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Here are a few questions senators should ask in the impeachment trial

What information lawmakers should seek as the question phase begins.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer arrives for the impeachment trial on January 29, 2020.
Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The impeachment trial proceedings against President Donald Trump are now entering the next phase: question time.

After listening to each side make its case for the past week — Trump’s attorneys concluded their opening arguments Tuesday — senators will now have up to 16 hours to ask questions of both the House managers and Trump’s defense team.

The catch? Lawmakers can’t talk, so they’ll have to submit their queries in writing. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who’s presiding over the trial, is expected to read the questions out loud, switching between Democrats and Republicans. He suggested Tuesday that both sides would get about five minutes to respond to the inquiries.

Senators have largely been spectators in the impeachment proceedings so far, and now they’ll reveal more of what they’re thinking. This portion gives them the opportunity to directly challenge either the House managers or Trump’s defense.

Whether or how the senators, both Democrats and Republicans, use this opportunity is yet to be determined. Will senators thoughtfully probe the evidence, or ask leading questions to bolster their favored side? Can lawmakers find a way to grandstand in written questions?

In advance of this question-and-answer period, here are some questions Vox would like to see asked — and that might help the public better evaluate the case for, and against, Donald Trump.

Questions for the House managers

So you want to hear from John Bolton: Why not at least continue with the subpoena fight? Can the bar for obstruction of Congress be met if the House hasn’t exhausted all its options?

Democrats argued that the Trump administration’s unprecedented defiance of congressional subpoenas for written and documentary evidence amounted to obstruction of Congress, the second article of impeachment against the president.

But House Democrats dropped a subpoena against former Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman and did not proceed with a subpoena against Bolton.

House Democrats did not want to get caught up in a protracted court battle; they’re still arguing a subpoena for Don McGahn, former White House counsel and a key Mueller witness. And Democrats concluded that Trump’s attempts to get Ukraine to investigate a political opponent demanded urgency, with a presidential election this fall.

It’s indisputable that Trump has blocked witnesses from testifying or stopped turning over documents to the House — in this and other oversight inquiries. At the same time, House managers probably should directly answer a challenge a lot of Republican senators have been lobbing at them as they fight to call witnesses now: that the House, in such a rush to go after President Trump, didn’t even do its job.

Which witnesses do you want to hear from, and why?

We know Bolton is at the top of the list a report about after revelations in his upcoming book that Trump explicitly said he blocked aid to Ukraine to get investigations into the Bidens.

But right now, the House managers are simply trying to sway a handful of undecided senators to at least give them enough votes to call Bolton and maybe other witnesses during the impeachment proceedings. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer identified several others Democrats want to hear from in December. But It can’t hurt for House managers to again state their case clearly as to why people like Bolton, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must testify.

What makes Trump’s actions “abuse of power,” versus just the execution of the duties of his office — like foreign policy?

The House managers have made a powerful case for abuse of power over and over again.

But this was a central pillar of Trump’s defense — that “the president has constitutional authority to engage, conduct foreign policy and foreign affairs,” as Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s attorneys put it, and so acted in the national interest. It can’t hurt for Democrats to make this distinction once again, even if they repeat themselves a bit. They should explain, in about five minutes or less, that what Trump did in asking for investigations into the Bidens should have no place in foreign policy.

But haven’t you been trying to impeach President Trump since he came down the escalator?

If you’ve caught any of the C-SPAN callers in between impeachment proceedings, this is a talking point you’ll hear quite a bit from Trump defenders: that Democrats have been out to get Trump since day one, and they’re just trying to stop him because he’s a great president, because he’s winning, because he’s a businessman, whatever.

Yes, it’s a bit of a trolly question. But there is some truth here that some (not all) Democrats talked about impeaching Trump even before the Ukraine scandal hit. House managers might need to engage with why the idea of impeaching Trump came up repeatedly — whether it was because of the conclusions of the Mueller report, or Trump’s questionable business ties, or you know what, maybe even a degree of bitter partisan politics.

And then they can clearly say why Trump’s dealings with Ukraine forced action and, again, why this in their view meets the threshold for impeachment the founders laid out.

Questions for Trump’s defense

Why did Trump agree to release the hold on Ukrainian aid on September 11?

“The Ukrainian military aid was released without the Ukrainians announcing an investigation into the Bidens, so there couldn’t have been a quid pro quo” remains one of the top GOP defenses of Trump. At the same time, the president’s team spent a while arguing that Trump was very concerned about corruption in Ukraine, which was notoriously bad, as many of the Democrats’ own witnesses attested to during the impeachment hearings.

Democrats, meanwhile, say Trump released the aid because he got caught — or at least became aware of the whistleblower complaint against him, and knew Democrats were preparing to investigate his Ukraine dealings. But if Trump’s team is claiming no, he just cared about corruption, what changed between July and September that suddenly swayed the president’s mind?

About that corruption: What were Trump’s specific concerns beyond Burisma?

Trump’s defense hammered Trump’s concerns about corruption. But Trump did not mention corruption specifically in his April call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and in his infamous July 25 call, he brought up Biden’s son, referring to Hunter Biden and a conspiracy theory about a DNC server, which “they say Ukraine has it.”

Weird that in a country the president thought was so corrupt, these are the only two issues he brought up. But maybe Trump’s team can shed more light on these concerns of his.

What was Trump referring to when he asked President Zelensky about the DNC server on July 25?

Trump has embraced a false theory that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and that a server somehow tied to it all physically resides in the country. None of this is true, and it defies the conclusions of US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered. But, let Trump’s attorneys explain, since they’re defending all these actions as being in the national interest.

What was Trump’s personal lawyer doing in Ukraine if this was all just Trump foreign policy as usual?

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been accused of running a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine. Documents released by the House Intelligence Committee earlier this month, provided by Giuliani’s former fixer, Lev Parnas, showed Giuliani claimed to be acting with President Trump’s “knowledge and consent” in his dealings with Ukraine. Based on testimony from officials and other documents, Giuliani was attempting to dig up dirt on the Bidens and gather evidence to undercut the findings of the Russia investigation.

Trump’s defense has tried to say that Trump acted legally and in the national interest, but it hasn’t successfully dealt with the reality that pursuit of Burisma was very much in his personal political interest.

If there’s not enough evidence to support a quid pro quo, why are you opposing the testimony of witnesses who could provide this information?

As Vox’s Li Zhou pointed out, Trump’s defense team inadvertently made the case for the Democrats as to why more witnesses should testify, arguing that many of the Democrats’ witnesses did not have firsthand knowledge.

“Most of the Democrats’ witnesses have never spoken to the president at all, let alone about Ukraine,” Trump attorney Mike Purpura said Saturday. “All Democrats have to support the alleged link between security assistance and investigations are [EU] Ambassador [Gordon] Sondland’s assumptions and presumptions.”

And this is a question Democrats have been arguing from the start of the impeachment inquiry: If Trump didn’t do anything wrong, then all these witnesses and documents should exonerate him. Trump’s defense team should have to square the inherent contradiction — Trump did nothing wrong, but there is also no evidence to prove he didn’t do anything wrong — on the Senate floor.

What did the White House know about the information in John Bolton’s book?

This week, the New York Times reported that Bolton’s book manuscript contains a pretty damning detail: Trump told Bolton he was blocking aid to Ukraine unless the country cooperated with investigations into the Bidens.

Bolton’s testimony would directly tie Trump to this pressure scheme, becoming some of the strongest evidence yet in the case against the president. This is why Democrats want him to appear in this impeachment trial.

Trump’s attorneys have so far dismissed reports of Bolton’s testimony, encouraging lawmakers to ignore the “unsourced allegation.”

But there’s another interesting tidbit here: Bolton submitted the book to the National Security Council in late December for a review, a standard practice for officials who may have worked closely with classified information. White House counsel Pat Cipollone has reportedly said he’s unaware of what the former national security adviser wants to spill, but that it probably wouldn’t hurt to ask him directly.

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