What We Learned on Day Three of the Trump Impeachment Trial

Trump attorney Jay Sekulow can hardly wait for his turn in the Senate impeachment trial. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On the second day of the House impeachment managers’ presentation of the case for removing Donald Trump from office (and the third day of the trial altogether) those who have been paying close attention to the House and Senate proceedings may have felt like they’ve heard most of the arguments already. But Democrats are really talking to members of the public who haven’t necessarily tuned in, and are taking advantage of the opportunity to make a coherent case without Republican interruptions. Like they did on Wednesday, they made abundant use of video and other records from the House impeachment hearings.

The plan on Thursday was to focus on the law and the facts underlying the first article of impeachment alleging abuse of power in the president’s efforts to use Ukraine to help him embarrass Joe Biden, a possible 2020 Democratic opponent. Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler made the extended case that abuse of power — even if there was no violation of any statute — was an impeachable “crime and misdemeanor” according to the Founders’ understanding of this power.

When it came to the factual basis for the abuse of power allegation, the managers made two arguments relentlessly. The first was that Trump’s campaign to get Ukraine to operate as a “personal opposition research” outfit aimed at the Bidens came, as Hakeem Jeffries put it, “to totally dominate almost every aspect of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine . . . as directed by President Donald John Trump.” And repeating what has become a catchphrase for Democrats, Jeffries noted that “everyone (involved in Ukraine policy) was in the loop,” most notably Trump and his henchman Rudy Giuliani.

The second closely associated argument was that in pursuing his political objectives, Trump ignored broader national security and foreign-policy interests, which therefore cannot serve as a shield for his abuse of power. As Val Demings said, in another refrain: “When it came down to choosing between the national interests of the country and his own personal interests — his reelection — President Trump chose himself.”

In what was less an element of their argument than a prebuttal of what they expect the president’s attorneys to emphasize, the managers spent a lot of time defending the Bidens and denying they had anything to do with any legitimate investigation of corruption. Some Republicans will undoubtedly claim this discussion justifies a sustained focus on the family in the remainder of the trial, but that was inevitable anyway.

Adam Schiff’s closing argument was interesting, returning to the Trump-Zelensky call record that the GOP has made such a big deal about. He noted that even in that account, Trump implied that the United States was not satisfied with what it received from Ukraine, and directed Zelensky to deal with Rudy Giuliani and William Barr. Everyone was in the loop, indeed.

As was the case yesterday, there were countercurrents running through the Senate even as the managers spoke. Today’s big backstory was an emerging Republican argument that calling witnesses (the possibility that lurks at the end of this phase of the trial) would just lead to endless litigation, as CNN reports:

A growing number of Republicans are pointing to President Donald Trump’s threat to invoke executive privilege in order to make their case against subpoenas sought by Democrats for key witnesses and documents, a development that could bolster Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s goal of a swift end to the impeachment trial.

GOP senators are privately and publicly raising concerns that issuing subpoenas – to top officials like acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton and for documents blocked by the White House – will only serve to drag out the proceedings. Plus, many say there’s little appetite for such a time-consuming fight, given that legal battles may ultimately not be successful and could force the courts to rule on hugely consequential constitutional issues about the separation of powers between the branches of government.

It’s particularly significant that one of the senators making this sort of argument is Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, one of the four Republicans who Democrats hope will join with them to support a motion to call at least one witness:

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a key GOP swing vote, says she’s undecided about backing a subpoena for key witness testimony or to force the White House to produce documents. But when asked Thursday if she had concerns about an executive privilege fight tying up the impeachment trial, Murkowski questioned the House Democrats’ decision to skip the courts because they wanted to avoid a drawn-out legal battle.

“The House made a decision that they didn’t want to slow things down by having to go through the courts,” Murkowski told CNN. “And yet now they’re basically saying you guys gotta go through the courts. We didn’t, but we need you to.”

Meanwhile, another potential swing senator, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, has been exceptionally quiet.

The third and final day of the House Democratic presentation tomorrow is expected to concentrate to a considerable extent on the second article of impeachment alleging obstruction of Congress: Trump’s systematic refusal to allow White House cooperation with the House’s impeachment inquiry. That argument will lead directly into closing statements urging that the Senate obtain the witnesses and documents the House was denied. Then we’ll get three days of thunder and lightning — if probably no new facts and not a lot of logic — from Team Trump.

What We Learned on Day Three of the Trump Impeachment Trial