WASHINGTON — The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump resumed Wednesday with senators submitting questions to both legal teams.
While early questions from Republicans and Democrats Wednesday largely focused on offering their side the chance to serve up talking points on Trump's impeachment, late in the evening Democrats pushed the president's defense team on campaign interference.
Toward the end of the evening, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons asked White House lawyers if Trump agrees that foreign interference in US elections is illegal, citing Trump’s interview with ABC News last year in which the president said he’d likely accept dirt on a political opponent from another foreign country, like China or Russia, if it was offered and that he may or may not tell the FBI about it. “There’s nothing wrong with listening,” Trump said at the time.
Philbin responded for Trump’s team, saying that “mere information isn't something that would violate the campaign finance laws” against foreign interference in US elections.
“If there is credible information, credible information of wrongdoing by someone who is running for a public office, it's not campaign interference for credible information about wrongdoing to be brought to light, if it is credible information,” Philbin continued. “So I think the idea that any information that happens to come from overseas is necessarily campaign interference is a mistake.”
Senators have had to remain silent as jurors throughout the trial, but are now able to submit written questions to either House Democrats or Trump’s defense team. Questions began Wednesday and will continue Thursday with the questions read by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who is overseeing the trial.
Republicans and Democrats alternate asking questions, offering a glimpse at what senators are most focused on as they consider whether to remove Trump from office for two articles of impeachment. Trump was charged with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress for his decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine while pressuring the country to investigate his political rival, former vice president Joe Biden, and for preventing members of administration from testifying in Congress’s investigation.
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Sen. Susan Collins did ask a question on behalf of herself and Sens. Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski. All three Republicans have indicated they may vote Friday to allow witnesses in the trial. The trio asked Trump's lawyers to explain whether they believe the president could be removed from office if he had multiple motivations for withholding the aid money from Ukraine, "such as the pursuit of personal political advantage, rooting out corruption, and the promotion of national interest."
Romney plans to ask the same question of the House Democratic team, per a copy of his planned questions which he tweeted Wednesday.
White House Deputy Counsel Patrick Philbin responded that if even Trump had been motivated by personal gain — but was also, even in small part, seeking to advance the US's national interest — then his actions were justified.
Alan Dershowitz, a constitutional lawyer arguing on behalf of the president, later told senators he believes that even if Trump withheld the aid in order to get reelected — that's in the public's interest. "Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest. And mostly you are right, your election is in the public interest. And 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. ... Every president believes that," he said.
Later in the trial, Schiff responded. "Alan Dershowitz lost a criminal case in which he argued that if a corrupt motive was only part of the motive, you can't convict. And the court said, yes, you can. If a corrupt motive is any part of it, you can convict," he told senators.
Collins and Murkowski also asked the White House team Wednesday whether Trump had ever brought up concerns about Biden and his son Hunter "in connection with corruption in Ukraine" before the former vice president entered the 2020 presidential race. This timeline is important because the president's lawyers have claimed Trump was justified in withholding aid to Ukraine because of sincere concerns about corruption and Bidens, while Democrats have argued Trump acted largely in self-interest related to his concerns about facing Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
Philbin responded on behalf of Trump's team, "I can't point to something in the record that shows President Trump at an earlier time mentioning specifically something related to Joe or Hunter Biden."
Philbin said he was limited to what was in the record of the House investigation.
Later Wednesday, Republican senators asked the White House lawyers whether there had been any past investigation into Hunter Biden's position on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company — one of the things Trump asked Ukraine to investigate. The White House's lawyers said that no, there had not ever been any federal investigation into it.
Although Hunter Biden took the job in 2014, Republicans are now focusing the need to investigate his role with Burisma since it became a part of Trump's impeachment and trial. Jay Sekulow, Trump's personal lawyer,
Three Republican senators used their impeachment question to float the unsupported theory that the whistleblower whose report kicked off the Ukraine scandal was involved in shady behavior with the Bidens.
The anonymous whistleblower filed a complaint against Trump in August, raising questions about his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and accusing Trump of “[abusing] his office for personal gain.” Though the whistleblower’s allegations have been backed up by a White House record of Trump’s call and numerous witnesses in the House’s investigation, Republicans have remained focused on the whistleblower's identity and have been trying to out a person who they allege is the whistleblower for months. Trump’s allies have been attacking that person since 2017, long before the complaint was filed.
On Wednesday, Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Jerry Moran asked House Democrats if the anonymous whistleblower worked with Joe Biden in getting a former Ukrainian prosecutor fired. It is not the first time Republicans have raised this theory. In November, Sen. Rand Paul made similar allegations and called for the whistleblower to be subpoenaed by Congress.
The basis of the theory is a preliminary review by the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, who identified “an indicia of bias of an arguable political bias on the part of the [whistleblower] in favor of a rival political candidate.” Atkinson ultimately found the complaint to be credible.
Some Trump defenders have spread the theory that the whistleblower worked with the Bidens and that the complaint was a politically motivated attack on Trump. Schiff rejected this view as “a complete and total fiction” in his response.
“First of all, I don’t know who the whistleblower is. I haven’t met them or communicated with them in any way,” he said.
Schiff said the substance of the whistleblower complaint has been verified by multiple witnesses during the House impeachment inquiry. “There’s no need for that whistleblower anymore, except to further endanger that person’s life,” said Schiff.
The Q&A period will last up another eight hours on Thursday.
On Friday, after the Q&A is over, senators will answer the biggest question looming over the trial — whether they will call any witnesses to testify. Democrats have pushed to call former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, both of whom have firsthand knowledge of Trump’s decision to withhold the Ukrainian aid.
Many Republicans have said that witnesses are unnecessary; some have argued bizarrely that Democrats haven’t provided enough evidence to remove Trump from office — so there’s no reason to call for more evidence.
Romney and Collins have said they’re keen to hear from Bolton and are likely to vote for calling witnesses. Democrats will likely need two more Republicans to join them on that vote.
If the vote to call witnesses fails, the Senate could vote to end the trial — and very likely acquit the president — as soon as Friday.
Rep. Adam Schiff spoke about the whistleblower complaint. This quote was misattributed in an earlier version of this story.