President Trump's celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz stunned Democrats and left some Republicans groping for answers Wednesday night with an eyebrow-raising suggestion that a president can try to rig his reelection if he thinks his victory is in the nation's best interest.
Dershowitz was arguing specifically about Ukraine and targeting the Bidens in the impeachment case, saying that even if a president is acting out of self-interest, his motives are mixed if he thinks his gambit helps the nation, and therefore are not impeachable
"Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest. Mostly, you are right," Dershowitz told senators. "And if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo the results in impeachment."
Democrats were flabbergasted.
"I thought his argument was beyond absurd," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told reporters later. "I thought he made absolutely no sense because he essentially said that if President Trump believed his election is for the good of the American people, he could do whatever he wants."
She argued that Dershowitz was trying to flip the actual Supreme Court rulings that found a president -- Richard Nixon -- cannot do whatever he wants.
"I think he's made a laughable argument that undermines the President's case," Gillibrand added.
Sen. Mazzie Hirono (D-Hawaii) had difficulty explaining just how wrong she found it.
"That was one of the most bizarre things I've ever heard as a response," Hirono said. "If you believe," she said, laughing at the idea that anyone would, "that what you're doing is for the country's good, even if you're off base, it's totally OK."
"It made no sense at all, because that means that basically anybody, even someone who's totally off base or even insane, if that person happens to be the president and believes that what he or she is doing is for the public good and for national policy, that's A-OK. It made no sense."
Republicans where willing to back Dershowitz, but as reporters quizzed them afterwards, they appeared to struggle arriving at the right argument.
"I think he said 'mixed,'" South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said, standing with Indiana Sen. Mike Braun. "'A president,' not 'President Trump,' so maybe [Dershowitz] was talking about from a philosophical perspective."
Braun hedged on whether Dershowitz meant it as starkly as it appeared.
"He didn't say it's absolute," Braun said as a reporter read the quote back to him and Scott.
"That would be in a vacuum," he said. "Possibly you could make that argument, but in this case it gets back to the whole question of the Bidens and Ukraine... Was there corruption of the Ukraine, and were the Bidens clear of it?"
While the quote was being read, Scott was sidling away from the confrontation, prompting one reporter to joke to Braun, "He's leaving you on the hot seat."
"Yeah," Braun said, "that's a tough one."
Scott heeded the outcry from the reporters, though, and pointed to Dershowitz's comparison of Trump's actions in Ukraine to Abraham Lincoln's during the Civil War when Lincoln wanted soldiers to vote in his reelection.
Dershowitz, Scott said, "was talking about the public interest, and how you can conflate the issues together, and referred back to his original testimony, which was about Abraham Lincoln sending home troops to Indiana in order for him to stay in office to help win the war."
Scott simply did not want to agree that Dershowitz actually said a president can't be removed for actions that the president "believes will help him get elected in the public interest."
"I think when you conflate all the issues, you can come to a point where you're asking a question in a silo, which is inconsistent with what we heard today," Scott said. "So I want to separate myself from that part of the conversation, because ultimately I think the premise is flawed."
Braun said he agreed with Scott, but in his elaboration sounded like perhaps he didn't agree with Dershowitz. "In this case, it was clearly about mixed motive." Braun said. "Whatever he was talking about that would separate those silos out, I don't think anybody has to grapple with that because that's not the case here. It was mixed motives."
Dershowitz's broader argument was that abuse of power -- which is one of the two articles of impeachment facing Trump -- is not an impeachable offense. Republicans seemed to be agreeing with that, and were looking at that justification as a reason to vote against calling witnesses. According to their thinking, there would be no point to having witnesses like John Bolton testify if the offense is not impeachable. And if you agree that taking official action overseas to help a reelection is in the nation's best interests because it reelects Trump, then you might as well just dismiss the case Friday.
"The momentum is clearly in the direction of moving to final judgement on Friday," said Sen. John Barrasso, a member of the GOP leadership from Wyoming.
Republican Whip Sen. John Thune (S.D.) said he would want to "close it out" Friday if leaders can convince 51 members of the party to vote against witnesses, but admitted there are still a handful of holdouts.
"We have members that are still assessing things and listening to all the discussion and argument. We're having discussions among ourselves but hopefully eventually we'll get to a place where people are going to feel comfortable making a definitive decision," Thune said.
"At this point, it's still kind of an open question," that he said shifts with "mood swings" based on news of the day.
The top Republican senators known to be interested in calling witnesses are Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).
Among those on the fence were believed to be Sens. Martha McSally (Ariz.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Jerry Moran (Kan.).
Their questions in Wednesday's late-night session. however, sounded more like they were tending towards ending the trial.
Moran, for instance, was part of asking a question on how long the trial would go on if the Senate votes for witnesses and documents. Trump's team said it would take months, suggesting they and the president would fight subpoenas every step of the way.
Senators facing reelection this year would prefer to have the trial out of the way, leaving them facing the choice pursuing witnesses in the interests of hearing a fuller case, or moving to end things and face accusations of blocking a fair trial.