WASHINGTON — Senate jurors peppered President Donald Trump’s defenders and accusers with final questions at his impeachment trial Thursday ahead of a crucial vote on calling witnesses, the focus shifting from details of the charges to whether it was time to simply acquit and conclude the trial.
The vote on witnesses, expected Friday, could lead to an abrupt end of the trial with the expected acquittal. Or, less likely, it could bring weeks more of argument as Democrats press to hear testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton and others.
Thursday’s testimony included soaring pleas to the senators who will decide Trump’s fate, to either stop a president who Democrats said tried to cheat in the 2016 election and will again, or to shut down impeachment proceedings that Republicans insisted were never more than a partisan attack.
“Let’s give the country a trial they can be proud of,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor for House Democrats. Americans, he said, know what it takes for a fair trial and won’t stand for anything less.
Trump attorney Eric Herschmann countered that Democrats are only prosecuting the president because they can’t beat him in the 2020 election.
“We trust the American people to decide who should be our president,” Herschmann said. “Enough is Enough. Stop all of this.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is toiling to keep Friday’s vote on schedule even as the trial is unearthing fresh evidence from Bolton’s new book and raising alarms among Democrats and some Republicans about a Trump attorney’s controversial defense.
In a day-after tweet, Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz, complained about the portrayal of his testimony Wednesday when he said a president is essentially immune from impeachment if he believes his actions to be in the “national interest.”
That idea left even some of Trump’s top allies backing away, including Dershowitz himself.
“They characterized my argument as if I had said that if a president believes that his re-election was in the national interest, he can do anything,” the retired professor said Thursday. “I said nothing like that, as anyone who actually heard what I said can attest.”
His words Wednesday night: “Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest. And if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected is in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”
Asked about it as one of the first questions Thursday, Democrat Schiff, said, “Have we learned nothing in the last half century?”
Schiff drew on the lessons of the Nixon era to warn of a “normalization of lawlessness” in the Trump presidency.
“That argument – if the president says it it can’t be illegal – failed when Richard Nixon was forced to resign,” Schiff told the senators. “But that argument may succeed here, now.”
Trump was impeached by House last month on charges that he abused his power like no other president, jeopardizing Ukraine and U.S.-Ukraine relations. Democrats say Trump asked he vulnerable ally to investigate Joe Biden and debunked theories of 2016 election interference, temporarily halting American security aid to the country as it battled Russia at its border. The second article of impeachment says Trump then obstructed the House probe in a way that threatened the nation’s three-branch system of checks and balances.
“This is not a banana republic,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., rejecting the White House counsel’s suggestion there was nothing wrong with seeking foreign election interference.
Democrats played a video showing the many times Trump called on Russia or China to intervene in U.S. politics, voicing his own belief such information could be helpful in a campaign.
The president has argued repeatedly that his dealings with Ukraine have been “perfect.”
Even though McConnell has not yet locked down the votes, the calendar he engineered at the start of the trial two weeks ago is now proving immovable as Democrats are pressing hard to force the Senate to call more witnesses to testify.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have expressed interest in hearing from Bolton and the others. But their votes may not be enough.
In a Senate split 53-47 with a Republican majority, at least four GOP senators must join all Democrats to reach the 51 votes required to call witnesses, decide whom to call or do nearly anything else in the trial.
Chief Justice John Roberts, presiding over the chamber and fielding senators’ questions for the trial, could break a tie, but that seems unlikely.
The chief justice did exercise authority Thursday with a stunning rebuttal to a question posed by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky designed to expose the name of the still anonymous whistleblower whose complain about Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s new president led to the impeachment inquiry.
Roberts had communicated through his staff to McConnell’s office that he did not want to read the whistleblower’s name, according to a Republican unauthorized to discuss the private conversation and granted anonymity.
“The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” he said.
Senators have dispatched with nearly 100 queries Wednesday and dozens more on Thursday during the final arguments.
Trump’s team says the House’s 28,000-page case against the president and the 17 witnesses — current and former national security officials, ambassadors and others who testified in the House proceedings — are sufficient.
Instead, Trump’s lawyers focused some of their time Thursday refloating allegations against Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine while his father was vice president.
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., responding to one of the questions said the Bidens have little to tell the Senate about Trump’s efforts to “shake down” Ukraine for his own campaign.
Democrats argued Bolton’s forthcoming book cannot be ignored. It contends he personally heard Trump say he wanted military aid withheld from Ukraine until it agreed to investigate the Bidens — the abuse of power charge that is the first article of impeachment. Trump denies saying such a thing.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer acknowledged it’s “an uphill battle” to bring four GOP senators to vote for witnesses but said, “We’re still hopeful.”
The White House has blocked its officials from testifying in the proceedings and on Wednesday it released a letter to Bolton’s attorney objecting to “significant amounts of classified information” in the manuscript, including at the top secret level. Bolton resigned last September — Trump says he was fired — and he and his attorney have insisted the book does not contain any classified information.