A Trial Without Witnesses? Senate Proceedings Yield Few Clues

Rep. Adam Schiff (second from left), the lead House Democratic impeachment manager, leaves a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Rep. Adam Schiff (second from left), the lead House Democratic impeachment manager, leaves a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Rep. Adam Schiff (second from left), the lead House Democratic impeachment manager, leaves a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Rep. Adam Schiff (second from left), the lead House Democratic impeachment manager, leaves a news conference on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

A Trial Without Witnesses? Senate Proceedings Yield Few Clues

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Updated at 3:50 p.m.

Senators asked how they should view impeachment and whether witnesses were needed to render a verdict as President Trump’s impeachment trial moved Wednesday to its next phase: written questions from senators.

Watch the proceedings live.

The formal proceedings on Capitol Hill, in which senators from both parties submitted written questions to House managers prosecuting the case as well as Trump’s defense lawyers, commenced as news emerged from the White House that the National Security Council told John Bolton, its former chief, in a letter that the manuscript for his upcoming book “appears to contain significant amounts of classified information” that needs to be excised before the book can be published.

That manuscript has loomed over this week’s Senate impeachment trial sessions because it reportedly says Trump told Bolton that military assistance to Ukraine would be released only after Ukraine opened investigations into Trump’s Democratic rivals — the allegation at the heart of Trump’s impeachment and the proceedings in the Senate.

The first question Wednesday came from Susan Collins, Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, three Republican senators who may support a vote to hear from witnesses. They asked the president’s defense lawyers how the Senate should weigh impeachment if Trump had more than one motive for his conduct.

Attorney Patrick Philbin responded that “once you’re in mixed-motive-land, once it is established that there is a legitimate public interest that could justify looking into something, just asking a question about something, the managers case fails.”

The first question from the Democratic side was whether the Senate could render a verdict without hearing from key witnesses, such as former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

Lead House manager Adam Schiff, D-Calif., responded, “The short answer to that question is: There is no way to have a fair trial without witnesses.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked whether it mattered legally if Trump sought a quid pro quo from Ukraine’s leader. Trump’s attorney Alan Dershowitz responded with a broad view of executive powers, arguing that “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.”

But later, Schiff said: “All quid pro quos are not the same. Some are legitimate and some are corrupt, and you don’t need to be a mind reader to figure out which is which. For one thing, you can ask John Bolton.”

This sequence will continue for up to 16 hours spread over two days. U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial, will read the questions aloud on the floor of the chamber.

This stage in the proceedings comes a day after the president’s legal team rested in its defense of Trump. Democratic House managers made their case last week on why the president should be removed from office. Trump was impeached last month on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

During the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999, senators asked more than 150 questions over two days.

Republicans and Democrats reached a deal in which the parties will take turns asking questions for up to eight hours Wednesday. The same rules and duration for questions has been allotted for Thursday.

Among those who will be watching the session Wednesday is Joseph Bondy, the attorney for Lev Parnas, the former associate of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. NPR’s Sue Davis says Bondy will be in the Senate gallery as a guest of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Parnas, who has been indicted in New York for alleged campaign finance violations, won’t be in the gallery because he has to wear a GPS monitoring device as part of his pretrial release. Bondy declined to say where Parnas will watch the proceedings from.

The two days of Senate questions set the stage for a Friday vote on whether to allow witnesses.

According to Democrats, multiple potential witnesses have firsthand accounts of what they say is a quid pro quo scheme with Ukraine that forms the basis of the two impeachment charges Trump is facing. But Republicans maintain that witnesses can inject uncertainty into the proceedings and prolong the trial.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told NPR’s Claudia Grisales that he remains “very, very skeptical that there is any witness that is going to shed any light that is going to cause me to change my view on what the final outcome of what this trial ought to be.” Republicans overwhelmingly support Trump’s acquittal.

Among the sought-after witnesses is Bolton, the former national security adviser who captured Washington’s attention this week following the release of revelations in his forthcoming book. Those purported book details, first reported by The New York Times, placed pressure on senators to vote to allow witnesses into the trial.

But the NSC in a letter to Bolton’s lawyer Charles Cooper, dated Jan. 23. said: “Under federal law and the nondisclosure agreements your client signed as a condition for gaining access to classified information, the manuscript may not be published or otherwise disclosed without the deletion of this classified information.”

The letter, signed by NSC’s record management official Ellen Knight, said the council would work with Bolton to help identify what material in the manuscript could be used.

Trump’s defense team has argued that the manuscript would be “inadmissible” in the trial. Defense lawyer Jay Sekulow said impeachment “is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts.” Anything Bolton would have to offer in person about his conversations with the president, argued Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz, would not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Whether Republicans can defeat the Democrats’ push for witnesses, including Bolton, is unclear.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Republicans in a closed-door meeting late Tuesday that the party does not yet have the votes to block new witnesses, but that does not mean Democrats will be able to subpoena Bolton or any other witness. That decision will likely come down to moderate Republicans including Romney, R-Utah; Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Collins, R-Maine; who have indicated they may be open to hearing from witnesses, but their final decision is still unknown.

Trump’s defense team argued earlier this week that the case against the president presented by Democrats does not constitute any impeachable offenses.

Lawyers for Trump have accused Democrats of trying to invalidate the result of the 2016 election. They say Trump has not committed any crime and therefore cannot be removed from office, even though many legal scholars say a law need not be broken in order to secure an impeachment conviction that would remove a president from office.

Although two previous presidents, Clinton and Andrew Johnson, have also been impeached, no U.S. president has ever been removed from office.

Democrats impeached Trump last month for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress for what the prosecution team says was a campaign to pressure Ukraine into opening investigations into Trump’s political rivals and held-up $391 million in congressionally approved security assistance in order to apply leverage on Ukrainian authorities. House Democrats say the White House’s refusal to cooperate with the impeachment investigation is proof of a cover-up and amounts to obstruction.

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