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Senate To Vote Friday On Whether To Allow Impeachment Witnesses

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much longer could a Senate impeachment trial go, and who, if anyone, might be called to testify? We could start to find out by the end of this week. President Trump's lawyers finished their arguments yesterday. The president's lawyer, Jay Sekulow, said the president's effort to have his political rivals investigated in Ukraine fell far below the level of impeachable offenses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAY SEKULOW: Danger. Danger. Danger. To lower the bar of impeachment based on these articles of impeachment would impact the functioning of our constitutional republic and the framework of that Constitution for generations.

INSKEEP: OK. To review where we are, each side has now had three days for arguments. Depending on what happens next, this may eventually seem like those were merely the opening arguments of a trial. We don't know what more is to come. We do know senators have two days now to ask the lawyers and impeachment managers questions. Now, on Friday, they vote on allowing witnesses.

With us now is NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, who has been covering this story. Good morning.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So many Republicans are not eager to call a lot of witnesses here. Does Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have the votes to block witnesses?

GRISALES: He just might. Four Republicans would have to join Democrats to call witnesses. And right now, we know of at least three Republican senators - Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah - who have signaled they're open to witnesses. And they were recently emboldened by these reports by the New York Times that former National Security Adviser John Bolton heard the president tell him directly to withhold this aid until they got the commitment for political investigations. Let's take a listen to Murkowski.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LISA MURKOWSKI: I think that Bolton probably has something to offer us. So we'll figure out how we're going to learn more.

GRISALES: But even so, we're not even sure of a fourth Republican senator who would join them or how many could vote in the end for witnesses by the time this vote could come on Friday.

INSKEEP: OK. We mentioned that the president's lawyers are saying that whatever the president did - and they haven't really denied what he did - that it doesn't rise to the level of an impeachable offense. Here's a little bit more from the White House lawyer, Pat Cipollone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAT CIPOLLONE: What they are asking you to do is to throw out a successful president on the eve of an election with no basis and in violation of the Constitution. It would dangerously change our country and weaken - weaken - forever all of our democratic institutions. You all know that's not in the interest of the American people. Why not trust the American people with this decision? Why tear up their ballots?

INSKEEP: You know, I have to mention that when Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, one of the reasons that some senators voted to keep him in office was for a similar argument - that removing him would make Congress too powerful and damage the presidency. Now this is something of the argument that Republicans are making. Is that something they feel is a winning argument for them?

GRISALES: They do. They're using these talking points being illustrated here by Pat Cipollone as an argument to stay away from this option of removing the president. They say they're nine months from an election, and they may not agree how this call was conducted, but they think it's too close to the election to remove the president.

INSKEEP: What happens over the next three days here?

GRISALES: So we're looking at questions in writing that will be submitted by senators. Republicans and Democrats will alternate through the chief justice who will ask these questions to the legal teams and, following that, the debate for witnesses and a big question on whether to remove or acquit the president.

INSKEEP: Well, that's a good moment to bring another voice into our conversation - Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, one of the jurors in this case. Senator, welcome back to the program.

JAMES LANKFORD: Thank you, good to be back with you again.

INSKEEP: Should the Senate hear from John Bolton?

LANKFORD: Well, here's the challenge - what - well, let me say it this way - several things. One is the House decided not to hear from John Bolton. John Bolton even said he was willing to do that. They retracted an invitation when he said, let's just work this out in court, which is the normal process, so that begins this. But the House said, no, it's not relevant enough to be able to go forward with. Then there's been a push to say now he is relevant, but the problem is during the case itself, (inaudible) gave only (inaudible) times. And the only evidence that we have of anything right now is a New York Times story saying that someone who has read a manuscript of a book told someone who is a reporter who reported it. So we don't have a lot of (unintelligible)...

INSKEEP: If I could...

LANKFORD: ...I'd like to be able to see the manuscript to even know if this is even relevant.

INSKEEP: Well, OK. So you've got three points there. I want to ask about each of them. You say the House did not call John Bolton. Well, it's true. They didn't, and here we are. Although Bolton did resist in court. But they didn't call John Bolton. But here we are. You're part of the Senate. The Senate has subpoena power. Bolton has said he will testify before the Senate if subpoenaed. Why wouldn't you vote for that?

LANKFORD: So we have two issues that we've got to look at with this. One is, what is a fact-based witness that helps us determine what else happened around this time period to be able to make a fact-based decision? The other one is - shock amongst all shocks in Washington, D.C. - is the political aspect. Clearly, the House went as fast as they possibly could to be able to get through this impeachment process. Then they held it for 33 days. And now they came and plead to the Senate and said, we want you to go as long as you possibly can to be able to stretch this out.

INSKEEP: Well, Senator, forgive me, you do have the opportunity to call witnesses as has happened...

LANKFORD: We do.

INSKEEP: ...In past impeachment trials. You have subpoena power. Why wouldn't you call this witness?

LANKFORD: Well, right now, we're trying to find out how relevant that really is to be able to call witnesses because it's not a matter of calling one witness. As the Democratic leader has stated in other times, it's not one, it's going to be 11 or more. It's going to be an ongoing - they had 11 different series of document requests, witnesses, things they want to be able to do that would stretch out this trial for months and months. So the challenge that we have is - is this a mode to try to stretch the trial out through the election time or is this a fact-finding gathering? What...

INSKEEP: You mentioned that you'd like to read Bolton's manuscript...

LANKFORD: I would.

INSKEEP: ...In a classified setting. I think some people are going to hear that and just feel that you're avoiding the question of calling John Bolton.

LANKFORD: So again, we don't know if John Bolton's relevant other than a New York Times story that showed up this week.

INSKEEP: Oh, and sworn testimony from numerous witnesses in the House proceeding that you mentioned which mentioned John Bolton's participation and how he witnessed numerous acts here that would point to the president's culpability.

LANKFORD: That is exactly what the House managers said. If you read what the White House counsel said, they gave the rest of the story, in that each time they will say, here was the rest of the conversation around it. His comment, several times, for instance - John Bolton's comment was, take that to the lawyers. Go talk to lawyers about that. The Democratic counsel made that into a very big issue. Like, this is an enormous thing. You and I both know in Washington, D.C., it's a very common phrase to be able to say, that's a concern, take it to the lawyers, be able to work it all out. When Rudy Giuliani, who is an unofficial person in the mix here, talking with someone official, that is not uncommon to say, take that to the lawyers, make sure that you work all that out ahead of time. That's been the only real comment around John Bolton.

INSKEEP: Senator, as you know very well, Republicans have been very unhappy with the phrase, cover-up. Democrats have accused you of a cover-up because you have...

LANKFORD: And treachery.

INSKEEP: ...Resisted hearing witnesses - and treachery and so forth. But let's think about this for a moment. If you ultimately decline to allow witnesses, isn't the phrase cover-up going to fit? They're going to have room to say that about you.

LANKFORD: They would not have room to say that about us. We had 17 witnesses that were done in the House. They had plenty of opportunity to be able to work this process. The typical impeachment process would be the House does the investigation, the Senate actually does the trial. We actually hear the evidence. If you go back to what happened in the Clinton trial, there were three witnesses that were called at that time. All three of those were witnesses that the House had already interviewed. So again, we're trying to be able to work through what are the facts of the case here versus what's the politics of it...

INSKEEP: I just want to...

LANKFORD: ...Much of the politics are delaying this out.

INSKEEP: ...Forgive me, Senator. I'm so sorry. I just want to make clear on this because we fact-checked this yesterday on the program. In past impeachment trials, there have been witnesses, and the Senate, under the Constitution, can make its own rules. There is no reason you can't call witnesses if you choose to.

LANKFORD: No, that's correct. No, that is absolutely correct. We can call witnesses of any sort, of any type. We would go through the same normal process. What Adam Schiff was incurring was we shouldn't go to trial or shouldn't go to the courts, and we should find some way to be able to compel, to literally take away executive authority. His theory is the Senate has more power than the House, that the House has to go through the courts. They chose not to go to the courts. And now his saying is, don't go to the courts, just compel testimony to be able go through this and blast through that. That is another constitutional issue to be able to remove executive privilege in the days ahead, or to say that a president doesn't have the ability to go to court. So there are very large constitutional issues in this argument as well as fact-based issues within this argument.

INSKEEP: In the many hours of arguments that you've had to sit through and watch, drinking only water or milk, Senator...

LANKFORD: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...And thanks, by the way, for doing that. In those many hours, the president's defense team did not deny the basic facts here that the president asked for investigations in Ukraine, that those investigations involved things like CrowdStrike and also Joe Biden and Hunter Biden - also did not deny that the president held up military aid, although they minimized the importance of it. There's no doubt about the basic facts here, is there?

LANKFORD: Oh, there's significant doubt about the basic fact. You gave several things that there are no doubt about. Clearly, in the telephone call, he's talking about CrowdStrike. Clearly, the president...

INSKEEP: And Joe Biden.

LANKFORD: ...Well, President Zelenskiy actually brings that up to President Trump and says, hey, I'm meeting with Rudy Giuliani, and that starts a conversation. So this implication that the president brought that up first is not accurate when you actually read the call. There were a lot of things that were said this is quid pro quo. They're trying to get manipulation and the two major arguments were aid was going to be delayed solely because of that. That clearly has been proven to be not true from the testimony of the vice president, from Tim Morrison, his testimony that was done during the House impeachment time. Now that information's...

INSKEEP: Don't you have a former national security adviser who, according to a book manuscript, is prepared to link those things and you're reluctant to call him?

LANKFORD: Actually, we have a former national security adviser that apparently has a book manuscript that someone wrote a story that has not read the book - that someone who apparently has read the book in the NSC leaked it out to a reporter and then gave it in. So we've not seen it, neither has The Times seen it apparently. I would like to see that, and I've been the one to be able to push forward and be able to say as much as possible, we need to be able to see that. The publisher has to release that right now. It's not just the White House holding it. The publisher is holding it. We don't know if that's because of profit for them - to say they want to hold it out or what that may be. But we'd like to see that.

INSKEEP: I respect that. But I just have to ask about this one more time in the few seconds we have.

LANKFORD: Sure.

INSKEEP: The book manuscript is not a witness. Even if you've got the book manuscript, you would need the witness. It's just a manuscript. It's a clue to what he thinks. Why not call the witness?

LANKFORD: Because that helps us know if the witness is relevant. Because the previous evidence from the House managers is not something that shows that there is some nefarious purpose in this other than just check in with the lawyers on it. The book will help us to know if there's more there.

INSKEEP: Senator Lankford, you're always gracious in taking our hard questions, and I really appreciate it. Thank you very much.

LANKFORD: Oh, glad to be able to visit.

INSKEEP: James Lankford is a Republican senator from Oklahoma and, at the moment, is one of the jurors at President Trump's impeachment trial. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.