Chief Justice John Roberts declined to read a sensitive question from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in the Senate impeachment trial Thursday, as other senators asked about the withholding of U.S. aid to Ukraine and about Joe Biden and his son’s employment by a Ukrainian energy company.
The ninth day of the impeachment trial was the second straight day in which President Donald Trump’s defense team and House prosecutors took turns answering questions from senators.
Senators submitted 93 questions Wednesday and were on track to ask about as many Thursday.
The Senate is set to vote Friday on whether to call witnesses for the impeachment trial, which Democrats want.
Most reports of head counts say not enough Republican votes will be there to continue the trial with witnesses. That outcome would make this the shortest presidential impeachment trial in history, following an abbreviated House impeachment inquiry that lasted about 70 days.
Trump’s acquittal is a near certainty, as it takes 67 senators, or a two-thirds majority, to remove a president.
Here are seven key highlights of the proceedings Thursday, the ninth day of the Senate trial.
1. Roberts v. Paul
Reports surfaced Wednesday that Roberts, presiding over the Senate impeachment trial as chief justice, would not expose the anonymous whistleblower who first complained about a phone conversation July 25 between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Trump withheld $391 million in aid.
In opening the session Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, without being asked: “We’ve been respectful of the chief justice’s unique position in reading our questions, and I want to be able to continue to assure him that that level of consideration for him will continue.”
Early in the day, Roberts called on Paul.
“The senator from Kentucky,” the chief justice said.
“I have a question to present to the desk for House manager [Adam] Schiff and for the president’s counsel,” Paul said.
Schiff, D-Calif., is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which led the impeachment inquiry targeting Trump. He is the leader of the seven House managers, or prosecutors, making the case for the Senate to remove Trump.
When the card with Paul’s question was brought to Roberts, he looked at it for 11 seconds, then said: “The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted.”
Paul reportedly was upset and at one point left the chamber and, talking to reporters, criticized Roberts for censoring questions.
The Kentucky Republican, an ally and former rival of Trump’s, sent out several tweets repeating the name of the person widely reported—without confirmation—to be the whistleblower. This first tweet, however, did not:
“My question today is about whether or not individuals who were holdovers from the Obama National Security Council and Democrat partisans conspired with Schiff staffers to plot impeaching the President before there were formal House impeachment proceedings,” Paul tweeted, before naming someone widely reported to be the whistleblower.
Paul later tweeted:
My question is not about a ‘whistleblower’ as I have no independent information on his identity. My question is about the actions of known Obama partisans within the NSC [White House National Security Council] and House staff and how they are reported to have conspired before impeachment proceedings had even begun.
2. Schiff Won’t Answer About Coordinating With Whistleblower
Paul rephrased his question about Schiff later in the hearing, and Roberts was willing to read it this time:
Recent reporting described two NSC [National Security Council] staff holdovers from the Obama administration attending an all-hands meeting of NSC staff held about two weeks into the Trump administration, and talking loudly enough to be overheard saying, ‘We need to do everything we can to take out the president.’
On July 26, 2019, the House Intelligence Committee hired one of those individuals, Shawn Misko. The report further describes relationships between Misko, Lt. Col. [Alexander] Vindmand and the individual alleged as the whistleblower. Why did your committee hire Shawn Misko the day after the phone call between President Trump and Zelenskyy, and what role has he played throughout your committee’s investigation?
Vindmand, an Army officer, testified about his concerns with the Trump-Zelenskyy call during the House impeachment hearings.
Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which led the impeachment inquiry, took the microphone on the Senate floor to respond, looking and sounding indignant.
“First of all, there have been a lot of attacks on my staff. As I said when this issue came up earlier, I’m appalled at some of the smearing of some of the professional people that work for the Intelligence Committee,” Schiff said, adding:
Now, this question refers to allegations in a newspaper article, which are circulating smears on my staff and asks me to respond to those smears. I will not dignify those smears on my staff by giving them any credence whatsoever.
Nor will I share any information that I believe could or could not lead to the identification of the whistleblower.
3. Conflicting Stories From Bidens on Burisma
House Democrats voted Dec. 18, without a single Republican vote, to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The House based its two articles of impeachment on Trump’s July 25 phone call to Zelenskyy and the president’s refusal to allow certain executive branch witnesses or provide certain documents for House hearings.
According to a White House transcript of the Trump-Zelenskyy call, released by the president, the two leaders briefly talked about Trump’s interest in Ukraine’s investigating former Vice President Joe Biden’s dealings there and the role of his son, Hunter Biden, on the board of Ukrainian energy firm Burisma.
Trump also asked Zelenskyy to look into whether Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Zelenskyy did not know at the time that Trump had put a hold on $391 million in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine to help it counter a Russian invasion. Trump would release the funds in September.
House Democrats allege that Trump withheld the military aid to pressure Zelenskyy into initiating politically motivated investigations.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, submitted a question on behalf of himself, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
Roberts, saying the question was for both sides, read:
USA Today reported that when asked about it [his son’s employment by the Ukrainian company], Biden said quote, ‘He hadn’t spoken to his son about his overseas business.’ That account was contradicted by Hunter Biden, who told The New Yorker that he told his father about Burisma and ‘Dad said I hope you know what you’re doing, and I said I do.’ Why do Joe and Hunter Biden’s stories conflict? Did the House ask either one that question?
Trump lawyer Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida who days earlier had laid out the Biden-Burisma timeline, took the podium on the Senate floor to answer.
“It is very interesting he said he never spoke to his son about overseas dealings; his son said different things,” Bondi said. “Joe Biden was the [Obama administration’s] point man for Ukraine. At the time, Ukrainians were investigating a corrupt company, Burisma.”
In 2016, Biden has said publicly, he pressured the government of Ukraine to fire prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who was investigating Burisma, where Biden’s son had been on the board since 2014.
During on-camera remarks in 2018, Biden said he threatened Ukraine’s leaders that the country would not get $1 billion in U.S. assistance unless the government fired Shokin within hours.
Bondi noted that Burisma reportedly paid Biden $83,000 per month, although he had no qualifications in the energy sector. She said Burisma’s owner, oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky, was known for being part of corruption in Ukraine.
“The entire time Joe Biden knows that this oligarch is corrupt. Everyone knows that. There are news reports everywhere. No one will dispute that,” Bondi said. “In fact, it raised eyebrows worldwide that the vice president, by his account, never once asked his son to leave the [Burisma] board. Instead, he started investigating the prosecutor who was going after Burisma and this corrupt oligarch, who they say was corrupt even by corrupt oligarch standards.”
“Then we hear the video of Joe Biden bragging about firing the prosecutor, linking it to aid,” Bondi added.
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., one of the seven House impeachment managers, or prosecutors, steered away from a direct answer.
“I know you have asked about a conversation between a father and his son,” Demings said. “And what I can tell you is, probably like just about everyone in this chamber, there are probably some conversations that I can’t repeat about my conversations with my son. So I don’t know the answer to your question.”
She then said the Senate needed to hear from “fact witnesses,” and sought to pivot to familiar talking points of the prosecution team.
“We have no evidence to point to the fact that either Biden has anything at all to tell us about the president shaking down a foreign power to help him cheat in the next election, the precious election, trying to steal each individual’s vote,” Demings said.
4. Who Pays Rudy?
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., submitted a question that read: “It has been reported that President Trump has not paid Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney, for his services. Can you explain who has paid for Rudy Giuliani’s legal fees, international travel, and other expenses in his capacity as President Trump’s attorney and representative?”
Schiff, D-Calif., the leader of the House prosecution team, stood to answer the question.
“I don’t know who is paying Rudy Giuliani’s fees,” Schiff said, adding:
If he is not being paid by the president to conduct this domestic political errand, for which he has devoted so much time, if other clients are paying and subsidizing his work in that respect, it raises profound questions, questions we can’t answer at this point.
There are some answers that we do know. As [Giuliani] has acknowledged, he’s not there doing foreign policy. So, when counsel for the president says this is a policy dispute, [that] you can’t impeach a president over policy, what Rudy Giuliani was engaged in has nothing to do with policy.
Schiff gave a hypothetical: What if Giuliani, a former New York mayor and federal prosecutor, brokered a quid pro quo with the Chinese? He argued that the president’s defense team would claim that would be OK.
“So, who is paying the freight for it?” Schiff asked. “I don’t know who is directly paying the freight for it, but I can tell you the whole country is paying the freight for it because there are leaders around the world who are watching this and saying the American presidency is open for business.”
With that comment, Schiff walked right into a rebuttal from Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow.
“What came out of the manager’s mouth: open for business,” Sekulow said, adding:
I’ll tell you who was open for business. You want to know who was open for business? When the vice president of the United States was charged by the then-president of the United States with developing policies to avoid and assist in removing corruption from Ukraine, and his son was on the board of a company that was under investigation … And you are concerned about what Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, was doing when he was over trying to determine what was going on in Ukraine?
Sekulow, however, did not say who was paying Giuliani.
5. White House Counsel: ‘Pelosi Was Right’
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., submitted a question on behalf of himself and several other Senate Republicans about something House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said.
Roberts read the question, which was directed only to the president’s counsel:
On March 6, 2019, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: ‘Impeachment is so divisive that unless there is something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path because it divides the country.’
Alexander Hamilton also warned in Federalist 65 against the ‘persecution of an intemperate or designing majority of the House of Representatives with respect to impeachment.’
In evaluating the case against the president, should the Senate take into account the partisan nature of the impeachment proceedings in the House?
White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is leading Trump’s defense, responded: “Absolutely, you should take that into account.”
“Speaker Pelosi was right when she said that. Unfortunately, she didn’t follow her own advice,” Cipollone said. “We’ve never been in a situation where we have the impeachment of a president in an election year, with the goal of removing the president from the ballot. As I’ve said before, that is the most massive election interference we’ve ever witnessed. It’s domestic election interference. It’s political election interference. And it’s wrong.”
During a morning press conference, before the Senate convened, Pelosi suggested she would not accept the Senate’s verdict on the president if no witnesses are called.
“He will not be acquitted,” Pelosi said. “You cannot be acquitted if you don’t have a trial. You don’t have a trial if you don’t have witnesses and documentation and all of that. Does the president know right from wrong? I don’t think so.”
6. Obama and Bush Comparisons
Roberts read a question about abuse of power from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, that brought up Trump’s two immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
“Under the standard embraced by the House managers, would President Obama have been subject to impeachment charges based on his handling of the Benghazi attack, the Bergdahl swap, or DACA?” Roberts read. “Would President Bush have been subject to impeachment charges based on his handling of NSA surveillance, detention of combatants, or use of waterboarding?”
Cipollone, the White House counsel, answered the question, saying that the House managers are making an argument with “no standard.”
“Presidents would be subject to impeachment for exercising long-standing constitutional rights even when the House chose not to enforce their subpoenas,” Cipollone said, adding: “You might want to get a lock on that door, because they are going to be back a lot if that’s the standard.”
The White House counsel continued:
I try to seek areas of agreement. I think we all agree they don’t allege a crime. That’s why they spend all their time saying you don’t need one. … No crime is necessary.
That’s not what impeachment is all about. This is dangerous. It’s more dangerous because it’s an election year. So, yes, under the standardless impeachment, any president could be impeached for anything and that’s wrong.
By the way, they [the House prosecutors] should be held to their own articles of impeachment. A lot of what they are trying to sell here, their own House colleagues weren’t buying. They didn’t make it into the articles of impeachment.
7. Campaign Finance Violation
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., submitted a question citing two Federal Election Commission opinions that anything of value given by a foreign country to a political campaign would be an illegal campaign contribution.
“How valuable would a public announcement [by Ukraine] of an investigation into the Bidens be for President Trump’s reelection campaign?” she asked.
Stabenow directed her question to both sides.
“The idea that these investigations were something of value was specifically examined by the Department of Justice, as I explained the other day,” Cipollone said. “… They announced back in September that there was no election law violation, because it did not qualify as a thing of value.”
The White House counsel added: “There would be tremendous First Amendment implications if someone attempted to enforce the laws that way.”
Schiff strongly challenged this view.
“How valuable would it be for the president to get Ukraine to announce his investigations? The answer is immensely valuable,” Schiff said, adding:
If it wasn’t going to be immensely valuable, why would the president go to such lengths to make it happen? Why would he be willing to violate the law, the Impoundment Control Act? Why would he willing to ignore the advice of all his national security professionals? Why would he be willing to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars from an ally at war if he didn’t think it was going to really benefit his campaign? You have only to look at the president’s actions to determine just how valuable he believed it would be to him.
Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.
Other coverage of the impeachment trial for The Daily Signal by White House correspondent Fred Lucas includes: