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Final Preparations Underway For Impeachment Trial Of President Donald J. Trump; Trump Defense Says, Impeachment A Charade In Substance And Process; Senators Brace For Contentious Tuesday As Trial Begins. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 20, 2020 - 13:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I'm Brianna Keilar live from the CNN's Washington Headquarters. Welcome to a special holiday edition of CNN RIGHT NOW.

Just in, the president's legal team blasting the impeachment trial as a charade in a legal brief submitted within the last hour. What this says about their strategy heading into an historic week in Washington. And all of this as Democrats hold firm on their demand to call witnesses as part of the trial. Chuck Schumer is saying he is prepared to force a vote. But can he get four Republicans to support him?

A tense day in Virginia as thousands gather for a gun rights rally on the steps of the Capital. Security is tight as the Commonwealth braces amid the threat of disruptions by extremist groups.

And outrage in Puerto Rico after a warehouse full of hurricane relief supplies is found virtually untouched. Water, food, emergency radios just sitting there. Top officials now out of a job.

And it is the beginning of a momentous and historic week in Washington. Right now, final preparations are underway for the impeachment trial of President Donald J. Trump. But 24 hours before proceedings are set to begin, an integral part of this process is still missing. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to share his proposal for how the trial should be conducted.

What we are learning about is the president's legal strategy for the trial. Last hour, his defense team filed an expanded brief on their arguments. In the 110-page document, they called the Democrats' charges baseless and derived the impeachment process as a charade.

The president's lawyers also asked Congress to quickly reject charges of impeachment. They write, quote, the articles themselves and the rigged process that brought them here are a brazenly political act by House Democrats that must be rejected. They debase the grave power of impeachment and disdain the solemn responsibility that power entails. Anyone having the most basic respect for the sovereign will of the American people would shudder at the enormity of casting a vote to impeach a duly elected president. CNN White House Correspondent, Kaitlan Collins is with us. Kaitlan, what can you tell us?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, basically, on Saturday I that seven-page memo, we got the short of the White House's argument against these impeachment articles, and now this is the long. It's 117 pages, it's a lot more detailed of an argument coming from the White House essentially laying out what it is we're going to see the president's team argued this week.

Now, first and foremost, they are essentially saying that these articles of impeachment, they believe, are flimsy and the result of a rigged process in the House and that is why they do not think that they are anything viable worth having an impeachment trial over.

And they say that because these articles of impeachment only allege abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, not any actual crime, according to the statutory code, they say, quote, by limiting impeachment to cases of treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors, the framers restricted impeachment to specific offenses against already known and established law.

They go on to say that in keeping with that restriction, every prior presidential impeachment in our history has been based on alleged violations of existing law, indeed, criminal law. So they are essentially arguing that because that's not here, that this argument is not going to fly on Capitol Hill.

Of course, the question is going to be what the senators think of all this. And, Brianna, when you're reading through all this, you really get a feel of what the White House is going to argue, and it's not just against these articles of impeachment and the process that happened on the House side of this, which the White House has said was unfair to the president, they're also arguing in defense of the president's actions.

They've got the transcript of the president's call with President Zelensky from July, of course, the call that started all of this. In here, they're citing that multiple times it's evidence that the president didn't directly tie his ask for the announcement of these investigations to the withhold of that military aid.

They say, at one point, that the aid was released after his concerns were addressed. Though, of course, we know that aid was released after they found out that the whistleblower had already filed that report complaining about the hold in the aid.

But, Brianna, they also defend other things in here, like the president floating that theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, which his former Russia adviser in the National Security Council testified in front of everyone that that was a fictional narrative that she said was probably being pushed by the Russians who, of course, the Intelligence Community has concluded did actually interfere in the election.

So, essentially, you're going to see them not only defending the president's actions here but also going after these articles of impeachment. It's really just a road map to that you're going to see them say on the Senate floor starting, hopefully, tomorrow.

KEILAR: And, Kaitlan, thank you for walking us through that. Kaitlan Collins at the White House.


Now, despite a lack of clarity on the Senate rules, there are preparations that are moving forward. House impeachment managers did a walkthrough in the Senate chambers so that they could see how the floor has been reconfigured for the proceedings.

And, meanwhile, Senate Democrats are growing impatient with the Majority leader, Mitch McConnell. Last night, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer demanded to know why there is a delay in deciding how the trial will proceed.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): Why is McConnell being so secretive about his proposal? Well, there are two obvious answers. One, he wants to rush this thing through so quickly because he's afraid of what the American people might hear.

There's a second reason. He's afraid that more damning evidence will come to light.


KEILAR: CNN's Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill. And, Manu, do you have a sense of when we might learn about these proposed rule changes, rules for the trial, and, really, how this could really change the trial? Why is this so important?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it would set the parameters for how the trial would be carried out, and Mitch McConnell said for some time that it would be modeled after the way the Clinton trial was structured. But we have been hearing from Republican sources there could be a significant change to how many days in which opening arguments would be carried out.

In the Clinton trial, there were four days. Six hours were allowed to argue per day for each side, so a total of 24 hours on each side. But there's discussion right now about whether to make it just two days for 12 hours apiece. And that would be, of course, marathon sessions that could stretch well into the late night hours. And we are hearing that it appears that we are, in fact, going in that direction. That comes, of course, as Republicans and the White House are pushing to wrap this up by the time of the State of the Union.

So it's possible we may not see the final text of that resolution until tomorrow right before they vote in the Senate, and if there is a floor debate, which we expect by the senators, it would be expected to be a closed debate because senators, Brianna, are not allowed to argue in public during the trial given that they are essentially jurors. And Senator Chuck Schumer has said that he will offer an amendment to try to require witnesses and documents up front in that resolution. Republicans are expected to reject that.

Now, at the same time, there is a back and forth written parts of these arguments. The House Democrats just filed a response to the White House's -- its own response from Saturday, the White House responding to the summons that came from the Senate. The House Democrats pushed back and said that they reject every argument that the White House made on its response. Now, the House Democrats said, President Trump maintains that the Senate cannot remove him even if the House proves every claim in the articles of impeachment. That is a chilling assertion. It is also dead wrong.

The framers deliberately drafted a Constitution that allows the Senate to remove presidents who, like President Trump, abuse their power to cheat in elections, betray our national security and ignore our checks and balances.

So a rehash (ph) of the arguments they have been making for several weeks now, but expect that to be the opening argument that the Democrats make as they present their case, but that, of course, will happen after the senators battle it out about the parameters of the resolution that Mitch McConnell plans to unveil.

The question though, Brianna, still is when will he unveil that and will that come just before the Senate begins its trail tomorrow. Brianna?

KEILAR: What exactly is going to be in there? Manu Raju, thank you so much.

Now, for some perspective, I'm joined by Congressional Editor for The New York Times, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, former federal prosecutor, Joseph Moreno, and former federal prosecutor, Renato Marriotti

So, Renato, I want to ask you first. You just heard Manu's reporting there. Two 12-hour days of arguing is where this seems to be leaning for each side versus four six-hour days. How would that affect things with this trial? How might this change the dynamic of this trial?

RENATO MARIOTTI, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's going to be very difficult, first of all, just for everyone involved, the House managers, the senators. 12 hours is about twice as long as an actual trial would be, with actual jurors and witnesses and a judge in an actual courtroom. Typically, a trial day might be six or seven hours long. And so that would mean with breaks, you might be going into the wee hours of the morning, 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.

It seems to me that what it would mean is that I think it will be hard for people who are -- like our viewers to be able to watch on what's going on in the trial. And, frankly, it might mean that if we do call witnesses in this trial, it might be difficult for them to be able to handle that.

KEILAR: No, it's a very good point. And I want to talk about what we're seeing in the argument, Joe, from the president's lawyers about this.


They call the impeachable offenses a charade, constitutionally invalid. They say essentially that the first article of impeachment, which is abuse of power, quote, alleges no crimes at all, let alone high crimes and misdemeanors as required by the Constitution. What do you think about that argument?

JOSEPH MORENO, FORMER DOJ PROSECUTOR: Okay. So I fully understand why they're making these arguments and, frankly, I would probably make the same ones if I was a member of the president's defense team. But put aside the substance of question of whether he's guilty, even putting aside whether, politically, the House should have brought this case, let's just get to the process argument. Do you need a crime to bring an impeachment? An objective factual look at 200 years of precedent, of the text of the Constitution, of what the framers have said, and these people -- almost all experts on the topic, they will say, no, you do not need a crime.

Now, that's not to say a senator can't say, look, I am not going to remove a president if there's no crime here. That's fine. That's something that every senator has to make the decision for him or herself. But as far as pure process, whether a statutory violation of the federal code is necessary to bring impeachment, the answer is no. So, politically, the process here is legitimate. As far as guilt, that's the question really to be decided on.

KEILAR: Why does that matter so much? Because I hear a lot of times when we're talking about whether there is wrongdoing, you'll hear supporters of the president say essentially that someone is convicted before they're ever even given a fair shot at exonerating themselves, or they'll say, well, a crime wasn't committed, this isn't something that someone would be convicted of.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I mean, what the president's legal team is trying to do is essentially undercut the foundation of the charges and say, you can't even have an impeachment if there was no crime committed. As you say, the factual record, the historical record says otherwise. There are many constitutional scholars who will tell you that. It seems fairly undebatable, but they're going to make this case.

What the managers are asserting is not only does that not have to be the case, but they're saying that actually the framers of the Constitution meant just this kind of conduct to be considered impeachable conduct, something where the president is trying to affect a foreign election, invite in foreign influence, you know, act on his own political benefit and not for any interests of the nation. Those are things they say are a core to impeachment, and those are the things they are going to hinge their case on.

And so we know that the president's lawyers are going to argue this. But I think the managers have already signaled what their response is going to be. MORENO: Look, I think we can think of lots of examples, issues that would not necessarily be a violation of the law, misuse of the Intelligence Community, misuse of the IRS to abuse taxpayers. They might not be technical violations of some federal crime because only the president can do that. But I think everyone would agree you cannot tolerate a president that did something like that. so I don't see how this is much different.

KEILAR: And we're going to hear an argument, as we understand, Renato, from Alan Dershowitz here at the beginning of this whole process, where he may not jump on this isn't a crime bandwagon, that may not be the crux of what he is going to say, but I wonder to the point in Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton actually wrote, those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men or in other words the abuse or violation of some public trust. What do you think about that?

MARIOTTI: Yes. There is no question, Brianna, that abuse of power is frankly the reason that the impeachment clause of the Constitution was written the way it did. And a moment ago, we heard the argument from Trump's team that no other impeachment has been brought forward without a federal crime. Well, these exact offenses were part of the articles of impeachment that Nixon was facing before he resigned. And the Republicans in Congress tried to impeach President Clinton for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress as well. They didn't have all the votes they needed for those.

But the point is this is something that -- if anything, this is the core offense that everyone can agree is an impeachable offense, abuse of power.

KEILAR: Why do you think, Julie -- and we're just talking about the rules of what this trial is going to look like. I mean, when you're talking basically about how long are the days going to be, how long is this thing going to last, and we don't even know that, why is Senator McConnell holding on to that information?

DAVIS: Well, I think partly because they haven't decided exactly how to proceed yet. I mean, there is the question of how much time they're going to have and whether McConnell can successfully sort of condense this into very long days, that as Renato said earlier, would like drag into the night and would be much harder for the public to follow.

But there's also the vital questions of, as we know, witnesses is still a live debate. We understand that there is going to be an ability for senators to vote on calling witnesses after opening arguments and questions. But there's also this question of dismissal. They want to have an opportunity for the president's legal team to move for a quick dismissal. But McConnell also knows that that could be a very tough vote for Republicans and that it would likely not prevail, and that that could be a bad note on which to start this trial.


So I think he's trying to sort of massage this process as much as he can before going public with what he is proposing here.

KEILAR: I do want to play something that Alan Dershowitz said, because he's a key part of the defense team. There have been some semantics that he's played about this, but he's going to make a constitutional argument that actually may, I think, kind of have some friction with what some of the president's other lawyers are going to say. But this is what he said back in 1988 during the Clinton impeachment trial and how he defended that statement as well.


ALAN DERSHOWITZ, ATTORNEY ON TRUMP'S DEFENSE TEAM: It certainly doesn't have to be a crime. If you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of the president and who abuses trust and who poses a great danger to our liberty, you don't need a technical crime.

It's my argument you don't need a technical crime. And I still take that position. I wrote that in The Wall Street Journal a couple months ago. You need criminal type behavior. You need criminal type behavior akin to treason and bribery.

It doesn't have to be a technical crime, because at the time the framers wrote the Constitution, there was no criminal code.


KEILAR: I mean, we all know Alan Dershowitz could talk his way out of not just a paper bag but maybe a room that is locked with like 12,000 deadbolts. It's pretty wild, Joe, to hear this explanation. What do you make of it?

MORENO: I mean, that us, lawyers, make inconsistent arguments as it suits us? I'm amazed. I mean, I'm shocked. No, look --

KEILAR: You've never done that though, Joe, I'm sure.

MORENO: It's hard to believe, right? I mean, look, it's going to be uncomfortable perhaps if they confront him with that. But he'll say, look, I am making the argument as of right now. What I said 10, 20 years ago for other clients, that's what we do. We advocate with the time and law and the circumstances we had, and that is what I had at the time. So I think he'll kind of talk his way out of that as best he can.

But you're right though, that inconsistency --

KEILAR: That's not what he's saying. He's saying, basically, these two things that are mutually exclusive or not, which they are. It's just important to note.

Joe, thank you so much, Julie, Renato, I really appreciate the conversation.

We have more on our breaking news. The president's team calling the impeachment process a charade, blasting Democrats in a legal filing just minutes ago. What this says about their strategy heading into the trial.

Plus, thousands of gun rights advocates rallying at the Virginia State Capital right now. Police are on high alert amid concerns about white nationalist groups. We'll be taking you there live.



KEILAR: In less than 24 hours, the impeachment trial for President Trump will begin, and a short time ago we got a preview of his defense.

Joining us to discuss is Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen. He serves on the Judiciary Committee. Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. STEVE COHEN (D-TN): Nice to be with you when Dr. King died.

KEILAR: Definitely. And I want to ask you about the president's legal team saying that the first article of impeachment, which is abuse of power, quote, alleges no crimes at all, let alone high crimes and misdemeanors as required by the Constitution. What's your reaction to that?

COHEN: I'm shocked, really. We had four experts before our House Judiciary Committee, Professor Gerhardt, Professor Feldman and Professor Karlan. They all agreed this was a perfect example of abuse of power, as the founders would have seen it, and even the Republican witness, Professor Turley, he questioned whether the facts were sufficient but didn't doubt that the basis was there. Anybody has come up with this premise.

But this isn't totally surprising. The president did it. He interfered with our foreign policy to benefit himself, to jeopardize our national security and to try to get an ally to have to investigate a political rival for his personal political gain. This is strictly wrong, it's an ultimate violation and it's what the founding fathers feared for, foreign entanglements and interfering in our election.

So they came up with an argument that was fallacious, which is not surprising for an administration that's already committed, the president himself, over 15,000 lies. So they've come up with a legal defense that's based on just totally a lie.

KEILAR: In a legal brief submitted, the president's lawyers argue, quote, the president directed three of his most senior advisers not to comply with subpoenas seeking their testimony because they are immune from compelled testimony before Congress. Through administrations of both political parties, OLC, quote, has repeatedly provided for nearly five decades that Congress may not constitutionally compel the president's senior advisers to testify about their official duties. What do you say to that?

COHEN: President Clinton and President Nixon both had their people testify. President Trump has stonewalled entirely. The fact is impeachment is the most important investigation that the American public vests in Congress. And when the Congress is exercising its Article I power to look into impeachment and looking at the president's conduct, I believe the framers would have wanted the president to comply and have his witnesses come forth.

And the president, if he was entirely innocent and was fighting corruption and not looking out for testimony to hurt Joe Biden should have wanted people to come forward. We offered in the House for the president to have his attorneys present to question folks, even have the president testify. He refused to do it. And it's clear that they don't have a real defense. They did it.

KEILAR: We've heard many Democrats say this was bribery. That's been used as certainly rhetoric. The Constitution is very clear that is grounds for impeachment. Why did Democrats just not cite bribery in an article of impeachment?

COHEN: Well, I don't know the reason for that.


It wouldn't have hurt, but the people who helped us with drawing up the articles were the most senior experts in this country on impeachment and on the Constitution. It was a student of Laurence Tribe's who has written a book on this.

Laurence Tribe is a constitutional expert. He's the person you'd go to. Tribe has said that Dershowitz's argument is way off base and a fallacy.

KEILAR: Sure. But if the article of impeachment were -- he's also a constitutional expert, I will say that, Dershowitz certainly is. But was it a mistake to not just make it clear and say that bribery is an article -- should be the article of impeachment, or one of them?

COHEN: I don't think it makes any difference, Brianna. They would have argued then that it wasn't bribery. They will find any reason -- this is just a fig leaf defense, to give the Senate Republicans excuse to not to convict this this president, which they're not going to do, and to give president's supporters on Fox News where Dershowitz has reigned supreme and will do so after his 15 minutes of fame on Friday, his last 15 minutes on a declining life span, that the president did nothing wrong.

This is what they're trying to do. They're preaching to their constituency. They're not trying to influence because the votes are pretty much decided the Republicans are not going to convict. They could see him shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and they would say it was okay. And, basically, that's what Dershowitz is saying, you can't impeach this president because it interferes with the election results of 2016, the Electoral College results.

The fact is the arguments that the Democrats have made --

KEILAR: I will say I don't actually think he would agree on the shooting on -- shooting someone and getting away with it. I actually think that that's counter to the argument he's making. COHEN: You give him too much credit. In his book, he said --

KEILAR: I think he said as much. I'll double-check that, but I think he said as much. That's why I say that.

COHEN: Well, I'll trust because you took him on well this weekend. But he also said in his book, according to Laurence Tribe, that if the president decided to let the Russians have a last comeback (ph), it would be okay and not impeachable. And that's just hooey. And he's just gone so far to say the president can do whatever he wants, and he is. He is the Roy Cohn of this team. The president likes Roy Cohns and he's got him. Roy Cohn was very effective. He would do anything.

KEILAR: Congressman Steve Cohen, thank you so much for joining us from Memphis. We appreciate it.

COHEN: It was a big day in Memphis as we honored Dr. King's legacy and we've seen the works he did to try to help people and make this nation a better world.

KEILAR: Yes, such an important day to acknowledge. Thank you so much for doing that on this Martin Luther King Day, Sir. We'll see you soon.

Tensions are high today in Virginia as gun rights activists descend on the capital. You're seeing live pictures here from Richmond. There is worry that far-right extremists may case violence. We're going to take you there live next.