© 2024 WUTC
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Senate To Hear Opening Statements In Trump Impeachment Trial


Today, the Senate will hear opening statements in President Trump's impeachment trial. As that's happening, the president will be traveling back from Switzerland. He's been attending the World Economic Forum in Davos. He talked to reporters there this morning. He called the Democrats leading the case for impeachment at the trial, quote, "major sleazebags" and he said this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'd sort of love to sit right in the front row and stare at their corrupt faces. I'd love to do it.

KING: Those remarks came just hours after the Senate adopted a set of rules for the trial. With me are NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and NPR senior editor Ron Elving. Good morning, guys.


RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Franco, you've been listening to the president talk from Davos. What else did he say beyond what we just heard there?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he is talking about the trip. He touted the economic advances of the United States, but he also addressed impeachment. And he's basically dismissing the trial whatsoever, calling this a big con job.


TRUMP: It's such a hoax. I think it's so bad for our country when we have the head of the World Trade Organization here and he has to listen to this nonsense about a call that was perfect that nobody talks about. I never see them talking about the transcription. I never see them talking about the call because there's nothing to say. You read it. Somebody should just sit there and read it. And everybody's going to say, you mean that's an impeachable event? If that were impeachable, Lyndon Johnson would have had to leave office in his first day. Kennedy would have had to leave office his first day. It's a hoax.

KING: OK. Franco, so these are things that we have heard the president say before, not a lot there that was new, but the fact that he was addressing it was interesting. President Trump also talked specifically about John Bolton, which was really interesting. Let's listen to what he said.


TRUMP: He knows some of my thoughts. He knows what I think about leaders. What happens if he reveals what I think about a certain leader and it's not very positive and that I have to deal on behalf of the country? It's going to be very hard. It's going to make the job very hard. He knows other things. And I don't know if we left on the best of terms. I would say probably not, you know? And so you don't like people testifying when they didn't leave on good terms, and that was due to me, not due to him.

KING: The president's making an argument there. What is it exactly?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, on the one hand, he is making the argument that this is a national security problem and someone as close as John Bolton has information that could be dangerous for the United States. On the other hand, he's also making kind of a personal argument and that - the fact that John Bolton left, in Trump's words, not the greatest terms that, you know, Bolton may have an incentive to say some not so nice things about President Trump that could be maybe harmful for him, you know, that's very interesting. I mean, I've heard from national security former officials who've said that, you know, it is a very valid argument for someone so close to the president not to be called in. It sets a bad precedent. But this part about the personal and, you know, leaving on bad terms is very interesting.

KING: Did President Trump address what is now the big outstanding question - whether witnesses are going to be allowed in the Senate trial?

ORDOÑEZ: He did just very briefly, but he basically kind of pitched that question to the Senate. He said he is going to leave it up to the senators to make that decision. And that's interesting because in the past, he has said specifically that he would like to hear witnesses. And it actually came up in yesterday's testimony from Chairman Schiff, who actually played a tape of President Trump saying that he would like to have witness and hear from witness in a, quote-unquote, "fair Senate trial." But today, he said it's up to the Senate.

KING: OK. Let's talk about yesterday's very long session. Yesterday was all about rules about setting out the parameters for the trial. Franco, just walk us through what happened and what was actually agreed upon.

ORDOÑEZ: So the Senate Republicans repeatedly rejected Democratic efforts to obtain documents from the White House, State Department, Defense Department. Democrats want to hear from aides like John Bolton and acting Chief Mick Mulvaney. The White House charged back. They say this is all about politics. They say the president's done nothing wrong. It got very testy. But in the end, the U.S. Senate adopted ground rules from the trial, defeating 11 amendments introduced by Democrats. But there will be no new witnesses, at least in the beginning of the trial.

KING: OK. Ron Elving, I want to bring you in. A lot of the focus has been on how tight a grip Senator McConnell has on his Republican colleagues in the Senate. Did yesterday show us Republicans united, divided, someplace in the middle?

ELVING: They were united.


ELVING: On all of those votes on amendments that Franco just referenced, the Republicans were perfect. There were all 53 of them all lined up. And the only way in which you could find some disunity would be to say, oh, originally, Mitch McConnell was going to try to cram 24 hours of presentation into just two days, 12-hour sessions. That would take you well past midnight with the breaks on both nights and then have another set, another brace of two days of 12-hour sessions, for the president's lawyers to present their rebuttal. So that was not very popular with the other senators, and some of them kind of put their foot down - Susan Collins of Maine, so she did show some, if you will, objection, if not defiance. And Mitch McConnell backed off and said, OK, fine, well, we'll do it over three days like we did with the Clinton impeachment back in 1999. And everybody agreed to that. But that was the only sign of rebellion so far.

KING: And it was not popular because it would have meant very long days, No. 1, but it also would have meant that this Senate impeachment trial was going on into the middle of the night, as it did yesterday, meaning the American people can't see it, can't pay attention to it.

ELVING: And that might be part of the design. Certainly, from some people's perspective, the sooner this is over and the fewer the people seeing it, the better. That would make certain amount of sense from the standpoint of the White House. The White House, at one point, was asking Mitch McConnell if there wasn't some way to just dismiss this whole matter right from the beginning and not have a trial, not take the charges from the House seriously at all. And Mitch McConnell pushed back on that by all reports and said, no, Mr. President, we actually have to follow through on this procedure. But we can do it as quickly as possible.

KING: Ron, Senate Republicans did seem to agree with McConnell's argument that witnesses - the question of whether witnesses will appear should be addressed after both sides have made their case. I don't want to ask you to speculate, but we do have the president weighing in now. Does anything suggest to you that we will hear from witnesses in this trial?

ELVING: Only the possibility that three or four Republican senators would peel off after hearing six days or up to six days - we may not take all six days - but after hearing from both sides that some Republican senators would say, you know what? We really ought to hear from Mick Mulvaney. He was the president's acting chief of staff. He was also the head of the Office of Management and Budget. He was right there at the center piece of all of this. He really ought to be brought in and deposed. Or perhaps we could videotape a deposition, such as they did back in the Clinton trial. So there are probably going to be some people who would like to get some more information before they're actually asked to cast a historic vote, but they're going to have to be willing to rebel against Mitch McConnell and President Trump, who clearly have decided they would rather have this over with without more witnesses.

KING: OK. Franco, yesterday, the president's legal team made their opening remarks. What did they focus on?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, just adding to what Ron said, what they're focusing on is backing up Mitch McConnell and pushing back on the Democrats. They are going to argue that if the Democrats wanted to hear from these officials - John Bolton, Mick Mulvaney - then they should have given them subpoenas and enforced them in court. They argue that the Democrats essentially rushed their case into the Senate and that the Senate should not be forced to do the Democrats' job for them. And here's President Trump's personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, talking about another central argument they're making.


JAY SEKULOW: Why are we here? Are we here because of a phone call, or are we here before this great body because since the president was sworn into office, there was a desire to see him removed?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, they're accusing the Democrats of not only trying to overturn the results of the 2016 election but also interfere in the 2020 election. And they're going to make their case probably after the House - they have about - they have three days, so we can expect on Saturday the White House will probably start to make their case. And this is one of those things that they'll be beginning on.

KING: OK. Ron, Franco mentioned that Senator Schumer's proposed amendments, multiple amendments, were rejected. Now, that's going to be a challenge for the House impeachment managers, the Democrats who are laying out the argument for impeachment. Let's take a listen to one of those managers, Representative Adam Schiff.


ADAM SCHIFF: If you only get to see part of the evidence, if you only allow one side or the other a chance to present their full case, your verdict will be predetermined by the bias in the proceeding. If the defendant's not allowed to introduce evidence of his innocence, it's not a fair trial; so, too, for the prosecution. If the House cannot call witnesses or introduce documents and evidence, it's not a fair trial. It's not really a trial at all.

KING: Adam Schiff there. Ron, what did yesterday tell us about the way in which Democrats are going to go about making their case in the Senate?

ELVING: They're going to be hobbled by the lack of the testimony that they would like to have. They would have liked to have had it in the House. Their argument was that by going to the courts to enforce subpoenas against, say, John Bolton, the national security adviser, or some of the other people in critical positions, they would have pushed this entire matter well into 2020, close to the election itself, and that that delay would allow the president to continue an activity that they see as being undermining not only the election of 2020 by inviting interference from foreign countries but also undermining the relationship between the president and Congress that is at the heart of the Constitution. So they thought that this was something that needed to be done right away. Of course, the Republicans see it differently and believe it should have gone into the courts. And if it took months, so be it. That is one of the essential disagreements here. So the Democrats have to go forward over the next three days, presenting their case without a lot of the evidence that they would like to bring before the Senate.

KING: OK. And presiding over all of this, of course, is Chief Justice John Roberts. What - how important is he at this moment?

ELVING: John Roberts is there as a - well, he's a referee. He's an umpire as he likes to call himself. But he's probably not going to have much to do with any decision-making. Now, in the wee hours this morning just after midnight, he actually admonished one of the House managers and one of the president's lawyers for the language they were using. The House manager was talking about a cover-up and how the Senate was engaged in a cover-up. And that prompted one of the president's lawyers to say that the House managers should be embarrassed to be using the language they were using in front of so august a body as the United States Senate. And as it was getting testier and nastier, Chief Justice Roberts said, you know what? You guys ought to remember where you are, and let's have some respect.

KING: OK. NPR senior editor Ron Elving and NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thank you guys both so much.

ELVING: Thank you.

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

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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.