Democrats delivered articles of impeachment and named the House managers this week. Now things move to the Senate trial. President Donald Trump named new lawyers to his legal team on Friday. We asked six reporters who are deep into impeachment coverage to tell us what we need to know about the story.
What will you remember from this week in 20 years?
Kyle Cheney, Congress reporter: The pin-drop silence of the Senate chamber, which was even more pronounced because senators were without the cell phones — usually glued to their hands. Seeing Chief Justice John Roberts stride onto the floor and take his oath is a once-a-generation moment. And watching Adam Schiff, who Trump has fashioned as a political nemesis, read the articles of impeachment aloud on a Republican-controlled Senate floor was also pretty jarring.
Nahal Toosi, foreign affairs correspondent: Given the speed of the news cycles these days, I can barely remember what I did this morning, so I worry that 20 years from now this whole period of my life will all be a blur. That being said, I don’t think I will ever forget the text messages between Robert Hyde and Lev Parnas, in which Hyde says he’s tracking the movements of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. It may all have been a joke, but it has deeply alarmed American diplomats. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s slowness to respond has also upset them.
Anita Kumar, White House reporter: The moment Roberts was sworn in by President Pro Tem Chuck Grassley. I saw it live on television but I’ve gone back to watch the video several times. I was partly struck by hearing Robert’s voice, because I don’t cover the Supreme Court and I don’t hear him very often — or really at all. He was very matter of fact, giving a few words of explanation to senators before his swearing in. But a huge part of it was just about the seriousness and the rarity of the moment. I know everyone in Washington thinks Trump will be acquitted (and I think the conventional wisdom is probably right) but there’s no denying what a historic moment it was.
Darren Samuelsohn, White House reporter: I’m going to go with the transmission of the articles from the House and Roberts’ arrival in the Senate chamber. Since the early days of the Mueller probe I’ve been reading all things impeachment — watching clips of a Bill Clinton trial that happened before I was tuned into politics, and envisioning the scenes from 1868 when Andrew Johnson barely survived his trial — so it was quite something to take in the moment Trump’s Ukraine scandal landed in the Senate.
Natasha Bertrand, national security correspondent: The transmission of the articles and the procession to the Senate, and the entire Parnas news cycle — particularly the texts he disclosed about the potential surveillance and harassment of a U.S. ambassador. Ukraine has opened a criminal probe into the circumstances surrounding those messages, but it’s unclear whether the FBI will help. The bureau has apparently not asked Parnas anything about those texts to date, but they reportedly did pay a visit to Hyde on Thursday.
Andrew Desiderio, Congress reporter: I’m going to echo my colleagues here and say that the pomp and circumstance — and indeed the historical significance — of the transfer of the impeachment process from the House to the Senate was definitely memorable. But another thing that will stick with me is the how Speaker Nancy Pelosi controlled the impeachment process. In the days before Pelosi announced the managers my colleagues and I had lawmakers approach us to ask if we knew who the managers would be. The managers themselves didn’t find out about their selection until less than an hour before they were announced.
What aspect of the trial are you most looking forward to?
Andrew: Without a doubt, the motions to call witnesses. The opening arguments will be fairly dry and well-known to anyone who has been following the impeachment inquiry. Senators will be required to remain seated and silent during that portion of the trial. Then, senators will have the opportunity to ask questions of both sides — and after all of that, the entire process could become a free-for-all. Or, it could all end abruptly. The outcome depends on whether there are 51 votes to call certain witnesses and documents. If it becomes clear that there votes are there, Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer could broker a deal for certain witnesses or documents. It’s all uncertain at this point, and it will be fascinating to see whether enough Republicans are persuaded to call for witnesses after the arguments are laid out on both sides.
Nahal: I’m personally looking forward to seeing how the trial compares to that of Bill Clinton’s in the late 1990s. That Ken Starr will be on the president’s defense team is itself a flashback generator. But I also keep wondering when Newt Gingrich is going to show up.
Kyle: I’m actually most interested in seeing how the House managers package their case when all expectations are for a swift acquittal. Adam Schiff will essentially have an uninterrupted platform to lay out the argument for Trump’s removal — does he use it to make a play to a general public that may not be as familiar with the nuances of the case? Or is the entire thing an effort to lobby four Republican senators to support Democrats’ call for witnesses and documents? And how much does evidence that emerged after the House’s Dec. 18 impeachment vote figure into the arguments? Schiff’s closing statements during the House hearings were widely considered to be some of the most effective moments for Democrats but weren’t viewed too widely. This time, he’ll have a lot more eyeballs on his remarks.
Anita: I want to see how Trump’s lawyers act on the Senate floor. People told me that Trump hired a trio of well-known — and somewhat controversial — attorneys, because he likes that they have “star power.” But will he push them to behave like the other aides and allies that he has praised — the ones who are aggressive and in your face but not at all what people would expect on the floor of the Senate.
Darren: There are so many possible twists and turns ahead that I don’t even know where to begin. I’m looking forward to how the Trump lawyers interact with the House impeachment managers, and whether they are friendly toward one another, or do some of the insults and name-calling that’s permeated the president’s Twitter account find its way into the proceedings. But if I had to point to a moment it’d be the final roll call votes when the senators one by one vote for or against conviction and removing the president from office. I think we all know how it’s supposed to turn out. But it’ll be a defining moment of this era anyway to see who falls where and if anyone from either party crosses over to the other side.
Natasha: I’m most looking forward to seeing how it he lawyers with the most extensive TV experience — Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr — make their case. At this point, it’s unlikely that they’ll dispute the facts. So their arguments will likely revolve around the idea that Trump’s conduct simply wasn’t impeachable, and I expect they’ll be impassioned — potentially even over the top, given Trump’s love of drama and how high the stakes are.
How long do you think the trial will last?
Kyle: The White House says it could be less than two weeks. That assumes every phase of the process takes the bare minimum amount of time and that the Senate declines to call any witnesses. If this trial looks anything like the Clinton trial of 1999, it’ll take about two weeks just to complete arguments and two to three days of Senate questioning. Then there’ll be debates about calling witnesses and deliberations on a verdict. So two weeks is ambitious, three probably seems likelier, meaning a collision with the Feb. 4 State of the Union is likely.
Anita: Nothing surprises me anymore, but I tend to think the trial will be short. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear that he wants a quick trial with no witnesses and he will do whatever he can to get that. Sure, McConnell has had his share of losses but he has shown Trump that he has shrewd political instincts and just might pull this off. McConnell is the reason Trump finally agreed there shouldn't be witnesses — the president has come to respect his command of the Senate’s rules after watching him push through the president’s legislative priorities, including a tax overhaul bill and a record number of judge confirmations.
Darren: I’m going with a month — with an ending point right around — wait for it — Presidents Day. There are now a good 15 or so people on both sides of this fight lined up as Trump lawyers or impeachment prosecutors — and each one is likely to get a turn or three to speak on the Senate floor in what will be for many of them career-defining moments. While the Senate will impose time limits on all of this, it still strikes me that the trial itself is going to drag on for several weeks between each side’s presentations, their questions and then the biggie fight over witnesses.
Will Lev Parnas’ comments force Senate Republicans to include witnesses?
Kyle: Lev Parnas would like to have that kind of power over the Senate trial, but if Republicans ultimately do decide to call witnesses he’ll only be a small part of the calculus. John Bolton’s offer to testify is still probably the top factor, but the president’s own desire to call witnesses — and whether he demands his legal team act on it — could also come into play. Though McConnell and Trump’s advisers seem to be nudging him to support a quick and drama-free trial, it’s hard to predict the president’s view from day to day, particularly when he tweets conflicting positions on this almost daily.
Andrew: The short answer is no. Even several Democrats we’ve spoken with in recent days — including the impeachment managers — have raised serious questions about Parnas’ credibility and his motivations, especially given that he is facing serious legal jeopardy. He made some explosive claims, and House impeachment investigators would probably want to spend time — which they don’t have at this point — to corroborate Parnas’ claims, particularly those involving Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General William Barr, before pursuing his testimony.
Melanie Zanona, Congress reporter: Lev Parnas is the Michael Cohen of impeachment. While the allegations from Parnas are potential bombshells — and could be tempting for Democrats to try to use in the trial — he also has serious credibility issues. Parnas is under indictment, and reporters have already poked some holes in his story. It seems unlikely that Parnas would move the needle with key GOP moderates like Sen. Susan Collins. And, as Andrew noted, even Democrats appear reluctant to lean on Parnas too heavily.
Darren: I don’t see Parnas as the impetus for more witnesses as much as the overall pressure that’s out there to see people at the center of the scandal brought before the Senate in some form to explain what they saw or participated in. Parnas has credibility issues. I don’t know that anyone disputes that, except maybe his own lawyer. He’s under federal indictment, with more charges still possibly in the offing, and he’s looking for any help he can get to limit his sentence should he be convicted or plead guilty. It seems that maybe more than anything what Parnas has done is generate additional attention on the trial itself, which in turn does give Democrats more running room to make their demands to hear from the likes of John Bolten, Rudy Giuliani, Vice President Pence and Bill Barr.
Natasha: That’s what Lev was hoping for, according to his lawyer — along with hoping to strike a deal with the feds, Parnas was apparently trying to raise the stakes for the Senate trial and make it harder for Republicans to justify a refusal to call witnesses. As my colleagues have noted, Parnas himself doesn’t have a lot of credibility. He has receipts, and they demonstrate how the former prosecutor general of Ukraine was trying to trade Biden dirt for Yovanovich’s firing, but they still don’t implicate Trump directly—even if they did, many Republicans have already decided that Trump’s role in all this isn’t impeachable. So while it gives Democrats some fresh ammunition, Republicans haven’t seemed particularly moved by any of the newly released evidence so far.
What does Trump’s legal team tell us about how he plans to defend himself?
Melanie: My biggest takeaway is that Team Trump is taking the trial very seriously. The White House is bringing in some seasoned veterans like Kenneth Starr who are good in both the courtroom and on TV — which the optics-obsessed president cares about — while leaving out the House GOP’s partisan attack dogs. The controversial addition of former Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz also suggests that they plan to make a constitutional argument, so they will not just be solely focused on Hunter Biden or Adam Schiff. And even though Trump now wants a short and sweet trial, it looks like his stacked legal team is prepared to go the distance — if they need to.
Nahal: Honestly, no matter what Trump’s legal team does, I expect he will consider himself his own best defense attorney. So I’ll be on the lookout for the tweets.
Kyle: Starr and Dershowtiz have been particularly vocal about what they consider the illegitimacy of the impeachment articles themselves. I’d expect lofty constitutional arguments that the entire case against Trump is defective and should be tossed, rather than a point-by-point rebuttal of the minutiae of the Ukraine episode. It’ll be a love letter to the primacy of executive power — essentially, that the president is allowed to do everything he did and certainly can’t be removed from office for it.
Andrew: It will be a case study in the unitary executive theory. In plain English, it’s the idea that the president has wide authority to conduct the business of the U.S. government, often at the expense of the legislative branch’s near-constant demand for stringent oversight. Dershowitz in particular is a longtime advocate of such broad presidential power, as is Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel. Trump’s decision to use these high-powered, yet controversial, attorneys on his team foreshadows a defense based on the belief that Trump’s conduct was well within his authority as chief executive of the U.S. government, and that the House grossly overstepped by charging the president with abusing his power and obstructing Congress.
Anita: The additions of Dershowitz and Starr (putting aside both their fame and controversies) makes it likely they will address constitutional arguments about executive authority. It’s not that Trump and his team haven’t argued that before - they have said that repeatedly over the months - but that message often got lost because, at times, they seemed to be pushing out more than a dozen different reasons why they say president was allowed to do what he did. The legal team is likely to focus the arguments coming out of the White House.
Darren: It sure seems like we’ll see the most substantive public defense of Trump yet. His attorneys during the Mueller probe largely made their case on TV and in print, while their client did all the talking on Twitter and in countless press scrums. Here, we’ll get point by point rebuttals of the Democratic charges. Much I bet will reflect some of the same arguments that the likes of Dershowitz, Starr, Ray and others have been making themselves in media interviews over the last many weeks and months. It’ll also be interesting to see how the new additions — ringers? — play in the same sandbox with the likes of White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Jay Sekulow, the personal attorney who has been around the longest of the bunch. Bonus points if Rudy shows up in the Senate gallery.