Trump legal team launches impeachment defense

President Trump’s lawyers began their opening arguments in the impeachment trial on Saturday, accusing Democrats of asking senators to “tear up” the ballots of the upcoming election while having “no evidence” to support the president’s removal from office.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone indicated to senators that Saturday’s arguments would seek to directly rebut the evidence presented by Democratic impeachment managers the previous three days. He also sought to portray the consequences of impeaching Trump in grave terms.

“They’re asking you not only to overturn the results of the last election, but, as I’ve said before, they’re asking you to remove President Trump from the ballot in an election that’s occurring in approximately nine months,” Cipollone said. “I don’t think they spent one minute of their 24 hours talking to you about the consequences of that for our country.”

The president’s defense team has 24 hours over three days to make its arguments. While Democrats used nearly the full time allotted for their opening arguments this week, Cipollone said he did not expect the defense to do the same and that their presentations would be “efficient.”

Saturday’s presentation lasted just two hours. Trump’s lawyers are expected to continue their arguments Monday.

“We don’t believe that they have come anywhere close to meeting their burden for what they’re asking you to do,” Cipollone said. “In fact, we believe that when you hear the facts … you will find that the president did absolutely nothing wrong.”

Cipollone, his deputies Michael Purpura and Patrick Philbin, and Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow handled the speaking roles on Saturday. They came armed with video clips of selected testimony to undercut specific arguments presented by House managers, seeking to paint the case against Trump as flimsy and based on cherry-picked evidence.

“I am not going to continue to go over and over and over again the evidence that they did not put before you because we would be here for a lot longer than 24 hours,” Sekulow said.

Trump’s team made the rough transcript of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a central part of its early arguments. House impeachment managers similarly relied on the transcript in building their case, turning the five-page document into a Rorschach test for those trying to determine the president’s fate.

Cipollone claimed that Democrats misrepresented the call, including by ignoring portions that showed Trump talking about burden sharing and corruption.

The lawyers also zeroed in on storylines that will satisfy Trump. They raised questions about the credibility of the anonymous whistleblower who raised concerns about the Ukraine call, attacked lead impeachment manager House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif), and painted the president as a victim of the agents who investigated his campaign’s contacts with Russia.  

The attorneys quickly showed a clip of Schiff reading a parody account of the call, claiming it was “fake” — an early indication they would focus on criticizing Democrats in an effort to drive home their claim that the impeachment inquiry was motivated by partisan interests.

The use of the clip is likely to satisfy Trump. The president spent the days after Schiff made the comments calling for the congressman’s resignation and suggesting he committed treason. Even months after the September hearing, Trump continues to bring up Schiff’s comments in interviews when railing against the impeachment proceedings.

Trump in his call with Zelensky asked the foreign leader to investigate a debunked theory about 2016 election interference as well as Joe Biden’s and his son Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine. The call triggered a rare intelligence community whistleblower complaint claiming that Trump solicited foreign interference in a U.S. election, which is a key piece of evidence in the Democrats’ impeachment case.  

A rough transcript of the call was released by the White House in September after the existence of the whistleblower complaint became known.

House Democrats allege that Trump withheld a White House meeting and security assistance from Ukraine in order to press for investigations into his political rivals.

Trump’s attorneys argued Saturday that Trump withheld the military aid because of concerns about burden sharing and corruption and that he didn’t tie the assistance to the investigations.

A number of witnesses called by Democrats testified that it was their understanding the administration linked the aid to the investigations, including William Taylor, then the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

Sondland also testified about an orchestrated effort within the administration — and driven by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani — to tie the White House meeting to the investigations, saying that “everyone was in the loop.”

Purpura used a portion of the presentation Saturday to portray testimony from Sondland and others as largely secondhand, playing clips of Sondland saying he he “assumed” or “presumed” the security aid had been linked to the investigations.

The lawyer also pointed to Sondland’s description of a September phone call he had with Trump during which the president said he wanted “no quid pro quo” with Ukraine as evidence the president did not make anything contingent on Ukraine launching investigations.

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney also said during a press conference in October that the assistance was temporarily held up in part because Trump wanted help with an investigation into a debunked theory about Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 Democratic National Committee
hack, though he later sought to walk back his remarks. 

House Democrats featured clips of that press conference during their own three days of arguments that preceded Saturday’s session.

Mulvaney and a handful of Office of Management and Budget officials evaded subpoenas to testify in connection with the impeachment inquiry on instructions from Trump — actions House Democrats used as a basis for their article of impeachment accusing Trump of obstructing the congressional inquiry.

Philbin sought to make the case for the White House’s position that the House process was unconstitutional and lacked due process, and that the executive branch didn’t need to obey subpoenas for documents and testimony, even after the House voted to authorize the inquiry and the Judiciary panel offered Trump an opportunity to participate.

“They weren’t really interested in getting at the facts and the truth. They had a timetable to meet. They wanted to get impeachment done by Christmas, and that’s what they were striving to do,” Philbin said. 

Updated: 12:30 p.m.

Tags Adam Schiff Donald Trump Gordon Sondland Jay Sekulow Joe Biden Mick Mulvaney Rudy Giuliani

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