Takeaways from Day 3 of Trump's impeachment trial

House Democrats argued that even though President Donald Trump didn't commit a federal crime, his "dangerous" behavior in Ukraine constitutes an abuse of power.

Posted: Jan 24, 2020 5:50 AM
Updated: Jan 24, 2020 5:50 AM

President Donald Trump has said, repeatedly, that people should "read the transcript" of his fateful July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

So, Rep. Adam Schiff ended the third day of Trump's impeachment trial by following the President's advice.

Trump has lambasted Schiff for previous inaccurately paraphrasing the call last year. But on Thursday Schiff went line-by-line through the real thing. Democrats say the pressure Trump exerts on Zelensky in the call -- it's not an exact transcript, but close -- justifies removing Trump from office. Trump says it was "perfect."

Regardless, Republican senators sat through Schiff reading Trump's words -- where the President asks a foreign leader to get in touch with the Bill Barr, the US attorney general, and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, about two different investigations he wants Ukraine to undertake.

They brought up Hunter Biden at Trump's trial

Democrats have said they believe the Senate should call witnesses in the trial. Republicans have said that they are willing to hear from people who didn't testify in the House proceedings last fall, like former national security adviser John Bolton -- if they can hear from former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter, whose position on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company is at the heart of GOP conspiracy theories concerning Ukraine. (Revisit that history here.)

Rather than gloss over the fact that Trump was pushing Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, Democrats went on offense Thursday, repeatedly mentioning Hunter Biden's position on the Burisma board. Impeachment managers argued that Biden went after the Ukrainian prosecutor for ignoring corruption, the opposite of the storyline Trump and his allies have pushed.

But Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said the focus on Biden "opened the door" for the President's defense team to discuss Joe Biden and Burisma: "For the last five hours, it's been a lot about Joe Biden and Burisma, they kind of opened the door for that response so we'll determine as a defense team the appropriate way to do it."

We'll see when the defense opens on Saturday how this plays out.

They are using Trump's allies against him

In another methodical day of arguments, the Democratic House impeachment managers laid out the constitutional argument that abuse of power -- the first of the two articles faced by President Donald Trump -- is an impeachable offense. They cited Alexander Hamilton but they also brought in some guest footage -- of Trump's most ardent defenders.

Democrats played 21-year-old video of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham arguing during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, back when he felt impeachment can move ahead even if there hasn't been a criminal offense.

"Acting in a way that hurts people, you've committed a high crime," Graham said then. He had just left the Senate chamber when that clip was played on Thursday.

Democrats, who are in the role of prosecutors, played similar video of lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who is a member of Trump's legal team today. Later, making the case that Trump pushed Russian propaganda that Ukraine opposed him in 2016, they played devastating video of a former top security aide, Tom Bossert, appearing on ABC News and of FBI director Christopher Wray making a similar point.

They portrayed 'America's Mayor' Rudy Giuliani as 'the President's political bag man'

During multiple presentations, Democrats, including Florida Rep. Val Demings and New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, made a villain of Giuliani. They flashed emails they obtained from the US ambassador to the European Union showing Giuliani's impact on US policy. They dove into phone records -- obtained despite White House efforts to keep documents from the impeachment inquiry -- that showed his interactions with the White House at key moments. Giuliani himself featured prominently during the day, as video of his media appearances pushing the Biden conspiracy theory played against the backdrop of Trump's efforts to insert his personal lawyer into US foreign policy -- with the goal of obtaining the political investigations he sought from Ukraine. Jeffries at one point called Giuliani, who is still Trump's attorney -- although not on his impeachment defense team -- as Trump's "bag man."

Giuliani, for his part, said on Twitter he'll be launching a new podcast Friday to push information he has on Ukraine. He also lashed out at his former associate Lev Parnas, the indicted Soviet-born businessman who gave documents to House investigators implicating Giuliani.

A helpful read from last September, by CNN's Mike Warren: How Giuliani wound up here.

They brought up evidence that came out after the House vote -- and made fresh allegations

As we pointed out last week, Americans have learned a lot of things since the December 18 House impeachment vote. Demings and California Rep. Zoe Lofgren brought up some of it Thursday in their arguments.

Lofgren pointed to evidence provided after the House voted to impeach Trump that suggested that former US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was recalled from Ukraine in part in exchange for evidence of payments from Burisma to Hunter Biden. Lofgren called this a "new quid pro quo." (Reminder: Allies of Trump wanted to surveil Yovanovitch.)

Later, Demings made clear that Democrats have learned that a mysterious "-1" phone number that contacted Giuliani originated at the White House. Much of this is designed to whet the public's appetite for evidence the White House has been successful in blocking from investigators.

They accused Trump of working for himself, not the country

Democrats worked hard to draw a distinction between the national interest and Trump's, and they repeatedly came back to the idea that Trump abused power because he and Giuliani were working for him and not for the public.

"The only person who stood to benefit from the abuse of office and solicitation of these investigations was Donald Trump. The 45th President of the United States. A violation of public trust. A failure to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. But when it came down to choosing between the national interest of the country and his own personal interests, his reelection, President Trump chose himself," said Demings.

Republicans are finding new reasons to oppose trial witnesses

While Trump tweeted to the public about the idea of a witness trade -- a Democratic witness, say, for a Republican one, like Hunter Biden -- it is his threat to block testimony by John Bolton that has some Republicans leaning against witnesses.

Threat of court battle as a reason to oppose subpoenas

CNN's Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb report GOP senators are moving in the opposite direction. They're 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 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.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska moderate in the caucus, 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."

Flawed logic

Chief CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin called out this line of thinking, saying it was absurd and outrageous.

"In other words, the Republican position is you can't investigate the President for obstruction of justice because he is still obstructing justice. The whole point of the second article of impeachment is that he is using his powers to stop an investigation. And what they are saying, well, he is still doing it so I guess we better throw in the towel."

John Bolton and executive privilege

Meanwhile, there is an open question about Bolton, who has offered to testify if subpoenaed. If Trump tries to exert privilege over Bolton, will he rescind the offer? Bolton is writing a book, by the way, so he's prepared to publish what he knows. Shouldn't he be able to tell Congress?

Trump could test that idea.

The Democratic view is that Bolton is now a private citizen.

"Executive privilege cannot be used to prevent a witness who is willing to testify from appearing, and certainly not one who no longer works in government. It's not a gag order. And witnesses testify on national security all the time. Bolton has a right to testify if he wants to," Lofgren said on Twitter.

And Republicans are holding the line

"It's not really changing our opinion," Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst said after the party lunch Thursday, referring to how Republicans feel about the House managers' case so far.

Ernst also added, "I think we're still waiting to see the overwhelming evidence and once we see that maybe it will convince us that more information is needed, or not. We don't know, because I haven't had that presented yet."

One Republican questioned Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman's patriotism

Vindman is the NSC official who raised concerns at the White House about pressure on the Ukrainians in real time as it was happening. He testified on Capitol Hill while wearing his military uniform. Here's his story.

But Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn questioned his credibility and patriotism after video of his testimony was played in the Senate chamber Thursday.

"Adam Schiff is hailing Alexander Vindman as an American patriot. How patriotic is it to badmouth and ridicule our great nation in front of Russia, America's greatest enemy?" she said on Twitter of the Purple Heart winner and Iraq war veteran.

"That a member of the Senate -- at a moment when the Senate is undertaking its most solemn responsibility -- would choose to take to Twitter to spread slander about a member of the military is a testament to cowardice," said Vindman's lawyer, Amb. David Pressman, in a tweet of his own. "While Senator Blackburn fires off defamatory tweets, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman will continue to do what he has always done: serve our country dutifully and with honor."

We're all in something of a Catch-22

The issue of new witnesses and evidence has become circular and maddening.

Democrats argue there must be new subpoenas for new evidence the White House has withheld and witnesses that have been blocked in order for the trial to be fair. They dismiss the idea that this would lead to a protracted legal fight since, with John Roberts in the chamber and able to offer guidance, they would sail through the courts.

Republicans say the Senate shouldn't have to be dealing with this issue. The House didn't deal with it either. They just impeached Trump. Regardless of whether they had the goods to impeach when they did -- clearly Democrats felt they had a solid case -- it is beyond dispute that there is unknown information that could be gotten by subpoena. Republicans, however, have no interest in getting it.

Steve Scalise, the House minority whip, summed it up pretty well on Twitter: "So let's get this straight... First Dems claimed they proved their case beyond any doubt in the House. Then Dems wrote in their impeachment brief that they have 'overwhelming' evidence. But now they say they need more witnesses to make their case?? America isn't buying this."

How exactly America feels will be known next November, when voters weigh in on Democrats, who said they had no choice but to impeach a President that Republicans were always going to be able to acquit.

Trump broke his own Twitter record

Chris Cillizza noted that Trump tweeted more Wednesday than he's ever tweeted in a single day -- and came to this conclusion: "It's difficult to see the volume of Trump's tweets and retweets -- on the day that the House impeachment managers lay out the case against him -- and not conclude that he is worried.

"Now, maybe he isn't worried about being removed from office. (There is little evidence that there are 67 senators willing to vote to do so.) But Trump's Twitter frenzy does suggest that he is concerned about the the narrative of the impeachment trial turning against him -- and what it might mean for his reelection chances."

Read the whole thing.

Other key things to know

Optics: The Senate isn't allowing cameras in the chamber, other than the ones it controls. CNN's Dan Berman explains why that matters.

Decorum: There was a human moment between a Republican (Lindsey Graham) and Democrat (Adam Schiff).

Access: Republicans were encouraged to be more available to the press.

Up next: Read here about how Trump's legal team has been prepping for its turn to make arguments, starting Saturday

What are we doing here?

The President has invited foreign powers to interfere in the US presidential election. Democrats impeached him for it. A Senate trial is happening now. It is a crossroads for the American system of government as the President tries to change what's acceptable for US politicians. This newsletter will focus on this consequential moment in US history.

Keep track of action with CNN's Impeachment Watch Podcast and the Impeachment Tracker. See a timeline of events here. And get your full refresher on who's who in this drama here.

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