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First day of Trump trial Q&A yields some questions lawyers simply can’t answer

Whistleblower questions pose challenges for both sides

House managers Adam Schiff, D-Calif., center, Jason Crow, D-Colo., left, and counsel Daniel Goldman, are seen in the Capitol Rotunda before the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House managers Adam Schiff, D-Calif., center, Jason Crow, D-Colo., left, and counsel Daniel Goldman, are seen in the Capitol Rotunda before the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The first day of questions and answers in the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump raised some questions that each side either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer. 

While many of the questions centered on well-trodden topics, some highlighted the boundaries that the House impeachment managers and the Trump defense team would not cross.

The chamber hushed when a question was sent to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. from key Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who have both said they’d possibly vote with Democrats to hear from witnesses.

The pair’s question, read by Roberts, noted that witnesses in the House inquiry testified that Trump consistently expressed his view that Ukraine was corrupt, even before former Vice President Joe Biden entered the 2020 presidential race in April 2019. The House’s case is centered on Trump conditioning military aid to Ukraine on a politically motivated investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter.

“Did President Trump ever mention Joe or Hunter Biden in connection with corruption in Ukraine to former Ukrainian President [Petro] Poroshenko or other Ukrainian officials, President Trump’s Cabinet members, or top aides or others?” they asked.

Patrick Philbin, deputy White House counsel, dodged the question, saying he couldn’t answer it because the House record did not contain the information.

“I’m limited to what’s in the record, and what’s in the record is determined by what the House of Representatives saw,” he said. He later added, “So I can’t point to something in the record that shows President Trump at an earlier time mentioning specifically something related to Joe or Hunter Biden.”

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Rhose Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse accused Trump’s counsel of not fully answering the question from Collins and Murkowski, prompting Philbin to clarify his approach to the question-and-answer session.

“I don’t think that I refused to answer the question at all,” Philbin said. “We had been advised by the House managers that they were going to object if we attempted to introduce anything that was not either in the public domain, so things that are newspaper articles, things like that that are out there we can refer to, or things that were in the record.”

Lead House impeachment manager Adam B. Schiff countered that assertion, arguing that Trump’s defense team was skirting the question for unclear reasons.

“You’re not confined to the record in the House, nor is the president,” the California Democrat said. “The president could call witnesses if they existed. There’s nothing to prevent them from saying, ‘As a matter of fact, tomorrow we’re going to call such-and-such, and they’re going to testify that indeed, Donald Trump brought up Hunter Biden to President Poroshenko.’”

Whistleblower issues

An anonymous whistleblower jump-started the impeachment inquiry after filing a complaint Aug. 12 with the inspector general of the intelligence community about July 25 call in which Trump urged Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden.

Questions raised about that whistleblower posed a challenge for both sides.

Republicans Mike Lee of Utah, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas asked the president’s team if the whistleblower worked at the National Security Council and coordinated with Schiff’s staff.

Philbin couldn’t answer whether the whistleblower coordinated with Schiff’s staff but said learning more about the whistleblower would be “relevant.”

[View from the gallery: Senators swap notes and jockey for questions at Trump trial]

About an hour later, Cruz, Hawley and Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas asked the House managers if the White House whistleblower ever worked with Biden.

Schiff, the Intelligence Committee chairman, fielded the question, using his five minutes to defend himself and his staff’s actions with respect to their handling of the whistleblower’s complaint without responding to the specifics of the Republican senators’ question.

Schiff recited quotes from Republicans Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Mitt Romney of Utah and Richard Burr of North Carolina to bolster his case for protecting the whistleblower’s anonymity. Each kept straight faces, though Grassley, co-chair of the Senate’s whistleblower protection caucus, covered his mouth with his hand.

“I haven’t met them or communicated with them in any way,” Schiff said before asserting that his panel did not coordinate with the whistleblower.

The Washington Post in October gave Schiff four “Pinocchios” for his claim that his staff had not spoken to the whistleblower.

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