WASHINGTON (CN) — Late Thursday night, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski posed a question to President Donald Trump’s counsel that reporters have been desperate to learn her answer to for weeks.
“Why should this body not call Ambassador [John] Bolton,” the Alaska Republican asked in a question submitted to and read by Chief Justice John Roberts during Thursday’s question and answer period in Trump’s impeachment trial.
Murkowski — along with Senators Susan Collins, Mitt Romney and Lamar Alexander — is among a handful of senators seen as possible swing votes on the issue of whether the Senate will hear additional evidence and witnesses in the trial.
Murkowski’s question mentioned a report in The New York Times earlier in the week that a manuscript of a forthcoming book from Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, says Trump directly conditioned a $391 million military aid package for Ukraine on the country announcing investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
That Trump withheld the aid and a coveted White House meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for investigations into the Bidens and a discredited theory about the 2016 election is the crux of the House case against Trump. The report about Bolton’s book has ramped up pressure on Republicans insistent on not bringing new witnesses into the trial and dragged publicly undecided senators like Murkowski into the spotlight.
Responding to the question, Trump attorney Patrick Philbin repeated the White House’s argument that the Senate should not call new witnesses because it was the House’s responsibility to build its case and the body chose not to subpoena Bolton. Philbin said it would set a poor precedent for future impeachment and drag out Trump’s trial.
“I think that’s very damaging for the future of this institution,” Philbin said.
Murkowski took very few notes during Philbin’s answer. Alexander sat with his arms crossed.
The undecided senators have been at the center of the impeachment trial and active questioners during the two-day question and answer portion of the proceedings.
Signing onto a question earlier in the day from Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski asked Trump’s counsel if they could assure senators their client would not send private citizens to do official U.S. business overseas without the blessing of the State Department.
The question was an unspoken reference to the work by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in Ukraine, pressing for investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and a discredited theory about the 2016 presidential election.
It is a crime under the Logan Act, which the Thursday question referenced specifically, for U.S. citizens to negotiate with foreign governments without the permission of the federal government.
Collins and Murkowski are among a handful of senators seen as possible swing votes on the issue of whether the Senate will hear additional evidence in Trump’s Senate trial. On the definitive question of whether to convict or acquit Trump, meanwhile, Sinema and Manchin could themselves be wild cards.
Deputy White House Counsel Patrick Philbin began his response to the bipartisan question by first denying that Giuliani was conducting official U.S. foreign policy. Emphasizing that the former New York City mayor was only a “source of information” for the president, Philbin then said Trump has blanket policy of following the law.
“It is, of course, the president’s policy as always to abide by the laws,” Philbin said. “I’m not in a position to make pledges for the president here, but the president’s policy is always to abide by the laws and would continue to do so.”
Responding to Philbin, Lead House manager Representative Adam Schiff argued Philbin’s response undermined the key claim of the Trump defense that the investigations Trump sought from Ukraine were legitimate exercises of foreign policy.
During the impeachment investigation, multiple witnesses who worked in the Trump administration expressed concern about what Giuliani was doing in Ukraine.
The question of whether the Senate will hear additional witnesses in Trump’s trial is still somewhat unsettled, putting an intense focus on a group of Republican senators — in particular Collins, Murkowski and Utah Senator Mitt Romney — who are seen as potential swing votes on the issue.
Senator Lamar Alexander, another question mark on the witness vote, asked House managers to compare the levels of bipartisanship in the drives to impeach Presidents Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Trump.
House manager Representative Zoe Lofgren, who has been involved in all three modern impeachments, said while the Nixon impeachment is held up as an example of the parties joining together to oust a president who had overstepped his bounds, it began with familiar partisanship.
As for Clinton, she acknowledged his impeachment was partisan, but claimed it was because that claim involved “private misconduct,” rather than misuse of presidential power.
Murkowski crossed party lines again Thursday afternoon, joining with Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, to probe when politicians go too far in considering the electoral consequences of their actions.
Philbin said it would be a “very dangerous path” if a president could be impeached for taking any action with a political benefit in mind. Representative Schiff disagreed, arguing most people would be able to recognize when politicians have bound up their electoral aspirations too tightly with their official positions.
The group of closely watched senators were slow to jump in during Thursday’s proceedings, after being active at the start of the two-day question-and-answer phase. During Wednesday’s nine-hour proceedings, the group either asked or joined in seven questions posed to both House managers and Trump’s defense team. Murkowski led the way by posing or joining on five questions, while Collins did the same on three and Romney on two inquiries.
Joining with Senators Mike Crapo, Roy Blunt and Marco Rubio on Thursday, Collins was the first among the group to deliver a question to Chief Justice John Roberts. She asked both House managers and Trump’s counsel whether there is any situation where it would be appropriate for a president to ask a foreign country to investigate a U.S. citizen, even a political rival.
Trump is accused of withholding a $391 million military aid package and a coveted White House meeting for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for Ukraine announcing investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, who worked on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Bursima.
Responding to the Republican question, Schiff could not envision an occasion when that would be proper, at least without going through a formal process. He said Trump has helped break down a key post-Watergate reform that put a firm divide between the Justice Department and the White House.
“It would be hard for me to contemplate circumstances where that would be appropriate,” Schiff said, “where it would be appropriate for the president of the United States to seek a political investigation of an opponent.”
Philbin predictably took the opposite view, also taking time to distinguish the case at hand from the senators’ hypothetical. As an example, he said it could be in the public interest for a president to ask a foreign country to investigate a political rival if that rival did something that violated another country’s law, but not that of the United States.