WASHINGTON – After six days of carefully choreographed oral arguments, President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is about to enter a volatile new phase as senators are allowed to ask whatever they want of House prosecutors and White House lawyers.
It is a moment of opportunity — and peril — for both parties, as 100 senators engage in as many as 16 hours of questioning over two days of the House impeachment managers and Trump’s legal defense team that could shape the endgame of the trial.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wants to ask the leading House manager about the whistleblower whose confidential complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine touched off the impeachment inquiry, and about Hunter Biden, whom the president asked Ukraine’s president to investigate. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, plans to question Alan Dershowitz’s criteria for impeachment. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is seeking more information about the president’s personal lawyer, who played a central role in his pressure campaign on Ukraine.
“I’m a little bit curious about Rudy Giuliani,” Cramer said.
The questions, which will begin Wednesday afternoon and could go late into the evening, will allow senators, who have been sitting restlessly in the Senate chamber for more than a week listening to dueling presentations from the two sides, the chance to participate in the proceedings, albeit indirectly. Under the arcane rules of impeachment, they are to submit written queries that will be read aloud by Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial.
The result is likely to be a lively if slow-moving Senate debate in which the leaders of the two parties — working in concert with the House managers and the White House lawyers — seek to elicit damaging admissions, highlight favorable points and give their side a chance to rebut the claims made by their adversaries during nearly 30 hours of arguments since the trial opened last week.
When the trial resumes at noon Central time Wednesday, senators will submit tan-colored cards to Roberts that include their questions, names, signatures and the side they want the question directed to. Under the rules, senators cannot ask each other questions, but questions can be submitted by more than one lawmaker.
The questions will alternate — one from the Republicans, then one from the Democrats and so on — for eight hours, or until there are no more. Senate leaders said they expect to get through about 10 to 12 per side before taking a break. A second session, if necessary, will take place Thursday.
During President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999, William Rehnquist, then the chief justice, opened the question-and-answer session with a lighthearted moment, telling senators that “the chair will operate on a rebuttable presumption that each question can be fully and fairly answered in five minutes or less.”
Roberts read that quote Tuesday.
“The transcript indicates that the statement was met with, quote, laughter, end quote,” he told the senators, drawing more laughter. “Nonetheless, managers and counsels generally limited their responses accordingly. I think the late chief’s time limit was a good one and would ask both sides to abide by it.”
The leaders of both parties have strategized for days about the best questions to ask.
During Clinton’s trial 21 years ago, one of the worst moments for the House Republican managers seeking Clinton’s ouster, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — now a senator participating in Trump’s trial — answered a question by saying that “reasonable people can differ” on the question of whether Clinton should be removed, giving Democrats a much-needed excuse to acquit him.
“This is the first part of the trial that has spontaneity,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., noting that the managers and White House attorneys will have to be quick on their feet. “If they try to do the canned version, it will fall flat.”