WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday started the clock on 16 hours of questions from lawmakers spread over two days and directed at House Democrats and President Donald Trump’s attorneys with a question from Susan Collins of Maine and two fellow Republicans.
The biggest question looming over the trial won’t be answered: Will enough Republicans join Democrats to vote in favor of subpoenaing witnesses like former national security adviser John Bolton, or will GOP leaders keep their their caucus united to bring the trial to a swift end?
Republicans and Democrats began at 1 p.m. on Wednesday alternating questions that must be submitted in writing and read aloud. The sessions come after six days of oral arguments over Trump’s impeachment by the House for pressing Ukraine to investigate Democrats while withholding U.S. aid to the country.
Collins, along with Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah, directed the first question at Trump’s defense team.
“If President Trump had more than one motive for his alleged conduct, such as the pursuit of personal political advantage, rooting out corruption, and the promotion of national interests, how should the Senate consider more than one motive in its assessment of Article I?” the trio asked.
In response, White House counsel Patrick Philbin said that, if there was both public interest and personal interest motivating the president’s actions, that would not be the basis for an impeachable offense. He added that concerns about corruption in Ukraine meant that the president was acting in the public interest.
Maine’s junior senator, independent Angus King, asked the president’s defense team and House managers whether they thought former White House national security adviser John Bolton should testify.
In response Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said it should not be that the House managers to call Bolton while the president’s lawyers got no witnesses. Rep Adam Schiff, D-California, said the House managers and the White House defense team should both be able to call relevant witnesses.
The Senate is expected to address the question of witnesses on Friday. Democrats would need to convince four Republicans to cross the aisle and vote with them to subpoena witnesses and start a debate over who should testify. While Collins and Romney have indicated they are likely to want to hear from Bolton, it is unclear whether there will be two additional Republican votes.
Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Democrat in the Senate, indicated Wednesday that all Democrats and the two independents that caucus with the party would support the idea of opening the trial to witnesses.
But Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-West Virginia, broke ranks Wednesday by indicating that he would also like to hear from Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. Republicans have threatened to subpoena Hunter Biden if Democrats insist on calling Bolton.
At the center of Trump’s impeachment was his July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president in which he pressed the foreign leader to announce an investigation into the Bidens. Democrats say that amounted to asking a foreign government to intervene in the 2020 presidential election.
Hunter Biden was on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that faced corruption allegations while his father was in office. Hunter Biden’s position raised conflict-of-interest concerns, but there is no evidence of any wrongdoing.
There is no official time limit on Wednesday’s question-and-answer session, but Chief Justice John Roberts, the trial’s presiding officer, suggested to lawyers Tuesday that they should adhere to the model set up by Chief Justice William Rehnquist in President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial of a five-minute limit on answers. If that limit is adhered to and all the time is used, senators could — in theory — ask upwards of 150 questions.
Democratic leaders have collected proposed questions from their side to “avoid duplication and pick the ones in sequences that make sense in terms of delivering a message,” according to Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois. Republicans discussed their questions at a closed-door meeting Tuesday afternoon.
Bangor Daily News writer Jessica Piper contributed to this report.