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Sunday Politics


NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Good morning, Mara.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you just heard my conversation there with Robert Ray. What are your thoughts?

LIASSON: Well, what I noticed in that conversation was, first of all, that the president's legal team is not presenting the exact defense that he has asked for. In other words, when he says the call is perfect - he has actually tweeted that he wants members of the Senate to defend him on those grounds - not that it was improper but not impeachable. The other thing I heard was a potentially politically appealing argument, which is that this is illegitimate because it doesn't have bipartisan support. And...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Something that Nancy Pelosi had said herself, initially.

LIASSON: Yes. Yes. And also, in the filing - or the statement that the impeachment team released, they said that Democrats are trying to take away the right of the voters to decide who should be their president in the next election. I think those are the most politically appealing arguments that the president's team has.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. What is the big thing that we're watching with the Senate trial this week? Take us there.

LIASSON: I think the first big obstacle that the House impeachment managers have to overcome if they can is to convince four Republicans to agree to call witnesses. Even though it's not clear what the witnesses would say or whether they'd claim executive privilege about their conversations with the president, Democrats do feel strongly that any new information, any new witnesses, any new documents that comes out will help them and hurt the president.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And a reality check here, Mara - what are the chances that four Republicans would join with the Democrats over calling witnesses, especially now that we're hearing that this - the central tenant here is about whether or not there is bipartisan support for this impeachment?

LIASSON: Well, I think it was interesting that Robert Ray said - when you asked him, does the president want witnesses or not? Because he's been of many minds on this subject. He said, well, the Senate is going to decide that. I think, right now, the chances are slim that you're going to find four Republicans to vote for witnesses. They're - all of the Republicans who are up for reelection this year are still subject to a primary challenge from the right. They also don't really know where the president stands on this, as you just heard Robert Ray say. Sometimes, he says he wants witnesses. Other times he says he wants a quick dismissal. They don't know whether he would consider their support for calling witnesses as a betrayal, and he could take revenge on them, as he does - as he has in the past with Republicans who have broken with him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, Mara, it's not just about calling witnesses, right? There's all this new information about the pressure campaign on Ukraine from Lev Parnas, the Rudy Giuliani associate. House Democrats released new documents. And Parnas has been making the interview rounds.

LIASSON: That's right. Lev Parnas is under federal indictment, so he has every motivation to do what he can to show that he's cooperating, so he can get a better deal from the prosecutors in New York. But so far, many of the things that he has said have been backed up by documents that he's presented - tweets and photos. And others of them could be followed up by House Democrats if they wanted to do their own investigation. One of the things the Democrats are talking about are investigating this notion that, somehow or other, people associated with the president may have surveilled the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, before she was removed by the president. We know the Ukrainian government has opened an investigation into this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back to the Senate trial, Mara. If the outcome is not really in doubt that President Trump will remain in office, then what is it that each political party wants to accomplish here?

LIASSON: Well, that is the big question. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate, I think, want a trial with the least amount of drama and chaos. McConnell wants incumbent Republican senators to be able to show their constituents that they took these charges seriously, but he is already working to tighten control over what the media can cover and broadcast during the trial, for instance. There are extra new rules to keep electronics out of the press gallery. And, you know, those C-SPAN cameras that usually are trained on the Senate floor - if senators decide to go into what's called closed session to debate these articles, the cameras can be turned off. So it sounds like McConnell doesn't want to give Democrats anything that might become footage for political ads.

As for the Democrats, they want this to be another chance to convince the public and their senators that what the president did was wrong. We know, from polls, that public opinion is frozen. It's locked in pretty much 50/50 on whether the president should be removed, even though large numbers of Americans think what the president did was wrong. So they are trying to change that split in public opinion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we'll see, I guess, coming up in the next few weeks, if that actually moves the needle. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.