Trump trial enters the question-and-answer phase

Senators on both sides draft questions aimed at bolstering their cases for or against conviction

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tells reporters to ask questions one at a time during a news conference during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Monday, Jan. 27. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tells reporters to ask questions one at a time during a news conference during a break in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Monday, Jan. 27. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 29, 2020 at 6:00am

Senators will finally get to actually participate — at least by proxy — in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Wednesday after long days and nights of just listening to presentations from House impeachment managers and the president’s own attorneys.

The Senate will spend up to eight hours each on Wednesday and Thursday on written questions submitted by senators and read aloud by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., alternating the questioning between the minority and majority.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, senators were “thoughtful and brief in their questions” and that House managers and the president’s counsel were “succinct in their answers.”

Roberts on Tuesday similarly made an appeal for brevity.

“The chair will operate on a rebuttable presumption that each question can be fully and fairly answered in five minutes or less,” Roberts said, quoting former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who presided over the 1999  Clinton trial.

The transcript from which Roberts read indicated that the Senate laughed at Rehnquist’s words, prompting laughter from the sitting senators, not typically known for their brevity.

Nevertheless, Roberts advised the Senate to stick to Rehnquist’s rule. 

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said he expects many Democrats to give the House managers ample opportunity to address specific arguments made by Trump’s defense team.

“We have lots of questions, and I am not censoring anybody,” Schumer said.

Leaders will, however, help organize the questions to avoid repetition and ensure a logical order of query.

“We don’t want the same question 10 times,” Schumer said. “I am sure that a good number of the questions will give the House managers time to rebut all the holes in the president’s lawyers’ arguments, which they didn’t have in the course of the trial.”

Trump has been charged with obstruction of Congress and abuse of power for attempting to use military aid to Ukraine to extract a promise from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a rival in the 2020 presidential election, and his son Hunter.

Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who served alongside Joe Biden for eight years in the state’s delegation, said he plans to ask an open-ended question to the  House managers that grants them the opportunity to “drill down and set the record straight on the work that Joe Biden did as vice president to go after a corrupt prosecutor” in Ukraine.

On Tuesday afternoon, Texas Republican John Cornyn didn’t have questions teed up yet, but he and other Republican senators said they were working on them.

“You know, I really don’t have any particular questions, maybe just because I thought, actually I thought both sides did a good job laying their case out,” Cornyn said. “But this is an opportunity for those who have questions. I’ll probably come up with some. I haven’t decided on what those will be yet.”

Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander said the two days of questions will be key to making his decision about whether to vote to support witnesses at the impeachment trial.

Heading for retirement and a dedicated Senate institutionalist, Alexander could be a crucial vote for Democrats intent on having witnesses.

“After I finish hearing the answers to the questions and consider the record. I’ve now heard the arguments of both sides. Then I’ll make a decision about whether we need more evidence,” Alexander said Tuesday.

Missouri Republican Josh Hawley is planning to use his questions to ask about the Bidens, Schiff and the intelligence community whistleblower whose report kick-started the House impeachment inquiry.

Hawley released his list of questions Tuesday, and will submit questions about any communication between Schiff and the whistleblower. Schiff has repeatedly said he does not know details about or the name of the whistleblower.

Hawley said he will also attempt to get answers to questions about Hunter Biden and his work for the Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

No senator’s questions, however, are guaranteed to be asked.

There was tension during the Clinton trial among senior Democratic senators who didn’t want their questions vetted by leadership and wanted the freedom to ask whatever they wished.

Then-Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., put together a small ad hoc committee, led by Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, along with GOP Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Fred Thompson of Tennessee, to review potential questions and organize them into a coherent list.

All three were lawyers and their review was aimed at building an inventory of questions and helping to exploit holes in Clinton’s case.

Neither party has signaled that they’ll take the GOP approach from 1999. It appears party leaders will make the decisions on which questions make it to Roberts’ desk.

The question period allows Roberts one of the few opportunities he will have to directly intervene in the course of the trial.

Roberts will decide the suitability of any question, except when a senator objects to his ruling. If there’s an objection, Roberts would put the matter up for a vote by the entire Senate.

Patrick Kelley, Griffin Connolly and Chris Marquette contributed to this report.