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Impeachment managers dissect abuse of power charge in making case against Trump

Posted January 23, 2020 12:05 p.m. EST
Updated January 23, 2020 5:14 p.m. EST

Impeachment managers focus on abuse of power in making case to restless senators

— Democratic impeachment managers turned their attention on Thursday to the constitutional case for removing President Donald Trump from office for abuse of power, seeking to convince skeptical -- and often weary -- Republican senators that the Senate trial needs witnesses and documents.

Democrats are focusing Thursday's presentation on the first article of impeachment, abuse of power, one of two that was passed by the House last month. They plan to lean into evidence they gathered in their investigation to argue the President used his office to try to extract investigations into his political rivals while withholding US security aid and a valued White House meeting -- and why that conduct merits impeachment and removal.

LIVE UPDATES: Impeachment trial of President Trump

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York, made the case in the second day of arguments that an actual statutory crime isn't required for a President to be impeached, contrary to what the President's defense team has said. Nadler cued up a video clip from the 1999 impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in which then-Rep. Lindsey Graham, a former House manager, agreed with him. In the clip, Graham, now a senator, said an impeachable offense "doesn't even have to be a crime."

Graham had walked out of the chamber when the clip was played.

"The Constitution is not a suicide pact. It does not leave us stuck with presidents who abuse their power in unforeseen ways that threaten our security and democracy," Nadler said. "No one anticipated that a president would stoop to this misconduct and Congress has passed no specific law to make this behavior a crime. Yet this is precisely the kind of abuse that the framers had in mind when they wrote the impeachment clause."

'There is some method to our madness'

The House managers took turns pointing back to the evidence they had presented on Wednesday to explain why it met the standard of an impeachable offense. Setting up the day's presentation, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, explained why there was repetition to the House's argument -- a rebuttal to criticisms from Senate Republicans.

"Of necessity, there will be some repetition of information from (Wednesday's) chronology," Schiff said. "We will now show you these facts, and many others, and show you how they are interwoven. You will see some of these facts and videos in a new context, and a new light, in the light of what else we know, and why it compels a finding of guilt and conviction. "So there is some method to our madness."

But the challenge for presenters is growing more arduous as senators struggle to stay engaged in a narrative many feel they've heard before.

"They're laying out their case multiple times. ... They really made the same case three times," said Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican. "But then they spent a lot of the big chunk of the center part of the day, really, talking about things that are not relevant or that are policy issues for instance firing an ambassador, not taking the advice of career professionals — all those things, those are not impeachable."

After the House's opening presentation is finished, the President's team will have up to three days to make their defense of Trump. The President's personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, did not say how long the defense team would take of the 24 hours available.

"We're not going to try to run the clock out," Sekulow said. "We're going to use a sufficient amount of time to not only defend our case and point out the inconsistencies of their case, but we're going to do it in an appropriate manner."

The President's team is likely to start on Saturday, and senators and aides in both parties say there is an effort in the works to hold a short, morning-only impeachment trial session Saturday to hear the beginning of the opening arguments from the defense counsel, before allowing senators to leave town for the weekend.

Dems eye convincing 4 Republicans

Still, Democrats are not looking to use their 24 hours for opening arguments, which is spread across three days, to drop new information that takes senators — and the press by surprise. In fact, part of their argument is that they need additional witnesses and documents to obtain new information that would supplement what they describe as overwhelming evidence of the President's guilt.

But Democrats' focus is on building a complete case — one that's targeted at a small group of Senate moderates they hope they can convince to cross the aisle and vote with them on key witnesses like the President's former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. While three Republicans have hinted they could be open to — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah — Democrats would need to convince four in order to have the votes they would need to issue subpoenas for documents and witnesses.

On Wednesday, the seven House managers, led by Schiff, moved meticulously through the timeline of their case against the President, describing a months-long effort that began with the ouster of the US ambassador to Ukraine that led to the hold-up of US aid to Ukraine and the pressure campaign for Kiev to announce an investigation against the President's political rivals. On Thursday, the managers argued why those facts showed that the President abused his office — and that they warrant impeachment and removal from office. They'll move onto their case for obstruction of Congress on Friday, the House's final day of opening arguments.

But the Democrats are also making a dual case: arguing they have a mountain of evidence already, but that the full picture is still unknown because the Trump administration is withholding onto key documents and witnesses that would bolster their case even further.

Lobbying key senators from both sides

At the same time, the President's allies are also working behind the scenes to lobby wavering GOP senators to oppose any witnesses, a source familiar with the process told CNN. The effort includes calls not only from members of the President's team and allies on Capitol Hill, but also identifying people that the senators trust and respect from a wide variety of places, including back home, and getting them to call.

That vote on whether to have witnesses and obtain additional documents would likely happen next week after opening arguments from both sides and 16 hours of time for senators to ask questions concludes.

Some of the Republicans who Democrats are targeting aren't saying yet how they'll vote on subpoenas for witnesses and documents.

"We are doing a really good job of allowing the House managers to make the case. ... They say themselves they presented overwhelming evidence; they've done a good job of that. And then we can decide if we need additional documents or evidence," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who is retiring at the end of his term.

Romney said Thursday that he wasn't going to comment on "evidence or the process" until the trial was completed.

The Democrats' best chance for a GOP crossover is Collins, who reiterated on Thursday that she was likely to vote for additional documents and witnesses. "I tend to like information and would anticipate I would vote for more," she said.

But Murkowski, another key moderate, raised questions about why Democrats want the Senate to subpoena witnesses -- and potentially end up in court over them -- when the House did not take that step.

"The House made a decision that they didn't want to slow things down by having to go through the courts," she said. "And yet now they're basically saying you guys gotta go through the courts. We didn't, but we need you to."

Long hours take their toll on senators

On the Senate floor, the long hours where senators are required to stay but not speak are taking their toll on a body where the average age is about 63 years old.

While Senate rules encourage members to be seated at their desks during the remainder of the trial, long days and sometimes longer nights have worn members down. While breaks in decorum that the first day of arguments didn't surface until the late hours of the night, on Wednesday they were happening earlier and earlier inside the chamber.

Senators have taken to pacing around the chamber and standing behind their desks to keep from falling asleep at their desks. Many senators are writing during the trial, both to take notes but also to keep engaged.

Wednesday evening, Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky was spotted with a crossword puzzle. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 2020 presidential hopeful from Vermont, was seen whispering to his fellow contender Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota during the trial, and GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas enjoyed glasses of milk, one of two accepted beverages for the floor. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California was nowhere to be seen in the final hour of Wednesday's session.

Schiff acknowledged the senators' predicament in his opening remarks on Thursday, thanking them for "their long and considerable attention" over the first two days of the trial, and making light of how rare it was for House members to command the attention of senators "sitting silently for hours -- or even for minutes, for that matter."

"Of course, It doesn't hurt that the morning starts out every day with the sergeant-at-arms warning you that if you don't, you will be imprisoned," Schiff said. "It's our hope that when the trial concludes, and you've heard from us and you've heard the President's counsel over a series of long days, that you don't choose imprisonment instead of anything further."

This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.

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