At the heart of Trump’s impeachment: ‘What did the president say? To whom and when?’

GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski — two who may vote to demand John Bolton’s testimony — asked the best question Wednesday.

SHARE At the heart of Trump’s impeachment: ‘What did the president say? To whom and when?’
Senate Impeachment Trial Of President Trump Continues

Chief Justice John Roberts reads a question from a senator during impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Senate Television via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski — who may provide two of four needed votes for John Bolton to testify at President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial —  jointly asked one of the best questions Wednesday, when senators were heard from for the first time.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over Trump’s trial, read it after a Senate page handed him the card with the written question on it brought over from Collins’ desk.

“Did President Trump ever mention Joe or Hunter Biden in connection with corruption in Ukraine to former Ukrainian President Poroshenko or other Ukrainian officials, President Trump’s cabinet members or top aides or others? If so, what did the president say? To whom and when?”

Former Vice President Biden’s son, Hunter, was on the board of Burisma, a Ukraine energy company, with no qualification for the job other than his last name.

The phrase — “What did the the president say? To whom and when” — was evocative of the famous quote from the late Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., at the Senate Watergate hearings. Referring to President Richard Nixon — who ended up resigning in August 1974 rather than face impeachment — Baker famously asked, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

Collins, from Maine, and Murkowski, from Alaska, sit next to each other on the Senate floor.

On Day 9 of Trump’s trial they are listening, as they have been, intently.  As Trump attorney Patrick Philbin replies, Collins is taking copious notes, writing in dark black ink on a white legal pad on her desk. Murkowski lifts her pen occasionally to write on a pad on her lap.

Philbin was artful in his answer, because if he knew what Trump said to whom and when, it would be a giant development. He blamed the House Democrats for not figuring this out during the House impeachment hearings.

“I think it’s important at the outset to frame the answer by bearing in mind I’m limited to what’s in the record. And what’s in the record is determined by what the House of Representatives sought.

“It was their proceeding. They were the ones who ran it. They were the ones who called the witnesses. So part of the question refers to conversations between President Trump and other cabinet members and others like that, that there’s not something in the record on that. It wasn’t thoroughly pursued in the record. So I can’t point to something in the record that shows President Trump at an earlier time mentioning specifically something related to Joe or Hunter Biden.”

Wild-card Wednesday

Wednesday was a bit of a wild card day, not because new information surfaced at the trial, but because senators finally got some input, through the asking of written questions, with no follow-ups allowed. The questions were directed either to the House Impeachment Managers — the Democrats, or Trump’s counsel — the Republicans.

Wednesday and Thursday are devoted to senators asking questions — alternating between Democrats and Republicans, with up to eight hours each day.

The bigger impeachment news came from the White House, not the Senate trial. The Trump administration sent a letter to Bolton’s lawyer, demanding that the former National Security Advisor’s book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir” not be published.

Bolton, according to the New York Times, wrote in his book that Trump did pressure Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation of Joe Biden, his top political rival.

Debate over witnesses to come

The Senate is scheduled to debate allowing witnesses Friday.

To force witnesses, Democrats need just four Senate Republicans to join them, and Collins, Murkowski and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, are open to hearing from Bolton.

The trio jointly asked the kick-off question to Trump’s lawyers about Trump’s motivations — from seeking his “personal political advantage” to “rooting out corruption, and the promotion of national interests.”

Philbin said the only motive that counted was whether he was acting in the public interest. That line of reasoning was later reinforced by another Trump defender, retired Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who said, “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

That’s an amazing conclusion — so anything goes?

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