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'Game changer' report jolts debate over Senate impeachment trial

In Trump's impeachment trial, it's now far more difficult to mount a credible defense in support of willful ignorance.
The Capitol building at dusk.
The Capitol building at dusk.

The recent impeachment of Donald Trump ushered in a new phase of the president's scandal, but it did not mark the end of revelations about what transpired when the administration took steps to extort a vulnerable ally for domestic political gain. The New York Times published a report earlier this week that jolted the broader debate, highlighting new details about concerns within the White House regarding Trump's directive to withhold military aid to Ukraine.

Opposition to the order from his top national security advisers was more intense than previously known. In late August, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper joined Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser at the time, for a previously undisclosed Oval Office meeting with the president where they tried but failed to convince him that releasing the aid was in interests of the United States.By late summer, top lawyers at the Office of Management and Budget who had spoken to lawyers at the White House and the Justice Department in the weeks beforehand, were developing an argument -- not previously divulged publicly -- that Mr. Trump's role as commander in chief would simply allow him to override Congress on the issue.And [acting White House Chief of Staff Mick] Mulvaney is shown to have been deeply involved as a key conduit for transmitting Mr. Trump's demands for the freeze across the administration.

These are no small details. The Times' report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, paints an exceedingly damning portrait of a White House operation that began hatching Trump's Ukraine scheme as early as June, with Mulvaney emailing an aide, Robert Blair, asking "whether we can hold [military aid] back" from Ukraine, despite congressional approval.

In the months that followed, top members of Team Trump directly urged the president to follow a more responsible course, only to find Trump ignoring their pleas. It led some in the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to make absurd assertions about the sweeping powers of presidential whims.

The article specifically referenced a pointed email from Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon's top budget official, to Michael Duffey, a political appointee at OMB who was directly involved in executing Trump's scheme. "You can't be serious," McCusker wrote on Sept. 10, after learning of Trump's plan. "I am speechless."

There's no shortage of relevant angles to the Times' report, but there's one overarching element that poses new challenges for Republicans: the revelations come against a backdrop in which lawmakers are debating whether to include key witnesses in the Senate's impeachment trial.

Remember, when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) reached out to the Republican leadership recently about the importance of witness testimony at Trump's trial, the New York Democrat pointed to four individuals -- Bolton, Mulvaney, Duffey, and Blair -- who could shed light on the White House's Ukraine extortion scheme. The latest reporting reinforces an obvious truth: these officials have unique and important information about the president's actions.

To say that senators shouldn't hear from these first-hand witnesses is to effectively endorse a cover-up. Either the "jurors" in Trump's impeachment trial will get the whole truth or they won't, but it's now far more difficult to mount a credible defense in support of willful ignorance.

Indeed, for those inclined to believe the president's claims of innocence, the Times' article points to a series of powerful officials who could, at any time, provide testimony that sheds important light on the pressing controversy. If Trump did nothing wrong, wouldn't the president and his allies want the world to hear exactly what they have to say?

In a press conference earlier this week, Schumer told reporters that the witnesses Senate Democrats requested were "intimately involved and had direct knowledge of President Trump's decision to cut off aid and benefit himself," adding, "Simply put, in our fight to have key documents and witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial, these new revelations are a game changer."

In a Washington Post op-ed, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) added that each of the requested witnesses "has direct knowledge regarding the charges against the president and should testify under oath at a Senate trial." He added, "Let me be clear: I do not know what their answers would be, but I want to hear from them, and so should every senator and every American. We cannot allow the full truth to evade this trial only to be revealed in some future memoir or committee hearing."

To date, no Senate Republicans have publicly endorsed this position, though Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has said she's "disturbed" by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) plan to keep the Senate GOP in "total coordination" with the White House during the impeachment proceedings, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) added this week that McConnell's comments were "inappropriate."

Collins also said she's "open" to hearing from witnesses, though the senator went on to tell Maine Public Radio, "I think it's premature to decide who should be called until we see the evidence that is presented and get the answers to the questions that we senators can submit through the Chief Justice to both sides."

It would take four Senate Republicans to break ranks and work with the Democratic minority on establishing rules for a fair, evidentiary impeachment trial. As of this morning, two GOP senators appear to be in play, but neither has made any commitments.

That said, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asserted late last week, "I've talked to anywhere from five to 10 of my colleagues who have very severe misgivings about the direction that Mitch McConnell is going in denying a full, fair proceeding with witnesses and documents. My hope is that they will say publicly what Senator Murkowski did, and really hold Mitch McConnell accountable."

Watch this space.