Trump legal team wraps opening arguments at Senate impeachment trial
Trump lawyer Sekulow dismisses Bolton allegation, warns ‘danger, danger, danger’ of lowering impeachment bar
Schumer rejects GOP talk of letting senators see Bolton manuscript before deciding whether he should testify
President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team on Tuesday wrapped up three days of opening arguments at his Senate trial but questions remained over whether senators will hear new witnesses, especially former national security adviser John Bolton.
Trump’s lawyers addressed and dismissed reported allegations by Bolton that Trump told him he was withholding military aid to Ukraine until Ukraine agreed to investigate the Bidens.
They argued, even if true, that doesn’t constitute an impeachable offense.
The next phase of the trial — in which senators will submit questions to both sides for up to 16 hours — is expected to begin Wednesday. After that, a pivotal point in the trial — a Senate vote on whether to consider new witnesses and other evidence — could come as early as Friday.
The ABC News team of correspondents and producers is covering every aspect of this story.
Here is how the day unfolded.
2:52 p.m. Cipollone: ‘The Senate cannot allow this to happen’
White House counsel Pat Cippollone ends three days of arguments with a low-key but impassioned plea to senators.
«The Senate cannot allow this to happen. It is time for this to end here and now.,’ he says. «So, we urge the Senate to reject these articles of impeachment for all the reasons we have given you.»
Cipollone tells the senators to end the era of impeachment «for good.»
‘This should end now, as quickly as possible,» he argues. «Reject these articles of impeachment for our country and for the American people.»
Cipollone spoke after a brief recess.
As that recess began, Sen. Susan Collins turned to her GOP colleague and seat mate Sen. Lisa Murkowski and both huddled, intensely in their seats — talking just to one another, ABC’s Trish Turner reports from the chamber. Each is resting her head in hand — as if to shield what is being said from press and potentially GOP colleagues all around them.
They are two key senators on the question of witnesses. Most stopped taking notes during the Sekulow comments.
And ABC’s Devin Dwyer reports that after Murkowski and Collins broke the Alaska senator stood in the aisle shoulder to shoulder with GOP Whip Sen John Thune for over 10 minutes, both clearly presenting countering views on the question of witnesses.
Thune, heavily chewing gum, looked sternly away while Murkowski seemed to thoughtfully lay out her thinking into his left ear. You could see her saying «witnesses» but exact statements not clear.
Murkowski’s body language and facial expressions seemed to reflect the conflicted views she has made publicly in recent days.
I can overhear her saying «….imagine if it was someone else…» and «… I do understand the concerns…» and «…. there’s no way anyone wants that….» She occasionally shrugs her shoulders.
1:41 p.m. Sekulow warns; ‘danger, danger danger’ while dismissing Bolton allegation
Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lead lawyers, takes the Senate floor to sum up the team’s arguments, and appears to reference the Bolton manuscript controversy, saying «The trial of the leader of the free world and the duly elected President of the United States is one of the most solemn of duties. It is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts.»
«You cannot impeach a president based on an unsourced allegation,» he says later, this time mentioning Bolton by name and the president’s denial of his allegation that he heard him tie withholding Ukraine aid to Ukraine agreeing to an investigation of the Bidens.
Sekulow also says all the legal scholars the president’s lawyers have presented have warned against lowering the bar for impeachment, saying it would set a bad precedent.
«Hamilton put impeachment in the hands of this body, the Senate, precisely and specifically to be above that fray. This is the greatest deliberative body on Earth. In our presentation so far, you have now heard from legal scholars from a variety of schools of thought, from a variety of political backgrounds, but they do have a common theme with a dire warning, danger. Danger. Danger,» he says.
«To lower the bar of impeachment based on these articles of impeachment would impact the functioning of our constitutional republic and the framework of that Constitution for generations,» he continues, attacking Democrats.
«The claim that foreign policy decisions can be deemed abuses of power based on subjective opinions about mixed or sole motives that the president was interested only in helping himself demonstrate the dangers of employing the vague, subjective and politically malleable phrase, abuse of power as a constitutionally permissible criteria for the removal of a president,» he says, echoing the argument from Alan Dershowitz on Monday night.
Sekulow connects that idea to The New York Times report of excerpts from Bolton’s book that has increased calls for Bolton’s testimony. But Sekulow says that even if those comments are true the president’s behavior still isn’t an impeachable offense.
Senators are paying attention, but only a few appear to be taking notes, ABC’s Mary Bruce notes from the Senate gallery.
Sen. Susan Collins is still the most prolific note taker. And a new name stands out, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. He is also paying close attention.
Romney is listening and looked slightly unamused during the more political portion of Sekulow’s remarks.
Before things got underway, Sen. Liindsey Graham was seen speaking very briefly to Collins and Cassidy, separately.
Graham genuinely seems bored. He is snapping his gum, staring at the wall and constantly leaving the chamber for long stretches.
The most activity in the room is happening at the Trump legal team and managers’ tables.
From my vantage point, I could see directly over Sekulow’s shoulder as he tweaked and rewrote the top of his remarks. Notable, since the beginning of his comments included a not-so-subtle reference to Bolton’s allegations, saying «It’s not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts.»
The managers did not make eye contact when Sekulow ripped into their handling of the House impeachment process. But Schiff is taking non-stop notes. And there was a lot of chatter among members of the team throughout the presentations.
1:13 p.m. Analysis: ‘Blizzard of spin’ on GOP senators
I think it’s fair to say no one here really yet knows the outcome of the question of whether or not to call witnesses, ABC’s Trish Turner says in analysis.
There’s a blizzard of spin and pressure being brought to bear against GOP senators.
White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland has been making the rounds pressing GOP senators to oppose the vote on calling witnesses, according to 2 GOP senators requesting anonymity who were contacted by Ueland.
One senior administration official tells ABC the case is basically this:
«This could add weeks if not months to a potential trial process and lead to some very challenging outcomes for the Senate as an institution, the court itself, and obviously how it would handle executive privilege issues out in the executive branch and in Congress.
So, for example, is there supposed to be one set of rules for executive privilege and classified information for Senate presidential impeachment trials only and one set of rules for everything else? There are some real practical challenges that start to crop up pretty quickly.»
The source noted there are real-time implications and concerns about executive privilege assertions. You could see a situation, the source says, where «every question that rotates around executive privilege having to go to a court for adjudication – every one of those questions is a time process. This is a question by question affirmation of executive privilege which is held by the president, not by Ambassador Bolton.»
There’s also a challenge «about the availability of information.»
As for releasing the Bolton manuscript in a classified setting, the official said «Lots of people have talked about this, but there are lots of attendant complexities.»
Who owns the manuscript? The publisher? Is it Bolton’s? The marketer’s? The administration official said this might not be a White House or Senate question to be answered. This source said the White House has «little visibility» into this.
Some of the concern is abated by addressing this in a classified setting but to put it mildly, the administration wouldn’t trust that the information would stay classified.
The document could also still be subject to privilege assertions.
That’s why they handled it very carefully on the Senate floor, versus the speculation in the media.
There are «complex and somewhat novel legal issues suddenly front and senator courtesy of the article,» the official said.
Where is the Trump administration on the witness vote? «No predictions,» the official said.
1:08 p.m. White House lawyer echoes Dershowitz argument
Tuesday’s trial session gets underway with White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin saying he wants to elaborate on arguments made last night by former Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. He argued that a president cannot be impeached for «abuse of power» and «obstruction of Congress» because the language is too vague — that the Constitution requires a crime or something like a crime.
Philbin also asks, «How do we tell what an illicit motive is? How do we get inside the president’s head?» regarding what he says are Trump’s lawful actions on their face.
Philbin specifically says there was no malicious intent in the decision to move the rough transcript of the July 25 call between Presidents Trump and Zelenskiy to a more highly restricted server, citing testimony from witnesses that they did not believe that was done to hide any perceived wrongdoing in the call. He plays testimony from U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and National Security Council official Tim Morrison.
«So, why we’re even here talking about these accusations about a cover-up when it’s a transcript that was preserved and made public is somewhat absurd?» Philbin says.
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He also countered Democrats’ argument that the whistleblower complaint that first raised concerns about the call and the administration’s dealings with Ukraine should have been provided immediately to Congress once it was deemed to be a matter of «urgent concern.»
Philbin argues the law doesn’t say if the matter is urgent it has to be shared immediately, but specifically defines «urgent concern» as a serious or flagrant problem, violation of law as it relates to funding, or interference in intelligence matters. He said the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department looked at the complaint and determined it did not meet the definition of «urgent concern.»
«Remember what we’re talking about here is a head of state communication between the president of the United States and another head of state. This isn’t some CIA operation overseas. This isn’t the NSA doing something. This isn’t any intelligence activity going on within the intelligence community under the supervision of the DNI. It’s the head of the executive branch exercising his constitutional authority, engaging with foreign relations with a foreign head of state,» he says.
12:31 p.m. GOP’s Murkowski signals she’s increasingly open to hearing from Bolton
GOP moderate Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is signaling that she is increasingly likely to support hearing from John Bolton. Asked if she wants to read his manuscript, she says, «I think that Bolton probably has something to offer us. So we’ll figure out how we’re going to learn more,» she said, before hopping into an elevator.
—ABC News Mariam Khan
12:04 p.m. GOP’s Lankford says seeing manuscript will help senators decides whether to call Bolton
GOP Sen. James Lankford, who late Monday floated the idea of reviewing Bolton’s manuscript, tells CNN the review is necessary before senators can decide whether to call him as a witness.
«This at least allows people to reach a decision based on facts that they can actually read in the manuscript,» Lankford says.
The National Security Council, which is based at the White House, has held Bolton’s manuscript since he submitted it for a standard review process last month, according to a Bolton representative and an NSC spokesperson.
11:16 a.m. Romney says hearing witnesses from both sides ‘has some merit’
Sen. Mitt Romney, one of the key moderates Democrats hope will support new testimony, again appears open to new testimony. But he goes further on Tuesday, suggesting he’s just as open to hearing from other witnesses called by Trump’s defense team.
«I’d like to hear from John Bolton and I think the idea that’s been expressed in the media about having each side be able to choose a witness or maybe more than one witness on a paired basis, it has some merit,» Romney tells reporters.
Some Republicans and Democrats have reportedly considered calling former Vice President Joe Biden to the Senate floor in exchange for senior officials with closer connections to the President.
But Democratic senators have publicly rejected the idea, insisting the accusations that the Bidens engaged in Ukraine-related corruption are baseless distractions.
—ABC News’ Sarah Kolinovsky
11:13 a.m. Schumer says Bolton must testify so senators can decide whether he or Trump is telling the truth
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer makes another argument for witnesses before Trump’s impeachment trial convenes at 1 p.m.
He notes that with the president’s denial of John Bolton’s allegation on Monday, the two are telling opposing stories and says, since Trump won’t testify, senators need to hear from Bolton to decide who’s telling the truth.
He says it’s «on the shoulders of four Republican senators» to make sure Bolton, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and two other administration officials testify, referring to GOP Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Lamar Alexander.
He also called the GOP talk of having senators read the Bolton manuscript in a secure setting is an «absurd proposal.»
«Nothing is a substitute for a witness testifying under oath,» Schumer says.
«We’re not bargaining with them,» Schumer says of Republican talk of having Hunter Biden testify in exchange for Bolton appearing.
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