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Politics & Government

Week In Politics: Impeachment Trial Finale, Nearing Iowa Caucus

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump's impeachment trial is in the final stretch. This was the week that the President's defense team made its case to the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JAY SEKULOW: You are being asked to remove a duly elected president of the United States, and you are being asked to do it in an election year.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: And if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo...

KENNETH STARR: Like war, impeachment is hell - or, at least, presidential impeachment is hell.

CHANG: And the senators finally had their turn to ask questions of both legal teams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Mr. Chief Justice...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mr. Chief Justice...

JOHN ROBERTS: The senator is recognized.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I send a question to the desk.

ROBERTS: The senator from Kentucky...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I have a question to present to the desk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted.

Senator from Massachusetts...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Mr. Chief Justice...

ROBERTS: How would the verdict in this trial alter the balance of power between the executive...

ADAM SCHIFF: I would say this. It will eviscerate our oversight power.

CHANG: Senators have voted not to call witnesses, as expected. That vote will be followed at some point by votes on whether to convict President Trump. Now for our regular Week in Politics segment, I'm joined by E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review and Bloomberg Opinion.

Hello to both of you.

EJ DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CHANG: All right, so why don't we just start by having each of you tell me one thing that you were struck by most during this week's impeachment proceedings? Let's start with you, E.J.

DIONNE: Well, I guess the thing that I am struck by most at this moment is the intellectual and moral incoherence of the Republicans who were on the bubble on some of these votes. To call their statements Jesuitical or Talmudic is unfair to Jesuits or Talmud scholars. For example, you have Marco Rubio saying just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office. Either his actions are impeachable or they're not impeachable. Come on. Tell us. Or Lisa Murkowski, in saying that she was not going to vote to call witnesses - it is sad for me to admit that as an institution, Congress has failed. And so compounding the failure is going to help.

I think what you're seeing from Republicans is somewhere - you know, and Lamar Alexander basically saying, what the president did is terrible, but I don't want to hear any more - you know, and I think this is an admission on the part of Republicans that at least these kinds of Republicans know there's something terribly wrong here. And they're just trying to rationalize a vote not to call witnesses and not to impeach.

CHANG: Ramesh?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think the thing that has struck me throughout this period and especially this week is all of the wringing constitutional arguments that end up being exactly in sync with each person's partisan interest. There is this desperate need for people to be able to say, well, you know, Alexander Hamilton's making me do this thing. It's not that I want to do it. And I think we have seen that on both sides. I think there - I'm a little less judgmental about, say, Senator Rubio. I think that there is a place for an argument that there is a gray area where something could be impeachable but it is still up to the discretion of the senators to decide whether it warrants removal from office. That is, in fact, the way the Constitution assigns the responsibility to make that decision. But I would have to say that it has not been a particularly edifying experience all around.

DIONNE: I would say you just cited your own Hamilton there, going back to the Constitution. I - you know, I just think that the problem with that argument is that if something is an impeachable act, it's hard, then, to justify not impeaching the - not throwing the president out of office.

CHANG: You mean...

DIONNE: I think...

CHANG: ...To cite wrongdoing but...

DIONNE: Yeah.

CHANG: ...Not...

DIONNE: To say...

CHANG: ...To throw him out of office.

DIONNE: Yeah. And that - you know, what we're talking about here - I think the Republicans are going to regret this in history because, you know, it's really saying it's OK for a president to withhold taxpayer money to pressure an ally to get dirt on an American citizen who's a political opponent. But I think in the short run, this vote against witnesses really hurts them politically because the...

CHANG: Well, let me ask about that, actually. I mean, you know, there was a lot of time consumed this week about this particular question. We were looking at certain moderate Republican senators, Lamar Alexander in particular. I wanted to ask Ramesh about this. You know, he's a senator who is retiring. He's known as someone who has a somewhat independent streak in him, and this is how he explained his decision to vote against witnesses to NPR earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAMAR ALEXANDER: I agreed he did something inappropriate, but I don't agree he did anything akin to treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeanor.

CHANG: OK, so that's echoing something that E.J. is bringing up of - you know, saying that perhaps the president did something wrongful but it didn't amount to impeachable conduct. But let me ask you, Ramesh - do you think that Senator Alexander, even though he is retiring, may have still felt some pressure to fall in line with the president on this one? And if so, why? Where does that pressure come from?

PONNURU: Well, I don't think it's just a matter of pressure. I think it's partly a matter of the fact that Republicans tend to listen to other Republicans, hang out with other Republicans, look at Republican media and tend to absorb the arguments that their fellow partisans are making. So I assume that this is actually a sincere view of Senator Alexander's. There is such a thing - whether or not, you know, I personally agree, there are categories of actions by a president that are wrong without necessarily warranting his removal. And if you've reached that decision, then it does become sort of pointless to call a witness.

Whether it works out politically, I think Republicans are pretty confident that impeachment has worked out reasonably well for them as a whole. I do think that there are some particular vulnerable Republican senators who may have a different calculation to make, although even they - Senator Gardner in Colorado, Senator McSally in...

CHANG: Arizona.

PONNURU: ...Arizona.

CHANG: Yeah.

CHANG: They've decided that they'd rather stay with the base of the party even if it runs the risk of alienating some swing voters.

CHANG: Well, what do you think of that, E.J.? I mean, why do you think Democrats ultimately were unable to persuade moderate Republicans like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee or Lisa Murkowski of Alaska?

DIONNE: Because they were never persuadable because the pressure from McConnell - Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, and Trump, because of the pressure from the Republican base. I was particularly disappointed in Alexander because he is a really thoughtful guy. And he's not up for reelection, and I thought he might be one of those to break. The reason I think it's a terrible political error is that the Republicans had hoped that if he - Trump got acquitted in the Senate, which he will, this would be a great victory for him. I think the refusal to call witnesses allows Democrats to argue, oh, they're just engaged in the cover-up or a cover-up of the cover-up. And I think that undercuts any political value from acquittal.

CHANG: We have about a minute left, but I want to get to this. You know, convicting President Trump was always going to be a longshot for Democrats. That's why Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi held off on pursuing impeachment for many months. So given that, E.J., very briefly, what is the best political results that Democrats can hope for coming out of this trial?

DIONNE: That acquittal doesn't help Trump much at all, that he may be hurt by all the news that's coming out, that Democrats can keep investigating this and, as Ramesh suggested, that a bunch of Republican senators don't get reelected and they lose their majority.

CHANG: Ramesh?

PONNURU: Whereas the best result for Republicans, I think, is that they've now got a more united party than ever - let the Democrats keep investigating and talking about witnesses and so forth or Republicans talk about a good economy and good results.

CHANG: That is Ramesh Ponnuru of The National Review and Bloomberg Opinion and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, whose new book "Code Red" is out next week.

Thanks to both of you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOCAL NATIVES SONG, "WIDE EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.