is released to find out what he has to say about Trump’s comments on the Ukraine aid. Bolton, in his forthcoming memoir, claims that Trump tied Ukraine aid to the country helping investigate Democrats, including the Bidens, something Trump and the White House have vehemently denied.

ADVERTISEMENT

“If you have any question at all, you need to hear from his former national security adviser,” Schiff said. “Don’t wait for the book.”

 
Giuliani has traveled to Ukraine, by his own admission, to dig for dirt on the Bidens. King asked if Trump's mention of Giuliani on the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky established that Trump was asking for help with an investigation into the Bidens for political reason and not because of corruption concerns. 

The question-and-answer session comes days before the Senate is expected to vote on whether or not to call witnesses as part of the trial. Republicans are signaling renewed confidence that they will be able to block new witnesses from being called even after Bolton "bombshell."

But Trump’s team used its answers to beat home the Republican message — echoed from the White House to GOP leadership and rank-and-file senators — that if four Republicans vote to call Bolton, they will be opening the door to a long, messy, protected fight. 

Philbin, who seemed to spend the most time answering questions on behalf of Trump’s legal team, said if Bolton is called Trump would also try to call a "long list" of witnesses, including Hunter Biden

"It's not a question of a lot of people talking right now about John Bolton," he said. "The president would have the opportunity to call his witness, just as a matter of fundamental fairness." 

Morgan Chalfant contributed.