For months, Democrats have argued President Trump should be removed from office because he put his personal political interest over the national interest. And for a few minutes on the Senate floor on Wednesday, a defender of Trump’s offered a remarkable response: that’s not possible—because they’re the same thing.
“Every public official I know believes his election is in the public interest,” ventured Alan Dershowitz, the ex-Harvard Law professor who has joined Trump’s defense team. “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”
“Everybody has mixed motives,” Dershowitz continued, “and for there to be a constitutional impeachment based on mixed motives would permit almost any president to be impeached.”
Democratic senators sitting and taking in the professor’s argument were stunned. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who had been leaning back in his seat, sat up straight and looked around at his neighbors, mouthing something to Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who had an incredulous expression on his face. Nearby, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) gave a disgusted flick of her wrist and a distressed Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) stretched out his arms pleadingly.
Gillibrand later told The Daily Beast that Dershowitz’s argument was “absurd.” “I mean, it was beyond recognition as a legal argument,” she said. “I think it made their case laughable.”
Approached later that evening, Dershowitz reiterated his earlier comments about “mixed motives,” telling The Daily Beast that it’s not impeachable for a politician to act with re-election in mind if he is also acting in the “public interest.”
The remarks caused a brief stir, but were ultimately consumed by the forward motion of a trial that seems increasingly likely to deliver a swift verdict in favor of Trump. Democrats said they could only hope it gave pause to the senators weighing an acquittal or a vote later this week to block new witnesses and documents from consideration.
Whether it matters, said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), is “mostly in the hands of folks who should be more alarmed and concerned about the idea of an all powerful president who they are about to seriously consider exonerating.”
If the argument bothered Republicans, some did not let it show. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) conceded that Dershowitz has “probably made stronger arguments.”
When approached by reporters during a break in the trial, Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) appeared to struggle to answer questions about Dershowitz’s claims. At one point a reporter repeated what Dershowitz said on the Senate floor and Braun disputed it, saying “I don’t think that’s what he said.” Braun immediately tried to turn the conversation from Dershowitz to the Bidens. In a muddled statement, Braun argued that Dershowitz’s claims were somewhat valid because the president was trying to investigate corruption, even if it had to do with a major political rival.
“It gets back to the whole question of the Bidens,” Braun told reporters. “That's what was being referred to in terms of — is there corruption in Ukraine? And were the Bidens completely clear of it?”
After spending the start of the week battling to keep up with bombshells about the content of ex-National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book—which reportedly contains confirmation of the quid-pro-quo Trump sought on Ukraine—the Senate GOP has shown increased resolve to block testimony from Bolton and other witnesses, setting them up to conclude the trial as early as Friday.
The question-and-answer portion that unfolded Wednesday afternoon, which allowed senators to pose written questions for the White House counsel and the Democratic managers, was the first chance for them to raise issues and substantively participate in the trial.
Both parties seemed to approach the day largely as an opportunity to tee up either the White House or the House managers to return to key points or refute the other side’s.
Tellingly, though, the Democrats’ first question—posed by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)—was a set-up to hammer home his only point these days: could the Senate render a real verdict in the trial without hearing from Bolton? Republicans stifled some exasperated chuckles as Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) came to the dais and affirmed that, no, the Senate could not do so.
After lobbing questions that allowed Team Trump to attack the House’s impeachment process, the GOP used question time to echo talking points repeatedly voiced by Trump and his allies—namely, the involvement of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, in a Ukrainian energy company, and the motives of the anonymous whistleblower whose account sparked the impeachment inquiry.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) asked, for example, a question that raised reporting from some media outlets who have alleged an identity for the whistleblower and claimed that the person had political ties to Biden.
And Sens. Cruz and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) both posed another Biden-related hypothetical to House managers: if President Obama had evidence that Mitt Romney’s son was being paid $1 million by a corrupt Russian company, and Romney had acted to benefit that company, would Obama have had the authority to request an investigation?
When Chief Justice John Roberts asked the question out loud to the room, several senators could be heard chuckling. Some shook their heads. Graham looked back at Romney in the chamber, smiled, and nodded his head.
Schiff responded to Graham’s question by saying that the question itself was flawed because the comparison was not one-to-one. But he said it would be improper for any president to call for a foreign power to investigate their political rival.
"The reality is, for a president to withhold military aid from an ally... to target their political opponent is wrong and corrupt. Period," Schiff said.
The questions seemed to offer some of the only glimpses into the calculations of the tight-lipped swing senators who could either prolong or end the trial this week. Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski asked a question to the White House: did they recall Trump ever mentioning concerns about the Bidens and Ukrainian corruption before Biden entered the Democratic primary in 2019?
“I can’t point to something in the record,” answered Trump attorney Patrick Philbin.
Updated: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that The Daily Beast spoke to Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) for this story. It was Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN).