12 questions to expect at Trump’s impeachment trial

It’s Q&A time.

After a week-long stretch of opening presentations in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, all 100 senators will have a chance to pose their most pressing questions starting on Wednesday.

The process is straightforward yet important. Here’s how it will work: Any senator can write their questions on a piece of paper and specify who the question is for — someone on Trump’s defense team or one of the House impeachment managers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will then serve as a clearinghouse, bundling together similar asks from their party rank-and-file. From there, Chief Justice John Roberts will read the questions aloud.

Only one side will get to answer each question. And it’s all expected to last up to 16 hours.

If Republicans stick together and block any witnesses, the session could be one of the last chances — besides closing arguments — for senators to hear from each side’s lawyers before beginning deliberations.

We surveyed Democratic and Republican senators, a range of outside legal experts and POLITICO reporters to get a sense of what they expect will come up. Here are some of their answers:

The questions Democrats want to ask

“Why did you spend all day [Monday] ignoring John Bolton's statements?” — Sen. Jeff Merkley

The Oregon Democrat said that while he has “so many questions,” he’d start by asking the Trump lawyers directly about the potentially explosive book from Trump’s former national security adviser. A draft manuscript discloses that the president explicitly linked a freeze on military aid to investigations into his political opponents.

It’s an attempt to put White House counsel Pat Cipollone, personal attorney Jay Sekulow and their colleagues on the spot to speak at length about the Bolton manuscript, which they have all but ignored since The New York Times on Sunday detailed some of its most juicy details. Their answer could go a long way toward determining whether four Republicans break with McConnell and endorse calling Bolton and others as trial witnesses and prolonging the proceedings into at least next week.

Schumer: Bolton's book 'gets to the very heart of article one of impeachment'

“Let's find out what [Cipollone] knew about the book and its contents and the allegations in it.” — Sen. Ed Markey

The Massachusetts Democrat wants to focus not just on Bolton but also the White House counsel and whether he was familiar with the book’s explosive revelations that ran counter to the president’s defense.

Cipollone himself hasn’t yet addressed the question. But an NSC spokesman on Monday said that Bolton submitted a copy of his book for pre-publication review. That comment left open the possibility that Cipollone, who supervises the lead NSC lawyer John Eisenberg, got a briefing on its contents.

This matters for a big reason. Cipollone has been leading the Trump defense on the Senate floor, even as he faces questions about whether he’s a fact witness on several issues central to the impeachment proceedings themselves.

“Is that actually the full transcript of the call? The thing we’ve got says on the bottom it’s just contemporaneous notes.” — Sen. Chris Coons

The Delaware Democrat called this a “simple, obvious” question worth putting to the president’s attorneys. He’s referring back to the White House’s release of a five-page readout of the July phone call where Trump asks his Ukraine counterpart to do him a “favor” in launching opponents of his political opponents in exchange for military aid.

Trump’s lawyers during the Senate trial said the president “released the full transcript of the call,” calling it “a historically unique act of transparency.” Trump himself during campaign rallies has urged his supporters to just “read the transcript.”

But as Coons noted, the bottom of page 1 of the document itself says it is “not a verbatim transcript of a discussion” but just the notes and recollections of the White House and NSC staff who listened into the call.

The questions Republicans want to ask

“Why did the House let up so easily on John Bolton?” — Sen. Kevin Cramer

The North Dakota Republican wants Democratic impeachment managers to explain their decision last November to withdraw a subpoena they’d sent to Charles Kupperman, Bolton’s top deputy.

Their answer is anything but simple. First, Kupperman had filed suit seeking a federal court ruling on whether he should listen to the congressional investigators or Trump, who had ordered him to ignore the subpoena. But Democrats withdrew their subpoena before U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon could weigh in on the case, explaining that Kupperman’s lawsuit was really a transparent bid to stymie their impeachment probe by locking it up in a lengthy court battle.

Kupperman’s case was widely seen as a proxy fight for Bolton. Besides working together, both men also had the same lawyer, Charles Cooper, who had argued that Bolton wanted a court ruling before publicly discussing the Ukraine issues so central to the impeachment probe.

Sekulow on Bolton manuscript: Impeachment 'is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts'

“One of the big outstanding issues here is how did this all come about?” — Sen. Ron Johnson

The Wisconsin Republican wants to put Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead House impeachment manager, on the spot by honing in on any contacts he or his staff had with the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint kickstarted the impeachment probe.

Johnson’s question gets at a familiar refrain that has echoed through the conservative media sphere for months, fueled in no small part by the president himself. Trump claims Schiff wrote the whistleblower complaint himself, and his attorneys trumpeted such suspicions in a legal brief before the trial, arguing that the issue “remains shrouded in secrecy to this day.”

Schiff’s reply is likely to echo an explanation his spokesman delivered back in October, when he told The New York Times that the person coming forward — since identified as a CIA officer — approached the House Intelligence Committee with vague concerns about Trump’s Ukraine outreach and questions about how to report the matter.

The aide said such requests are typical and that the person was offered guidance on how to go through official channels. Some of that interaction was shared with Schiff, but the staffer didn’t identify the individual to the California Democrat.

“Did the House managers have any obligation to be truthful with what they put out? The way it came across is, they haven’t given us all the information.” — Sen. Rick Scott

The Florida Republican’s question reflects a common refrain heard by criminal defense attorneys during trials — that the evidence prosecutors presented to a judge or jury is selectively chosen to paint a misleading narrative.

House Democrats have addressed the topic during the trial, insisting that they’ve put into the Senate trial record the most relevant materials pertaining to their argument that Trump should be removed from office. They would likely repeat that explanation if the question comes up.

Pressing Schiff and company to address the subject could also open Republicans up to attacks that they are the ones limiting evidence, witnesses and other information in the Senate trial. Trump’s lawyers have also been accused of selectively choosing the information they presented during their arguments.

The questions legal experts want to ask

“I would ask the House managers why there is no article of impeachment based on the president’s obstruction of justice relating to to the Russian interference investigation, which is a stronger basis for conviction and removal from office than either of the two articles before the Senate.” — Phil LaCovara, former Watergate attorney

Talk about touching a sore spot. Pressing the Democratic impeachment managers on their reasons for largely leaving the Mueller probe out of impeachment exposes internal party differences that have been largely papered over since December.

Many House members were indeed clamoring for the president’s attempts to stymie Mueller to inform an obstruction of justice impeachment article. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi overruled the Mueller faction in deference to more moderate Democrats who wanted to keep the impeachment probe focused on the Ukraine scandal.

“In his call with President Zelensky, President Trump does not mention the problem of corruption in Ukraine. … What is your evidence that despite his words on the call, Trump acted because he was concerned about corruption?” — William Jeffress, longtime D.C. defense attorney

With the question, Jeffress would want to pressure Cipollone to explain the president’s true motivations in his outreach to the Ukraine.

All the evidence Democrats have collected and presented shows Trump was hyper-focused on political opponents like Joe Biden whenever he brought up corruption in Ukraine.

“How, if at all, does the evidence support the elements of the crime of bribery either under the current statute or at the time of the signing of the Constitution?” — Gene Rossi, former federal prosecutor

Rossi, a former assistant U.S. attorney from the Eastern District of Virginia, would pose this question to Schiff.

The Democrat’s impeachment theory has been that Trump established a quid pro quo with Ukraine in an attempt to essentially cheat in 2020, an abuse of power worthy of his removal.

While posing the question to the lead House manager might force him to admit that Trump’s actions may not constitute indictable bribery, it could also give him an opening to try and counter a Trump team argument that the president can’t be impeached if there’s no crime. The Constitution’s vague impeachment standard is widely considered to include abusive actions beyond technical crimes.

The questions POLITICO reporters want to ask

“Why didn’t the White House inform Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about the contents of Bolton’s manuscript?” — Andrew Desiderio, congressional reporter

I’m not sure that this question will even come up at the trial, but the leak of Bolton’s manuscript again calls into question the White House’s strategy for dealing with the impeachment process on Capitol Hill.

McConnell’s office said the Kentucky Republican “did not have any advance notice” about the manuscript or its contents — and there was some reporting that Senate Republicans felt blindsided by it.

Indeed, the Bolton revelations have threatened to upend the trial and potentially disrupt the near-unity among Senate Republicans on the issue of subpoenaing additional witnesses. Bolton’s reported account complicates McConnell’s calculus as he tries to ensure that no more than three Republicans break ranks and vote with Democrats later this week to call witnesses.

To the White House attorneys: Who made the decision that it wasn’t necessary to inform Congress about the hold on Ukraine military aid, and what rationale was provided at the time?” - Kyle Cheney, congressional reporter:

One of the lingering mysteries in the entire Ukraine scandal is the gap of information at the highest levels of the White House budget office. Top officials there refused to cooperate with the House inquiry on Trump’s orders and were only partially responsive to an after-the-fact government watchdog investigation.

But there’s still missing information about what happened between Trump’s initial questions about Ukraine aid in June and when the hold was formally implemented on July 25.

Typically, such holds require congressional notification, but none was provided in this case. The White House contended to government investigators late last year that they classified the decision as a “programmatic delay,” which required no notification. But the investigators didn’t buy it, accusing the president of breaking the law. So who was advising Trump on how to handle the hold? And what rationale did to provide in the initial stages of the decision-making? We still don’t know.

“House Democrats have said they aren’t ruling out additional impeachment articles against President Trump if they uncover more materials. How, and when, will you make that decision?” -- Darren Samuelsohn, senior reporter

This may not be the right forum for this question, but it’ll be one that Democrats should expect to get non-stop on the other side of the impeachment trial — assuming it goes as expected with Trump’s acquittal.

While months of proceedings have put Trump’s Ukraine actions under the microscope, they also demonstrated Washington’s deep divide and the uphill climb any impeachment effort faces in actually removing a president absent significant bipartisan support.

Democrats surely will excite their own base voters by threatening additional articles of impeachment, and a slate of impeachment-adjacent court cases could give them the needed fodder. But they’ll have to weigh any further impeachment action with the political benefit Trump gets from playing the victim card as he campaigns for re-election.

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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