Senators – including three key Republicans – began peppering House Democrats and Donald Trump‘s legal team with question in his impeachment trial about the president’s motives towards Ukraine and the bar the prosecution’s case must clear to remove him from office.
The three GOP politicians, who will have a major say in the shape of the trial, after another day of questioning showed some of their cards right off the bat, with one of Mr Trump’s attorneys telling them the premise of their query should lead them to acquit the president.
Democratic senators need four Republicans to vote with them to force votes on witnesses, with Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Utah’s Mitt Romney on the list of GOP members who have yet to signal their plans.
They got the question-and-answer period, which could last 18 hours over two days, off to a quick start.
Ms Collins read a joint question aloud, the first time a senator not named Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer – the majority and minority leaders – had spoken into a microphone inside the chamber in over a week. She asked the president’s counsel whether, if Mr Trump had more than one motive in his actions towards Ukraine, could he be convicted? The crux of the inquiry was this: If part of his motive was acting in the interests of the United States and/or over worries about giving American monies to a corrupt government, should senators vote to acquit on the abuse of power article?
About such a “mixed motive,” Patrick Philbin, deputy White House counsel, replied one “couldn’t possibly be the basis for an impeachable offence”.
He pointed to a House Democratic-prepared report about its impeachment inquiry, saying the Judiciary Committee Democrats established a standard for their case – for themselves – in which they had to prove Mr Trump was asking Ukraine’s government to announce a “sham” probe of the Bidens and there was “not a scintilla” of evidence “to look into” about then-Vice President Joe Biden and son Hunter Biden‘s business dealings there.
“That’s a very demanding standard they’ve set themselves to meet,” Mr Philbin said, noting Obama administration officials raised concerns about Joe Biden’s anti-corruption work in Ukraine while his son sat on the board of an under-investigation energy firm there. “And that means their case absolutely fails.”
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican who once harshly clashed with Mr Trump, asked the president’s legal team if it matters whether Mr Trump was after a quid pro quo with Ukraine. Alan Dershowitz, a celebrity Harvard University professor working on Mr Trump’s legal team, replied – again, defying many in his own profession – that such an action by a president only would be impeachable if the quid pro itself contained an illegal action. “If the president does something, in the public interest, that he thinks might help him get elected,” Mr Dershowtiz told senators, the action would not be unlawful or meet the Constitution’s impeachment standard.
Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn and a handful of other Republicans asked Mr Trump’s team about whether the standard for impeachment by the House is lower than that senators should use when considering whether to convict and remove a sitting commander in chief.
Mr Philbin fielded the question, saying the Senate has a higher standard to consider than the House, returning to the defence team’s week-long argument that Mr Trump committed no crimes. That means he cannot be impeached, he said, because the Constitution links impeachment to criminal actions. It is unclear if that argument, however, will sway any Democrats to vote with Republicans for an acquittal because their legal theory has been debunked by many legal scholars.
The first day of questioning began with a cloud hanging over the proceeding: Will four GOP senators join Democrats later this week on whether to call witnesses, setting up a longer trial than Mr Trump would like – and a possible legal battle.
Mr Schumer told reporters, minutes before the trial resumed, that he is “hopeful” he can pick off four Republicans – but he said he views the task still as an “uphill fight”. Not showing his cards, he merely described his side as “still in the ballpark” on calling witnesses.
The New York Democrat denied Republican warnings that bringing in witnesses would drag the trial on for months – especially if the question of whether Mr Trump can invoke executive privilege to block testimony heads to the courts.
“I understand the pressure my Republican colleagues are under to wrap this up quickly because President Trump demands it,” Mr Schumer said. “We could settle any questions of executive privilege right on the Senate floor. So we are not talking about a lengthy delay here. … It could be reviewed expeditiously.”