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Impeachment Trial Review: Trump Team Continues President's Defense


On the floor of the United States Senate, lawyers for President Trump have been making two big points about the case against him. First, they say the available evidence is not enough to convict. And second, they do not want to go looking for more evidence. On the Senate floor yesterday, White House deputy counsel Patrick Philbin said this.


PATRICK PHILBIN: The record that the House Democrats collected through that process already shows that the president did nothing wrong. It already exonerates the president.

INSKEEP: With just one exception yesterday and hours of arguments, the lawyers sidestepped news about some additional evidence from a former national security adviser. John Bolton is writing a book. And his manuscript, first reported by The New York Times, links two big parts of the case here. The president demanded investigations of political rivals - no doubt about that. The president also withheld military aid from Ukraine. Bolton contends the president explicitly told him he wanted the aid withheld until he got the announcements of investigations.

White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and NPR political reporter Tim Mak are with us now. Good morning, gentlemen.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Good morning.


INSKEEP: Thanks to both of you for coming by after a long day yesterday and perhaps another long one today. What were the main arguments yesterday, Franco?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, the legal team mainly kept to the script, arguing that the House's case is filled with holes and driven purely by politics. Patrick Philbin also argued against adding new evidence, saying that it would set bad precedent.


PHILBIN: And there'll be a lot more impeachments coming because it's a lot easier to do an impeachment if you don't have to follow due process and can come here and expect the Senate to do the work that the House didn't do.

ORDOÑEZ: I'll just note that fact-checkers, like the group PolitiFact, say every past Senate impeachment trial - and there have been 15 - included witnesses. The legal team also took on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as they had promised to do, zeroing in on allegations of a conflict of interest.

INSKEEP: We did mention that there was one note about John Bolton. What did the defense team say the one time they brought him up?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. After hours of testimony, Trump's attorney Alan Dershowitz finally brought it up during primetime, around 8 o'clock.


ALAN DERSHOWITZ: Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense. That is clear from the history. That is clear from the language of the Constitution. You cannot turn conduct that is not impeachable into impeachable conduct simply by using words like quid pro quo and personal benefit.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, Democrats clearly feel otherwise. Senator Warren, who, like Dershowitz, was also a law professor at Harvard, you know, says that's simply factually incorrect.

INSKEEP: And Dershowitz has been arguing a very narrow interpretation of what constitutes an impeachable and removable offense.

Now, there is this question of witnesses, Tim Mak. I guess we should remind people of the math. You've got 47 Democrats. You presume they would all vote for witnesses, so you'd need four Republicans. Is there any sign of four Republicans saying they want witnesses?

MAK: Well, firstly, there have been a number of Republican senators who, from the outset, have signaled an openness to this idea. That's Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah. But as you mentioned, they've lacked that key fourth vote which, along with Democratic support, would give them that majority.

But the fact that Bolton reportedly has this information directly relevant to the core allegations in the impeachment trial is the first thing since the trial began that has kind of changed the dynamics here. For example, Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican senator from North Dakota, says he is, quote, "not persuaded on the need for witnesses." But he also added this.

KEVIN CRAMER: I mean, I'm not so naive as to think that the Bolton revelation didn't have - you know, didn't cause some people some pause. But I don't know that it - you know, I don't know where - what any one individual's thinking one way or the other.

MAK: And Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, confirmed that there are active discussions underway among Republicans to negotiate some sort of witness deal.

INSKEEP: What's the White House saying?

MAK: So President Trump has raised concerns about Bolton testifying. He sees it as a national security issue because Bolton has heard conversations that Trump has had with other foreign leaders. Trump also has noted that there may be some lingering bad feelings between the two because of Bolton's public exit.

INSKEEP: And they're definitely getting support from some Republicans, who have dismissed this new potential testimony - this new evidence that is believed to exist from John Bolton.

But let's just get back to that math again, Tim. If we look at the way that Republicans are thinking about this evidence that they're hearing and the evidence that they're not hearing, what do you see?

MAK: I think that, largely, Republicans are not particularly interested in hearing additional evidence. A lot of Republican senators have said that the outcome will be the same whether or not witnesses are brought before the Senate. A lot of Republicans say that it would just prolong this very divisive trial. That's their argument.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking of Mike Braun of Indiana who was on the program the other day and eventual - and essentially said, well, these witnesses - he suggested without entirely saying, these witnesses would not change my opinion of anything, even if everything they say is true, even if they say it all under oath.

MAK: That's right. But you also see some Republican senators actively kind of revealing some of their political motivations during the trial. I mean, for example, Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, was kind of needling Democrats Monday, saying that Biden's Democratic rivals in the Senate were listening attentively as the Trump legal team presented information they believe would be damaging to Joe Biden. And Iowa Senator Joni Ernst spoke about the upcoming caucuses in her state, openly wondering if the trial might hurt Biden's electoral prospects.


JONI ERNST: Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening. And I'm really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters - those Democratic caucus-goers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?

INSKEEP: Franco, hypothetical here - suppose that no votes are going to change based on the rest of this trial. Does it really matter whether witnesses get called or not?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, I think the reality is that it is unlikely that Trump will be removed considering the support and - how much it takes to - votes to take to remove a president. That said, it would still be a very significant blow if some more Republicans split with the president and essentially censure him for his actions. He and his supporters were hoping for a quick trial with all his support. Now there are questions about whether this will drag through the State of the Union next week.

INSKEEP: How much further is this trial sure to go, Tim Mak?

MAK: Well, the Trump legal defense has until the end of today to make their final arguments for this stage in the trial. Then, senators will have up to 16 hours to ask question about the House impeachment managers and the Trump defense team. So after questions, they will likely take up this question of whether to subpoena documents and witnesses. And this has been the big question mark that determines the very nature of the trial.

INSKEEP: OK. Next couple of days, we'll learn if we go much further.

NPR's Tim Mak, thanks so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot.

INSKEEP: And NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thanks to you.

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

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.