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U.S. senator talks with Oregon reporters after the first day of opening arguments in case presented against President Trump.

Editor's Note: On Wednesday, Jan. 22, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and his colleagues sat through 13 hours of opening arguments from House impeachment managers making their case that President Trump abused the power of his office by pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden.

The proceedings didn't wrap up until after midnight, but Thursday morning, Merkley hosted a conference call with reporters in Oregon, including Pamplin Media Group's Peter Wong. Here's a transcript of the call, edited for clarity. A link to the audio file is below.

PMG FILE PHOTO - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley talked last fall with Pamplin Media Group editors.Hello everyone. Thank you for joining in the call. I thought I'd share with you some reflections on how this impeachment trial is unfolding. Essentially, we've had one full day of presentation by the House team. They're laying out their case and I think it's helpful to think about this case in five phases to try to understand … the story they're telling.

There was the situation up until the third week of of April of last year where the president's team was interested in getting information on Biden, but Biden was not yet in the, in the race and Zelensky was not yet president of Ukraine. So that's kind of the pre-Zelensky/Biden period.



Then you have a pivot that happens where April 21 Zelensky wins his campaign for the presidency. And four days later, former Vice President Biden announces that he's going to run in the 2020 election. So that leads to the second phase that extends essentially from the 25th of April to the 25th of July. So, three months.

And during that phase, Zelensky is being pushed. Again. All this is according to the House presentation, I'm not stating conclusions on my behalf.

They're laying out the picture of that during those three months, Zalensky very much wanted a meeting with president Trump. He wanted that meeting to, to show his electorate that he had a strong relationship and he wanted that meeting to show Putin that he had that strong relationship because here he is newly elected and he has, he's involved in a war against a very powerful country. Russia is occupying an Eastern section of the Ukraine, and he wants to have this solid relationship with the president of the United States and he is unable to get that meeting during that period because, as presented by the House managers, the Trump Administration is tying that meeting to a… request that he wants an inquiry into two things.

Those two things being first, an investigation of whether Ukraine tried to influence the 2016 election in the United States on behalf of Hillary Clinton. And the second being that Ukraine commits to launching an investigation into former Vice President Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

There is an interesting twist here because the argument that Ukraine was involved in the 2016 election was a Russian propaganda campaign launched in February of 2017, the month after president Trump came into office to try to take Russia out of the crosshairs of having interfered in our elections.

PMG FILE PHOTO - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley talked with people after his Yamhill County town hall last year.And so this Russian propaganda finds fertile ground in the Trump administration to the point that that getting Ukraine to pursue it aggressively becomes a major goal of the Trump administration. The second piece, the investigation of Vice President Biden and Hunter Biden became particularly important the to the Trump Administration after the announcement that Biden was going to get into the race, April 25th.

So you have the first phase pre-Zelensky/Biden, you have the second phase that goes through July 25 where they're seeking in a commitment to investigate.

And on July 25, then you get that particular commitment in the phone call with the president. This leads to the third phase. The third phase, again as presented by the House managers, is that the Trump administration decides that the commitment is not enough. They want a public announcement. And in that third phase… they're withholding a military [aid] to provide additional pressure and essentially that phase goes until the whistleblower announcement.

The withholding of aid essentially launches the final phase, which is the coverup phase. So if one is trying to understand the arc of what's being presented, one can kind of frame it in those, those different pieces.

I wanted to share with you the setting in the room. You have a hundred senators, they're basically all in their seats. As each, as each section begins, hours proceed. You have folks standing up in the back of the room to stretch or are having to exit briefly for a bathroom break. I don't believe that if you were observing from the gallery you could detect much difference between the Democratic side [and] the Republican side. Everyone seems pretty attentive... I don't think you would sense a difference in terms of attention to the, the presentations.

It is a very long period of time for people to sit. Many people are taking detailed notes.

So, this is really a big debate over whether or not the Senate is fulfilling its mission, its assignment under the Constitution. If it, for the first time in history obstructs, the access to documents and witnesses.

I know I've taken over 50 pages of notes trying to track and understand the arguments being put forward and thinking of this in phases has [been] helpful to me as I try to understand the dynamics that they're laying out.

There are a number of sub-themes that are being presented and a major on is how can it be okay for the executive branch to block information to Congress when the Constitution demands that, particularly in an impeachment proceeding, Congress have the ability to get the information necessary to hold a president accountable.

So of course, that is the heart of the second article of impeachment, that it is abuse of power and it is obstruction of justice, to essentially block the documents being sought by the House.

Of course, those documents are still being blocked, which is relevant to the Senate trial. Related to that is the question of whether the Senate is going to conduct a full and fair trial, which requires access to documents and witnesses. And we spent a whole day, from 1 p.m.to 2 in the morning, so 13 hours, debating and voting on amendments to solicit documents and witnesses. Those votes were basically all party-line votes, which was very disappointing.

There is an argument that Mitch McConnell put forward repeatedly saying, this isn't a question of voting on, on these issues. It's, it's a question of when, and next week we'll be voting on them. However, the actual rules that McConnell has put forward have essentially said there's going to be a vote on whether or not votes are allowed.

And so that is not at all parallel to the Clinton rules. And if there's 51 folks who say, no, we will have no further votes on witnesses or documents, the whole process is cut off right from the very beginning. And so, there's no guarantee that there will be a series of votes….

So, this is really a big debate over whether or not the Senate is fulfilling its mission, its assignment under the Constitution. If it, for the first time in history obstructs, the access to documents and witnesses.

It also drives a dynamic that exists between the argument that this is just like the Clinton trial and whether it's very different. And the argument that it's very different is, number one, in the Clinton trial, every witness had been deposed in advance either by the Starr investigation or by the grand jury. In this case, none of the witnesses have been deposed….

In the Clinton trial, there were 90,000 documents that were provided up front … before the trial started. In this case, there was no documents that have been admitted into evidence. And so certainly from the point of view that many of us have, this is not at all unfolding parallel to the framework that existed for the Clinton trial. And the Senate really is on trial.

PMG FILE PHOTO - The U.S. Capitol at dusk in August 2018.If it fails to access documents and witnesses, this does not look anything like a full and fair trial. Think of it this way. If a foreman of a jury was working with the defendant to block witnesses and documents from ever being presented, that is what you would expect in a trial, perhaps in Russia or China, but not in the United States of America. And yet that is essentially what's happening in this setting.

Another sub-theme is the importance of that security aid to Ukraine at a time they're at war with Russia.

And another piece of the conversation is about the actions that undermined Zelensky, who ran on being able to fight corruption. The successful effort to throw out the U.S. ambassador who had been a champion for helping Ukraine take on corruption. The fact that the defense department had carefully reviewed Zelensky's plans as a condition of releasing the military aid and had given them kind of a five-star rating. Yes, yes, yes. They're doing everything right. And then the aid was held up…. So you have this, this sub-theme about whether the U.S. was really determined to help tackle corruption or actually undermining the ability to take on corruption. I'm going to stop there, but I'm happy to try to answer any questions you might have.

This is Erik Neumann from Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland. It seems like the Democrat side really depends on the ability to call witnesses. What do you think it'll take to convince your Republican colleagues in the Senate to vote in favor of including witnesses in the proceedings?

So, under the McConnell rules, there will be this vote on whether to allow additional votes on documents and witnesses. And if that first vote goes down, then the trial will essentially go immediately to a final vote either to dismiss or whether or not to convict. And we will not have votes on specific sets of documents or on specific witnesses.

I think that there are many Republican colleagues who are wrestling with their core understanding that in America, a full and fair trial means witnesses and documents and they would like to see witnesses and documents. But then you have this pressure orchestrated by McConnell to say, we are going to shut this thing down as fast as we can, and certainly in time for the President's state of the union speech. To potentially cancel the ability to hold votes on specific witnesses, sets of documents is a way to shut things down fast. I think the answer is to whether that happens or not is uncertain, but there will be many Republican colleagues who I think truly believe that they should support witnesses and documents, but they will be under tremendous pressure to follow the lead… that McConnell is laying out. During the break, there were many Republican senators who were saying something [like] 'It's not the role of the Senate to do an investigation, it's the role of the Senate to simply look at the information the House collected.'

And I must say that is absolutely wrong, in terms of our constitutional role. The role of the House is the role of a grand jury. Whether there is enough evidence to say there's a serious issue here that merits a full trial…. People understand in America that when you go to trial, then you try to make sure that every piece of evidence comes to bear so you can get a full and fair, if you will, 'the truth and nothing but the truth' conclusion about what really happened.

The Republican argument is the Senate is like an appellate court that only considers the evidence that's been developed before it comes to the Senate. That is not the role laid out in the constitution. We are the trial, not the appellate, court. And in a trial, you bring all the information to bear. So, there's going to be tremendous sense that they want to do right by their constitutional oath and their oath to do impartial justice. And tremendous pressure not to do so.

I don't know where that will come out, but I guess that's what you would say is the high-drama moment that awaits us a few days from now.

This is Heather with Central Oregon Daily. What do you think of the discussion of a so-called witness swap where the GOP would allow witnesses if the Dems will allow the Biden to testify?

I think the way it should be done is that the two sides agree that each side can secure a certain number of witnesses… on each side and then let the two sides choose their witnesses. That makes it most parallel to a normal trial in which you don't have the jurors deciding who should testify. You have the, basically the, the, the lawyers for the prosecution. In this case, the House managers would decide what witnesses to call and the lawyers for the defendant, the White House lawyers team deciding who to call to make the president's case. I think that that's the way this should be done. I'd much prefer that over a specific vote on witnesses….

Let me add one other piece on this. There was a one proposal put forward that would say essentially the presiding judge, Supreme Court Justice Roberts, would rule on whether a witness was relevant. And I think that would be an additional valuable measure. Each side could pick its witnesses, but they have to be relevant to the issues at hand and place that judgment in Justice Roberts.

This is Blakely McHugh with NBC 5 News and Medford. So earlier you had said you guys spent 13 hours debating and voting on amendments for documents and witnesses. And you had said that most of the people had voted within their party lines. And you said specifically that that was disappointing. So, what is your overarching feeling of the trial so far?

I feel that the arc we're on right now has some positives and negatives. On the positive side, I think the three days and 24 hours for the House managers to present their case is sufficient. And the three days and 24 hours that the president's team will have to present their case will be sufficient. So that's positive. And I must say the House managers have had a very carefully prepared strategy of laying out the arc of the issues and then the details on different pieces. So that's, so that's positive.

The negative side is that the decision to not secure witnesses and documents is a setup. And I think it was best summarized by a phrase Adam Schiff used. He said to delay is to deny. And I'm afraid that's going to be the case, that after we go through these presentations by the White House lawyers, following the House managers, the argument will be: 'We've heard so much,

surely everybody has made up their mind and is ready to vote. We don't need to hear additional witnesses.' And at that point, it's not a full, fair trial. It will become a cover up And the stage is set for that to happen.

The only way it doesn't happen is you have courageous members on both sides of the aisle who combine to say, absolutely, we'll stand by our constitutional responsibility for the Senate to hold a full and fair trial. And that means each side can bring in documents and witnesses.

Another argument that I'm sure McConnell will bring to bear as well: It will take time to get those witnesses and those documents. 'Do we really want to stretch this out over several more weeks? That would be unfair to the president. No, we have to vote right now to block any future access to witnesses and documents.'

The stage is set for this trial to become a travesty and I'm really hoping that doesn't happen.

This is Nicole Vulcan from Source Weekly in Bend. I'm curious about Justice Roberts. We've heard that there's been some untruths spoken by Trump's lawyers. And, um, I'm just curious, has there been any ramifications or repercussions for those untruths? And is it, is it appropriate for Justice Roberts to point those out? And if not, whose duty would that be?

I am not a lawyer myself. I don't have any trial experience to bring to bear on your question, so I'll just share my understanding as an American citizen, not as an expert on this. And my understanding is that it's not the responsibility to presiding judge to evaluate the truthfulness of the arguments being put forward. That is up to the advocates for the two sides arguing their case, the House Managers presenting their case and the White House legal team for Trump, to point out the deficiencies in each other's arguments.

Judge Roberts has not intervened in any way, except when Jerry Nadler, one of the House managers, started referring to people as liars or things of that nature….. And then the White House team for Trump attacked him very personally and Judge Roberts intervened, said 'Neither of these styles is appropriate here in the Senate, and so cut it out.'

Mike with News Channel 21 in Bend. You mentioned that many of your Republican colleagues are kind of wrestling with the idea between party loyalty and a fair trial. Have you noticed any of them maybe kind of leaning more toward your side or does it seem like kind of a solid party line?

PMG FILE PHOTO - Oregons U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley talked with Yamhill County residents in March 2019.So the interesting thing about this trial is senators don't speak and so we are not hearing from each other, and I can't tell anything from body language. So it's only what, what senators have said outside the trial in which, several folks, most prominently Sen. Collins and Sen. Murkowski, and Sen. Romney have expressed interest in a full and fair trial… in terms of witnesses or documents. So, no, I have not been able to glean any clues of people moving in which direction. Because the trial's going so late, it's not like we're all having dinner together afterwards and hearing any kind of informal expressions. I did see some of the Republicans during one of the breaks, and their presentations and are very much the standard talking points, saying essentially, 'There's nothing new here. Why are we here?'

OK. Thanks senator. You need to drop off in one minute, so if you'd like to give any final thoughts that would be great.

I'm on my way right now to view the one document that has been made available. It's a classified document… and so I won't be able to tell you about it, but it's the one document, as clarified at the close yesterday, that would be made available to senators that will provide additional interesting information on the issues being raised in the trial. So I will see that one document here in just a few minutes. I'm tightly scheduled, because so many senators are committed to getting down to see it.

In closing, thank you for paying attention to this. I think much of America may have tuned out because they anticipate the outcome is that there will not be a conviction, because it would take so many Republican senators across the line and there was no indication of that.

PMG FILE PHOTO - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley addresss a crowd of about 150 in Central Oregon.It would take 20 of them and all Democrats to be united — and it's not clear that that would happen.

But I think it's very important that all the senators, myself absolutely included, wrestle with.... That's why I keep saying the House managers that presented this story, and this is a story, because there's another story to be told. It's going to be the story from the president's lawyers. I have to absorb and consider that with equal intensity and consideration that I'm considering the evidence being presented by the House managers. That is what it means, if you will, to do impartial justice. So, it's a test for each of us as senators to try to fulfill that vision.

We have a test of the Senate as a whole in terms of whether we conduct a full trial and then we have the fact of weighing in the end whether or not the president should be removed from office…. And so that introduces a second layer of evaluation and judgment.

So, I'm just committed to doing that, as close as I can humanly possible, as an impartial juror and I'll be working very hard on that.

Meanwhile, there are these big, big issues for our country and perhaps the most prominent is this question of imperial presidency. You have a president who blocked the House and Senate ability to get documents and witnesses that is completely inconsistent with the role assigned to the House and Senate under the impeachment process. And it fits in with the arguments that President Trump's teams have made at different points, about [how] the president is immune from prosecution while in office.

And then also the claim that the president's team has made that the president of the United States is immune from investigation, which obviously goes exactly against the responsibility to investigate that is represented by the impeachment in the House and the impeachment trial in the Senate.

So, we have big constitutional issues that are woven into this that are very relevant regardless of the final vote on whether the president should be removed.

Thank you all very much and take care.


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