WASHINGTON, D.C. – At last during the impeachment trial, they got to do what comes naturally in their native habitat: speak on the Senate floor.
But when senators engaged in a bit of their beloved talk, the result was something between a political debate and a low-budget reality show. That's in part because they mostly asked for answers about the Trump-Ukraine saga they already knew.
Yet the softballs and loaded questions told a story of their own about what President Donald Trump's allies want the president to hear and what his critics want Americans to remember during the heat of the 2020 election year.
Democrats and the House prosecutors drove a campaign to call witnesses, including John Bolton, over Trump's pressure on Ukraine for political help. Republicans and Trump's defense team focused on an array of points any of the president's Twitter followers would recognize, chiefly that the abuse and obstruction charges against him are unfounded.
There was no immediate answer to the biggest question hanging over the daylong production: Whether four Republicans would vote with all Democrats to force the Senate to call witnesses. Bolton is at the top of that list, given the book manuscript by the former national security adviser alleges Trump explicitly tied American aid to Ukraine to whether its president investigates Democrat Joe Biden.
While the witness issue was being hashed out largely in private, senators got their first chance to engage in the trial. They entered the Senate to find cream-colored question cards on their desks, though aides soon handed out pre-printed cards to specific senators chosen to pose questions.
But that might have been a slight improvement over sitting in phone-free silence — sneaking snacks, gum and and an occasional nap — as senators had been required to do. Chief Justice John Roberts, too, shifted from his role as administrator of the trial to something more like the town crier.
Alternating Republicans and Democrats rose at their desks, off-camera, to announce they had a question. High school students serving as Senate pages then took the card from the senator, walked down the center aisle and transferred it to a clerk, who handed it up to Roberts. He then read each question on-camera and handed it back down to a clerk, who set it aside.
Two early questions highlighted the parties' approaches. First, 17 minutes in, came one from a trio of senators widely considered the most likely votes on calling witnesses. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine asked for herself and for Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah.
Roberts read aloud, to the defense team: “If President Trump had more than one motive for his alleged conduct, such as the pursuit of personal political advantage, rooting out corruption, and the promotion of national interests, how should the Senate consider more than one motive in its assessment of Article 1” abuse of power?
“Once you’re into mixed-motive land, it’s clear that their case fails,” White House lawyer Patrick Philbin responded. Then he invoked the issue of the senators' weariness on Day Nine of the impeachment trial. Calling witnesses, he said, could entangle the trial in lengthy legal battles and delay Trump's expected acquittal.
“This institution will effectively be paralyzed for months on end,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, hammered the point.
“The Democratic leader asks of the House managers: John Bolton's forthcoming book states the president wanted to continue withholding $391 million in military aid to Ukraine until Ukraine announced investigations into his top political rival and a debunked theory that Biden interfered in the 2016 election," Roberts intoned.
“Is there any way,” Roberts continued, “for the Senate to render a fully informed verdict in this case without hearing the testimony of Bolton” and other witnesses?
Of course not, said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is leading the prosecution.
“The short answer to that question is no. There's no way to have a fair trial without witnesses,” let alone one as “relevant” as Bolton, Schiff said. “It makes sense to call the man who spoke directly with the president.”
At one point, the discussion swerved into hypothetical territory involving Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate and now a senator from Utah. Democrats posited: What if President Barack Obama had done the same thing Trump had, but against Romney? Republicans fired back: If Obama had evidence that Romney's son was being paid by corrupt Russian companies, would Obama have sought an investigation?
For his part, Romney stood near his chair in the back corner of the chamber, listening and appearing to smile at one point.
And though Trump has vociferously insisted there was “no quid pro quo,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asked: Does it really matter if there was a this-for-that?
Answered Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz: Every president believes his interest and the public interest combine, and the blend is not necessarily corrupt.
“It cannot be impeachable if it's a mixed motive that combines personal interest and the public interest," Dershowitz told them.
Sometimes, the high-stakes nature of the trial made for curious viewing.
“Would you please respond to the arguments or assertions the House managers just made in response to the previous question?” Roberts read, in a query from Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. Republicans erupted in laughter.
“The question is, for the House managers, would you please respond to the answer that was just given by the president's counsel?” Roberts said, reading Democratic leader Chuck Schumer's question. This time, the chuckles came from the Democratic side.
“I would be delighted,” said Schiff, grinning and stepping to the podium.
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