President Trump’s legal team warned Wednesday that calling former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton as a witness in the impeachment trial would unhinge the proceedings, opening the door to other witnesses and shutting down the Senate for all other business.
Patrick Philbin, deputy White House counsel, said the House had the chance to pursue Mr. Bolton’s testimony but didn’t. He said it would derail the Senate and set a bad precedent to force senators to make up for House Democrats’ “sloppy” impeachment work.
“Is that really the way this chamber wants everything to operate in the future?” Mr. Philbin said.
While the Senate ultimately must decide whether to convict and oust President Trump, the more immediate question is whether the Senate will call any witnesses or demand documents from the administration in order to explore the impeachment case.
Every other impeachment trial in the Senate has included witnesses, and Democrats said it would be a cover-up of the highest order to defy that precedent.
Their chief goal is to get testimony from Mr. Bolton, who has reportedly written a book saying Mr. Trump did condition military aid to Ukraine on an announcement of investigations into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, a political opponent, and into whether Ukrainian operatives meddled in the 2016 U.S. elections.
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Mr. Trump’s attorneys said they will call their own list if witnesses are allowed, stretching the trial for “months.”
“Here’s what I want. I want Adam Schiff. I want Hunter Biden. I want Joe Biden. I want the whistleblower,” said Jay Sekulow, the president’s personal attorney.
After a week of rote presentations by House Democrats prosecuting the case and the president’s team in defense, the trial turned to the next phase Wednesday with questions. Senators who sat silent for days finally got a chance to prod both sides.
One by one, they stood and sent their written questions to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who is presiding over the impeachment trial. He read the questions aloud and then turned the floor to whichever side was the target of the inquiry.
Many senators used the questions as a chance to make their own points, asking the attorneys to rehash the evidence on whether Mr. Trump’s move to hold up military assistance to Ukraine last year, as he was seeking a political investigation into Mr. Biden, was an abuse of power.
Sens. Susan M. Collins and Lisa Murkowski, two Republicans who are seen to be on the fence over Mr. Trump’s fate, demanded to know whether he showed any interest in Mr. Biden’s actions in Ukraine before Mr. Biden jumped into the presidential race.
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The question stumped Mr. Philbin.
“I can’t point to something in the record,” he said. Mr. Philbin did say that the president’s attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, had shown interest in corruption in Ukraine and was acting on Mr. Trump’s behalf.
Ms. Murkowski also asked both sides for guidance on the standard of evidence senators are to use in their deliberations.
In a criminal trial, the prosecution must show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a high legal standard. The senator from Alaska wanted to know whether that also applied to impeachment or whether a lower standard, such as preponderance of evidence, was enough to oust the president.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, one of the Democratic impeachment managers, said there is no official standard and each senator must make that decision.
Mr. Philbin, though, said lawmakers on both sides in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton said the Senate needed to use a “reasonable doubt” standard.
Ms. Murkowski also signed on to a question of whether the House subpoenas submitted before Democrats officially voted for the impeachment inquiry were valid. That is at the crux of Democrats’ second article of impeachment: accusing Mr. Trump of obstruction of Congress.
Answering other questions, the lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam B. Schiff vehemently denied he knows the identity of the whistleblower who ignited the impeachment and refused to divulge any more details about the person despite multiple requests from Republicans.
“There is an effort to insinuate wrongdoing on the part of the whistleblower,” Mr. Schiff said.
Republicans demanded to know whether political bias played a role in the whistleblower’s actions. An inspector general’s memo said it did — though the inspector general also found the whistleblower to be “credible,” a point Mr. Schiff repeatedly stressed.
Yet Mr. Schiff is withholding his committee’s transcript of its interview with the inspector general, which Republicans have said is suspicious.
The California Democrat said his committee is still investigating the handling of the whistleblower’s complaint, suggesting that is why he isn’t releasing the inspector general’s testimony.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said outside the chamber that Mr. Schiff’s explanation seemed too calculated.
“Perhaps because he is under oath and wanted to be very careful not to answer that question,” Mr. Cruz said.
Democrats accused Mr. Philbin of careful parsing of his own answers when he was asked whether the White House had advance knowledge of Mr. Bolton’s book and was blocking its publication.
Mr. Philbin said the White House attorneys learned of the book’s allegations from New York Times journalists just before the paper published a story.
“No one from inside the White House or outside the White House told us that the publication of the book would be problematic for the president,” he said, adding that they assumed Mr. Bolton was “disgruntled.”
Mr. Philbin also said career employees are vetting the book outside the purview of political operatives.
All of the jockeying on the Senate floor is about trying to persuade a few wavering senators to either extend the trial to hear witnesses or call it to a close at the end of this week, which would almost certainly mean an acquittal for Mr. Trump.
Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting Tuesday to say they didn’t know whether they had the votes to block witnesses.
On Wednesday, several Republican senators considered to be swing votes on that question reportedly said they wouldn’t demand witnesses.
Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, said matters haven’t been settled.
“At this point, it’s obvious we don’t have the votes yet,” he told reporters.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said he’s “hopeful” Democrats will win the vote on witnesses, which under the current schedule would likely be Friday.
“I feel pretty good. I never underestimate President Trump as a nasty, vindictive president who will go after anyone who goes against him. But we have two things on our side,” he said.
He continued: “First, the public is overwhelmingly on our side for witnesses and documents. And second, sometimes doing the right thing. I think there are probably 15 Republican senators who know the right thing is witnesses and documents.”
Mr. Schumer also suggested Republicans wouldn’t be able to muster support to call Hunter Biden as a witness.
Not true, replied Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who said that is one thing that unites Republicans.
“There’s 53 Republican votes to call Hunter Biden,” he said.
• S.A. Miller and Gabriella Muñoz contributed to this report.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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