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Senate Impeachment Trial Moves To Question Phase


President Trump's lawyers did not take as much time defending him as they might have. They finished their arguments in the president's Senate trial and yielded back the balance of their time - quite a few hours. The president's defenders have not really disputed that he sought investigations in Ukraine. Presidential lawyer Jay Sekulow did say this is not an impeachable offense.


JAY SEKULOW: The bar for impeachment cannot be set this low. Majority Leader McConnell, Democratic leader Schumer - danger, danger, danger. These articles must be rejected. The Constitution requires it. Justice demands it.

INSKEEP: The president's lawyers took parts of three days to make their case. Before that, the House managers, the prosecutors, had their three days. And now senators have a couple of days to pose questions to each side after which they vote on witnesses.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is with us. Tamara, good morning.


INSKEEP: Also, congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is in our studios. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And, Claudia, let's start with you. What are the prospects that the Senate would vote for witnesses?

GRISALES: Right now, it doesn't look like a certainty. There are some Republicans who are open to witnesses, but it's not clear this is going to happen without any bipartisan talks. We know of at least three Republicans - Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah - who are open. They were recently emboldened by these New York Times reports of the former national security adviser, John Bolton, saying that the president told him directly to withhold this aid to Ukraine until they got a commitment for political investigations.

INSKEEP: Three senators, so not quite enough. They need four Republicans with all the Democrats, right?

GRISALES: Exactly. We're not sure who the fourth is. But let's take a listen to Murkowski recently addressing this.


LISA MURKOWSKI: I think that Bolton probably has something to offer us, so we'll figure out how we're going to learn more.

GRISALES: So even so, we just don't know if there's a fourth or fifth or sixth Republican that will join Democrats for this call for witnesses. And it's not clear they'll reach this threshold in time for a Friday vote.

INSKEEP: Tamara, how has the White House responded to this call for witnesses?

KEITH: Well, the White House held a briefing with a source who is on the president's legal team, who declined to be named last night. And they say that the - that they're prepared for any eventuality that arises but that the argument they've been making all along is that, well you know, the House didn't try to subpoena him. They did ask for him to come in, but they didn't go all the way to subpoenaing Bolton. And, you know, these Bolton revelations, they say, are just one of the problems with what they call a half-baked impeachment.

INSKEEP: So that's what they said. Without being named, what are the president's defenders saying on the record?

KEITH: You know, they are saying that this process was flawed, that the president did nothing wrong, that he was fully within the bounds of presidential power and that the articles, as we heard that clip before, fall short of any sort of constitutional standard for removal.

But the argument that they are making again and again that they made at the beginning and the end of their arguments before the Senate is that there is an election just nine months away, so why not let the people decide? That's what Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, said on the Senate floor.


PAT CIPOLLONE: What they are asking you to do is to throw out a successful president on the eve of an election with no basis and in violation of the Constitution. It would dangerously change our country and weaken - weaken - forever all of our democratic institutions. You all know that's not in the interest of the American people. Why not trust the American people with this decision? Why tear up their ballots? Why tear up every ballot across this country? You can't do that.

INSKEEP: Claudia, are Senate Republicans, some of whom are themselves on the ballot this November, seeing that as a winning argument?

GRISALES: They are. They're even using it as a talking point. Several Republicans agree that the president shouldn't be removed this close to an election. They may not agree with how he conducted this July call with Ukrainian leader, seeking these investigations, but they don't believe it rises to this level of an impeachable offense to remove the president nine months before an election.

INSKEEP: And, Tam, let me ask about that John Bolton manuscript. Democrats have said, wow, this is huge. It's very important. And if you have questions about it, let's call the witness and see what the witness actually has to say for himself. What is the president's defense team saying?

KEITH: Well, Jay Sekulow, who is on that team, essentially said, there's nothing to see here. He said that on the Senate floor yesterday.


SEKULOW: Responding to an unpublished manuscript that maybe some reporters have an idea of maybe what it says. I mean, that's what the - if you want to call that evidence. I don't know what you'd call that. I'd call it inadmissible. But that's what it is.

INSKEEP: Didn't Chuck Schumer respond to this by saying, well, let's call the witness?

KEITH: Yes. This is the argument that is going round and round and round. You know, the president's legal team, however, makes it pretty clear that they don't want to hear from John Bolton. And they have argued that it's not the Senate's job to find evidence that the House didn't get.

INSKEEP: OK. And so today and tomorrow, questions, and then Friday, Claudia, is the vote on witnesses?

GRISALES: Exactly. We'll see that debate. And then that could lead to the final question in this trial and whether to acquit or remove this president.

INSKEEP: NPR's Claudia Grisales and Tamara Keith, thanks to you both.

GRISALES: You're welcome.

KEITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.