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Impeachment trial to enter new phase with Trump defense
President Trump's lawyers launch their defense Saturday after three long days of House Democratic impeachment managers laying out arguments that the president abused his power in his dealings with Ukraine and obstructed Congress.
The defense team has been coy about what exactly it will say on the Senate floor, but it is expected to argue Trump should be acquitted because House Democrats have not alleged he committed any crimes.
Trump's legal team said its remarks will be relatively brief on Saturday, before resuming Monday with a longer presentation. The abbreviated weekend proceedings, with Sunday off, serve to accommodate lawmakers' schedules and are perhaps a nod to Trump's view that Saturday is "Death Valley" for television ratings.
In a brief filed Monday, Trump's lawyers - led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump's personal attorney Jay Sekulow - focused on an argument contested among legal experts that the articles do not allege impeachable conduct because they do not contain accusations of a crime. The defense attorneys also characterized House Democrats as trying to impeach Trump over a foreign policy disagreement.
The White House has consistently described Trump as the victim of a partisan and unfair effort by Democrats to damage him ahead of the 2020 election, a point his lawyers hammered home during their first appearance on the Senate floor Tuesday during debate over the trial rules.
It's possible the president's defense will evolve, however, given the arguments over the past few days by Democrats.
House impeachment managers spent almost all 24 hours allotted to them to lay out in granular detail allegations that Trump used the office of the presidency to further his own interests by tying a White House meeting and Ukraine security aid to Kyiv announcing investigations into his political rivals and that he then obstructed the congressional inquiry into his dealings with Ukraine.
Democrats sought to bolster their arguments by furnishing the Senate with video clips of witness testimony and Trump's remarks and to preempt the defense's argument that impeachment requires a criminal act.
Though the GOP-controlled Senate is widely expected to acquit Trump at the end of the trial, Saturday's proceedings will nevertheless present a major test for the president's legal team.
It is simultaneously tasked with knocking down Democrats' arguments and presenting a strong enough defense of Trump to convince moderate GOP senators that additional witnesses are not needed at the trial.
"I think that they have a big problem, which is the facts are essentially uncontested," argued Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel under former President Obama. "Attack mode is really the only option they have left, and I think we will continue to hear it."
But sources close to the White House insisted that administration officials weren't troubled by what they heard from House Democrats this week.
"They're kind of numb to it," said one source. "No new evidence, no smoking gun."
Trump's attorneys on Monday did not contest that Trump sought investigations into 2016 election interference and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden but argued the president had legitimate reason to raise the issues on the July 25 call with his Ukrainian counterpart that's at the center of the impeachment case. They have contested allegations that Trump sought to condition the White House meeting and security aid on Ukraine announcing the investigations.
The president is eager for a convincing performance, stacking his legal team with a number of high-profile and camera-ready attorneys. Trump, a media-conscious president who is fixated on press coverage, expressed dismay on Friday that his lawyers would kick off their arguments on a Saturday, calling the time slot "Death Valley in T.V."
But what may satisfy Trump may not necessarily fit with the level of restraint and decorum expected on the Senate floor.
Republicans are largely in lockstep about avoiding additional witnesses and the prolonged fight it would entail, but Trump's defense team will be under pressure to hit the right tone and secure support from moderate GOP senators.
The president's team has been in close coordination with members of the Senate GOP caucus as recently as Thursday as it prepares its defense.
"I actually spent a fair amount of time [Thursday] night after the trial talking with the president's lawyers and urging them, number one, focus on substance more and process less," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
"I also urged them ... to be calm, to be matter of fact, not to be emotional, not to be histrionic, simply to lay out the case," Cruz added.
The defense team did not include any audio or visual aids in its arguments against amendments to subpoena witnesses and documents, instead seeking to dismiss the proposals as quickly as possible.
A senior administration official said it's "possible" the defense will come prepared with visuals on Saturday but would not elaborate. The White House has in the past seized on clips of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky saying he did not feel pressured on the July 25 call and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland saying Trump relayed in early September that he wanted "no quid pro quo."
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), one of the House members who is helping guide Trump's defense, said he expects Republicans to rebut Democrat impeachment managers' claims of a quid pro quo by citing a Time magazine interview with Ukrainian presidential aide Andriy Yermak that disputed Sondland's testimony about an alleged quid pro quo with Kyiv.
"Andriy Yermak, who is being used by the House Democrat managers as the smoking gun of using Ukrainian aid to solicit information from Ukraine, undercuts every single argument that's being made on the Senate floor in a December interview with Time Magazine, and not only as it was at that interview, but in other public statements as well," Meadows told The Hill in an interview Wednesday evening.
Trump and his attorneys have also railed against House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) - the lead impeachment manager - for reading a parody account of the president's July 25 phone call with Zelensky. Cipollone launched an attack against Schiff over the matter Tuesday that mimicked Trump's own distortions about the episode.
"I hope they don't just sound like President Trump's tweets, that they don't simply resort to finger-pointing, name-calling and debunked conspiracies," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Friday, firing a warning shot against the defense team. "This moment is far too important for that."
House Democrats took a risk by raising the Bidens during their arguments on Thursday in order to discredit the unfounded allegations raised by Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani against the family. Multiple members of Trump's team signaled Friday that the move by Democrats opened the door to the defense making the Bidens a central part of its presentation.
"Believe me, you'll hear about that issue too," Sekulow, told reporters.
Cipollone and Sekulow are both expected to have starring speaking roles in the trial, as they did during Tuesday's proceedings, though they'll be accompanied by a number of high-profile attorneys who are comfortable speaking on television - setting the stage for potential for drama on the Senate floor.
Alan Dershowitz, a proponent of the argument that impeachment requires a crime, is expected to speak for roughly an hour on the Senate floor during the allotted time for the defense, though not until Monday.
Kenneth Starr, a former independent counsel who investigated then-President Clinton, is also part of Trump's legal team, along with Robert Ray, Starr's successor as independent counsel, and former Florida attorney general and White House adviser Pam Bondi.
It's unclear whether the defense will use all 24 hours allotted over three days to make opening arguments.
Trump has been happy with the performances of his legal team thus far, after his attorneys offered a fiery defense coupled with attacks on Democrats earlier in the week.
The president is likely to be closely watching the proceedings as they get underway Saturday and may even weigh in on Twitter.
Jordain Carney and Juliegrace Brufke contributed.