WASHINGTON — The clock wound down on Thursday, with little time left for senators to pose questions to impeachment trial lawyers as the lawmakers consider whether to remove President Donald Trump from office.
Senators are expected to vote Friday on whether to hear new witnesses, and Republicans appeared confident that they would have enough support to block new testimony and ultimately acquit Trump.
The first part of Thursday’s session focused largely on the arguments of one of Trump’s lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, who said the president has very broad powers to do what he must in order to be reelected.
Here are some of the take-aways so far.
The chief justice rejects a provocative question from Sen. Paul.
In one of the most closely watched moments, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, tried to force the chief justice to read a question aloud that included the name of a person widely thought to be the CIA whistleblower whose complaint prompted the impeachment inquiry.
“The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” the chief justice, John Roberts, said after silently reading the question card.
Over the course of the Ukraine affair, Trump has called for the whistleblower to come forward, at times suggesting that the intelligence officer was acting as a spy. Government officials normally make every possible effort to protect a whistleblower’s identity.
When the chief justice declined to read his question, Paul left the Senate chamber and held a news conference in a nearby room where he read aloud the question himself and later posted it on social media. It “deserved to be asked,” said Paul, who has repeatedly called on media organizations to reveal the whistleblower’s name.
Paul’s question did not mention the term “whistleblower,” and the senator later said that he had no independent knowledge of the whistleblower’s identity. Three names were included in the question, which addressed whether any officials on the National Security Council also worked there during the Obama administration and conspired with staff members who work for Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, to plot Trump’s impeachment.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, called for his colleagues to respect the chief justice’s position, a request that appeared to have been directed at Paul.
Schiff takes on Trump team’s view of presidential power.
Democrats have questioned a broad argument made by Alan Dershowitz on Wednesday, that anything a president does to help himself get reelected is inherently in the public’s interest, including a “quid pro quo.” Dershowitz said Thursday on Twitter that his remarks had been mischaracterized.
“What we have seen over the last couple days is a descent into constitutional madness,” Schiff said, responding to a question from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
Dershowitz’s argument drew attention on Wednesday when he said, “If the president does something that he thinks will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”
Dershowitz was responding to what appeared intended to be a softball question posed by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has disparaged the impeachment case and started a podcast called “Verdict with Ted Cruz.”
Democrats and many constitutional scholars have attacked Dershowitz’s claim, and Dershowitz on Thursday said his words had been misconstrued.
On Thursday, Schiff said that the argument from Trump’s defense team “compounded the dangerous arguments that they made that no quid pro quo is too corrupt if it helps your election campaign by saying, and if what you want is targeting your rival, it’s even more legitimate.”
Lawyers disagree over the use of foreign help in an election campaign.
The Democratic senators Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, and Ron Wyden, of Oregon, went after the Trump legal team’s assertion that it was acceptable for the president to seek from a foreign government derogatory information on a political opponent to improve his chances in the 2020 election.
The senators used previous comments from Trump’s hand-picked FBI director to disprove the Trump team’s theory.
“That is something the FBI would want to know about,” the agency’s director, Christopher Wray, told senators in May when speaking about offers of foreign election assistance.
American intelligence agencies concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump, at the time, responded that. Wray was wrong. And weeks later, Trump said “I’d take it” if Russia offered him damaging information on a rival candidate.
The president’s lawyers on Wednesday made the point again. “Mere information is not something that would violate the campaign finance laws,” said Patrick Philbin, one of Trump’s lawyers.
On Thursday, Democrats pushed back on that view emphatically.
“It would send a terrible message to autocrats and dictators and enemies of the democracy and the free world,” said one of the House managers, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “For the president and his team to essentially put out there for all to consume that it is acceptable in the United States to solicit foreign interference in our free elections or accept political dirt — simply to try to cheat in the next election.”
The Federal Election Commission is on the side of Wray and the House managers.
“Anyone who solicits or accepts foreign assistance risks being on the wrong end of a federal investigation,” the commission’s chair, Ellen Weintraub, wrote in a memo last summer, adding that any such offer should be reported to the FBI.
Is there a right way to ask another country to investigate a political rival?
Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine, and three other Republican senators raised a key question about whether there is an appropriate way for a president to “request a foreign country to investigate a U.S. citizen, including a political rival, who is not under investigation by the U.S. government.”
Both the House managers and the Trump team responded that there are indeed legitimate ways to do this in certain circumstances, but that is just about all they agreed on.
Schiff, on behalf of the House managers, answered, “It would be hard for me to contemplate circumstances where that would be appropriate.” He said that one of the most important outcomes of Watergate was that protections were put in place to prevent politically motivated investigations.
He said there is a formal process for the Justice Department to make such a request, and that would be under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty.
“There is a legitimate way to do that,” Schiff said. “That didn’t happen here.”
Philbin said that Trump never asked Ukraine for an investigation.
What he did ask, Philbin said, was if Zelenskiy “‘can look into it.’” The lawyer said that does not amount to Trump asking Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.
Philbin, who previously worked at the Justice Department, argued that if an American in a foreign country did something that might have been against the local law, though not against U.S. law, and that there was a “national interest” for the United States to know what had occurred, “then it would be perfectly legitimate to suggest this is something worth looking into.”
Not only did that answer differ from Schiff’s, it also contradicted what another member of Trump’s defense team, Robert Ray, said earlier.
“Many of you may come to conclude, or may have already concluded, that the call was less than perfect,” Ray said Monday. “It would have been better in attempting to spur action by a foreign government in coordinating law enforcement with our government to have done so through proper channels.”
However, Ray said, what happened on the call is not an impeachable offense.
Warren asks if the trial is diminishing the chief justice.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate, asked a question that elicited a rare reaction from the chief justice in the chamber on Thursday.
Directed to the House managers and, because of the Senate rules, read aloud by Roberts, Warren asked, “Does the fact that the chief justice is presiding over an impeachment trial in which Republican senators have thus far refused to allow witnesses or evidence contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the chief justice, the Supreme Court and the Constitution?”
Some senators and others in the chamber gasped, but the chief justice showed little emotion though he did let slip a small grimace.
Schiff drew the short straw and answered the question on behalf of the House managers.
“I would not say that it contributes to a loss of confidence in the chief justice,” Schiff said.
The chief justice’s limited role in the bitterly partisan Senate trial was always going to be an challenging one that could put his reputation for being objective at risk. He is presiding over a historic trial in a makeshift courtroom without the familiar norms of the justice system, and where his duties are more referee than judge.
Schiff used the opportunity to once again argue that the trial should allow new witnesses, something the Senate is expected to decide on Friday. Earlier on Thursday, Schiff proposed that the Senate call witnesses but limit depositions to one week, as was done during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
Wrapping up his response to Warren’s question, Schiff said: “I think the country deserves a fair trial. And yes, senator, if they don’t get that fair trial, it will just further a cynicism that is corrosive to this institution and to our democracy.”