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Impeachment state of play: Democrats to make case for abuse of power charge

To those who have watched every twist and turn and development and “bombshell” and “dude” and whatever other description that may exist of the last four months of the impeachment investigation: this isn’t about you. It’s just not. These three days are designed to make a case, and create the environment to win votes in the days ahead.

On Thursday, that will mean a deep dive into the first article of impeachment: abuse of power.

Bottom line

The House manager presentation is about the small group of senators who may vote to hear from witnesses or subpoena documents. It’s about a public that may have tuned out because they have, you know, lives and real things to do. That’s what these three days are all about, according to people involved with the House presentation strategy. And success will be measured by whether the presentation lands with those two groups, and probably nobody else.

LIVE UPDATES: Day 3 of Trump’s impeachment trial

What to watch

  • Closed-door Senate party lunches, 11:30 a.m. ET
  • The Senate will convene at 1 p.m. to begin the second day of the House manager’s presentation

Note: Like the last two days, safe to assume a press conference or two will pop up in advance of the trial gaveling into session.

What to read

CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju tell you everything you need to know Thursday.

Sharp Alex Rogers piece on the tall task the managers face with the Senate GOP here.

Collinson, per usual, nails a bunch of things I was thinking about in his analysis.

This Clare Foran and Ali Zaslav piece really gets to how it actually *feels* on the ground in the Senate as this process moves along.

What you saw

The opening day of the presentation was a series of methodical, piece-by-piece presentations from all seven managers, but make no mistake about it — each piece, from the line-by-line breakdown of the President Donald Trump- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky call by Democratic New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries to the dive into national security implications by Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colorado, to the seamless recitation of the witness testimony from the House hearings was all interspersed with the same point: witnesses and documents would answer any outstanding questions you, the senators (or viewers at home) have remaining.

What Democrats were trying to do

The idea was to lay out a fact pattern for each element in the Ukraine investigation timeline, according to people involved with the strategy.

Day one will be referenced repeatedly over the course of the next two days — in a way that many (in particular senators on the floor) will likely find repetitive. But it was done to lay out the base case. Everything going forward will build from that.

Pay attention to the clock

The sharpest argument made in the day, with the most direct call-and-response moments designed to underscore the need for witnesses and documents, occurred after the Senate’s dinner break on Wednesday. It coincided with prime-time television. That was not a coincidence.

Think about this moment

There’s a reason Jay Sekulow, the President’s outside counsel, repeatedly went to cameras to talk to reporters during breaks Wednesday.

House managers have the floor to themselves, literally and figuratively. There is no minority time. There are limited, if any, opportunities throughout the day for the President’s allies to take to cable TV to rebut their points. It’s continuous, unencumbered hours, for three days, to make the case.

That’s something we just haven’t seen before in this process.

(Keep in mind, the White House team will get the same opportunity when this concludes — making their version of events the freshest in senators’ minds before a witness vote occurs.)

What’s coming Thursday

House managers will zero in specifically on the first article of impeachment Thursday: abuse of power. The intent will be to tie the fact pattern presented on Wednesday directly to the pieces of that article to prove its merits.

What should concern the managers

Republicans remained livid throughout the day on Wednesday about what transpired shortly before 1 a.m. ET, when House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said this:

“I see a lot of senators voting for a cover-up, voting to deny witnesses, an absolutely indefensible vote, obviously a treacherous vote.”

A number of Democrats I spoke to scoffed at their anger, calling it disingenuous and selective, but there was palpable concern that Nadler’s comments would rub a specific group of GOP senators the wrong way. It appeared to have done just that.

“I took it as very offensive. As one who is listening attentively and working hard to get to a fair process, I was offended,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said Wednesday, her aide Karina Borger told CNN’s Ted Barrett.

One comment 12 hours into a day of feisty debates is not going to make or break how Republicans like Murkowski will choose to vote going forward, but as one Democratic senator told me Wednesday: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out attacking the motivations of the very people we need to vote with us ain’t a great strategy.”

What should bolster the managers

One thing I was struck by throughout the first day of presentations is how many senators acknowledged that much of what they were seeing and hearing was new.

This didn’t apply to everyone, of course.

“I didn’t hear anything new,” Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and member of the Senate GOP leadership, told reporters. If senators were religiously watching the House proceedings, that’s most certainly true.

But here’s the thing: most, if not all, of the senators were not watching the House proceedings religiously. They had day jobs. Their own hearings. Meetings with constituents. Votes on the floor.

The most interesting thing of being in the chamber is watching the heads of every single senator when a House manager brings up a video clip. They all snap directly to where the televisions are and watch intently — even those with clear disdain for the manager presenting.

“Felt like I was paying attention to what they were doing, but some of those clips were totally new to me,” one GOP senator told me last night.

Did that change how he felt? “Well, no. But I’m not the target here.”

That’s exactly the point for House managers — they have their targets for the presentation, and while it’s unclear if anything in day one of opening arguments landed with those targets, it’s clear senators, even those opposed to the managers from the outset, were seeing new things.

The reality

GOP Sens. Murkowski, Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah had nothing to say, substantively, about the first day of the House manager presentation. That’s unlikely to change any time soon, as all three plan to keep their observations quiet until after the presentations are complete.

The truth is all three have signaled they will likely vote to consider witnesses and evidence. The question was, is, and will remain: who, if anyone, is the fourth.

Don’t take your eye off this

Publicly, it’s about the presentation. But that doesn’t mean Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t still working behind the scenes to keep his conference together for his preferred end game.

As we reported Wednesday, he’s starting to lean hard into the argument against witnesses centered on executive privilege concerns — on warning of an elongated trial and a complex and, at least precedent-wise, potentially precarious legal battle.

That argument was expanded and presented in more detail in a closed-door Senate GOP lunch, sources tell Lauren Fox and me. Michael Mukasey, a former attorney general under President George W. Bush, was inside the lunch to answer questions about just that issue.

Good reminder: The managers are most certainly making their case on the Senate floor. But McConnell is always making his case to his members behind closed doors.

A little stronger than milk

There’s been no shortage of amazing color from the Senate floor, filed by all of CNN’s outstanding and relentless Hill team, but this is perhaps my favorite.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, at one point on Wednesday, had a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco sitting on his desk. The Senate Sergeant at Arms proceeded to walk over and tell him he had to remove it from his desk due to the rules of the chamber. Sasse relented, while noting that the Senate does technically still have spittoons on the chamber’s floor.

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