Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Esper: Military personnel could help treat coronavirus patients 'if push comes to shove' Schumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar MORE’s defense team on Saturday delivered a brisk two-hour opening argument in the Senate impeachment trial, offering rebuttals to several specific claims that House impeachment managers made in arguing that the president abused his office and obstructed Congress.

The attorneys’ presentation also contained a number of Trumpian flourishes likely to please an audience of one watching back at the White House. 

The lawyers quickly made House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats introduce bill to set up commission to review coronavirus response Schiff drafting legislation to set up 9/11-style commission to review coronavirus response Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner MORE (D-Calif.) a key foil in their arguments, questioning why he didn’t appear before the House Judiciary Committee and accusing him of cherry-picking evidence.

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They also sought to impugn the credibility of the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment inquiry, raising the possibility he or she was motivated by political bias.

The defense team sought to characterize the president as a victim, invoking former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s investigation and alleged improper surveillance of the Trump campaign to paint the picture of a beleaguered executive unable to trust the intelligence community.

And in defending a president whose own words featured prominently in the House presentation, the attorneys did not address some of the key pieces of evidence cited by Democrats.

Still, the defense was effective at poking holes in aspects of the Democrats’ argument in a way that will play well among Republicans and potentially stave off an affirmative vote to call further witnesses in the trial. 

The attorneys used clips and snippets of witness testimony from the impeachment hearings to rebut Democrats’ assertions while downplaying statements made by those who had no direct contact with Trump as unreliable hearsay. 

The two-hour argument on Saturday advanced the White House's narrative that House Democrats were driven by partisan aims in pursuing the impeachment of Trump and that the entire House process was flawed from the start because Trump was not afforded due process. 

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"They're asking you to tear up all of the ballots across this country on your own initiative, take that decision away from the American people,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone said in remarks from the Senate floor. 

The attorneys pointed to a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to argue that Trump discussed burden sharing with other European countries, calling on them to provide more funds to Ukraine, something they noted Democrats have overlooked.

Democrats, meanwhile, said Saturday that the president’s lawyers made the case for calling witnesses who were blocked from testifying in the House by pointing out the lack of firsthand evidence in the case. 

“They kept saying there are no eyewitness accounts. But there are people who have eyewitness accounts: The very four witnesses and the very four sets of documents that we have asked for,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell launches ad touting role in passing coronavirus relief Joe Biden can't lead the charge from his home in Delaware Texas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters immediately following the opening arguments. “Why shouldn’t we have witnesses and documents here?”

Schiff, speaking at a press conference, noted that the lawyers did not mention Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyMeadows joins White House in crisis mode Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House Meadows set to resign from Congress as he moves to White House MORE, the president’s acting chief of staff, asserting that the White House doesn’t want the public to have the facts of the administration’s motivation for temporarily suspending military assistance to Ukraine.

Most Republicans have resisted the idea of calling more witnesses, pointing to the potential for a prolonged fight over executive privilege. But a handful of moderate Republicans have suggested they’re open to the possibility following opening arguments, foretelling the potential for defections. 

Deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin attempted to undercut the charge that Trump obstructed Congress by accusing Democrats of conducting a rushed process in the House. He argued that the House proceedings were unconstitutional and lacked due process and that the executive branch therefore refused to participate and didn’t need to obey subpoenas for documents and testimony. 

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

The tone of the president’s team was one of the more anticipated aspects of its opening arguments given Trump’s own scorched-earth attitude and desire for a made-for-TV performance.

Just before the Senate convened Saturday, Trump urged his followers on Twitter to tune in to watch “Our case against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam 'Shifty' Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell launches ad touting role in passing coronavirus relief Joe Biden can't lead the charge from his home in Delaware Texas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill MORE, Nervous Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSchumer calls for military official to act as medical equipment czar Overnight Health Care: Trump resists pressure for nationwide stay-at-home order | Trump open to speaking to Biden about virus response | Fauci gets security detail | Outbreak creates emergency in nursing homes McConnell: Pelosi trying to 'jam' Senate on fourth coronavirus relief bill MORE, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC, & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrat Party.”

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But the defense team was largely methodical and measured in defending the president and rebutting specific aspects of the House managers’ 24 hours worth of arguments. It avoided wading into potentially messy attacks on former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden campaign: Trump and former vice president will have phone call about coronavirus Overnight Health Care: Trump resists pressure for nationwide stay-at-home order | Trump open to speaking to Biden about virus response | Fauci gets security detail | Outbreak creates emergency in nursing homes 16 things to know today about coronavirus outbreak MORE and his son Hunter Biden, though it teased that would come up on Monday.

Still, the two hours of arguments at times mirrored Trump’s fiery criticisms of the impeachment process and its central players.

Cipollone opened the day by arguing that Trump did nothing wrong on the call with Zelensky, during which he raised investigations into the Bidens and a debunked theory about 2016 election interference. 

The White House counsel read directly from the call transcript — something Trump regularly demands people do during his public appearances and on his Twitter feed. 

Trump has called for Schiff’s resignation and suggested that he committed treason by exaggerating an account of the call with Zelensky. Within minutes of Saturday’s arguments beginning, the president’s attorneys had queued up a clip of Schiff’s remarks.

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"That’s not the real call," Deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura said. "We can shrug it off and say we were making light or a joke, but that was in a hearing ... discussing the removal of a president of the United States from office."

Trump and some of his GOP allies have called for Schiff to testify in the Senate trial. While the president’s defense team opposes hearing from additional witnesses, it suggested Schiff had been a “fact witness” during the House proceedings because of reported contact between his team and the whistleblower who raised concerns that the July 25 call was improper. 

The whistleblower, another point of fixation for Trump throughout the impeachment process, also came up during Saturday’s proceedings as the defense attempted to dismiss allegations that the president had behaved inappropriately as the result of partisan politics.

Philbin cited media reports that said the whistleblower worked with Joe Biden, suggesting it raised concerns about the individual’s potential biases and motivations in filing a complaint.

And in attempting to refute testimony from a cavalcade of witnesses who have spent their careers in the intelligence community or foreign service, Trump’s attorneys pointed to one of the president's favorite target of derision: Mueller and the FBI.

Jay SekulowJay Alan SekulowMeadows joins White House in crisis mode What the impeachment vote looked like from inside the chamber Senate votes to acquit Trump on articles of impeachment MORE referenced Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign and a recent Department of Justice inspector general’s report that sharply criticized the surveillance warrants used by the bureau to assert that Trump had reason to distrust the very people who were wary of his Ukraine policy.

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“The president had reason to be concerned about the information he was being provided,” he said. “We can ignore this. We can make believe this did not happen. But it did.”

 
But Sen. John CornynJohn CornynLawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Cuban says he'd spank daughter if she was partying during coronavirus pandemic Twitter comes under fire over Chinese disinformation on coronavirus MORE (R-Texas) was spotted briefly thumbing through a book on his desk, while Sens. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseAmerica's governors should fix unemployment insurance Mnuchin emerges as key asset in Trump's war against coronavirus House Republican urges Pompeo to take steps to limit misinformation from China on coronavirus MORE (R-Neb.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottHow much damage? The true cost of the Senate's coronavirus relief bill Senate unanimously passes T coronavirus stimulus package Senate rejects GOP attempt to change unemployment benefits in coronavirus stimulus bill MORE (R-S.C.), who are seat neighbors, chatted. 

The GOP-controlled Senate is nearly certain to acquit Trump at the end of the trial, so much of the focus instead will be on whether the defense can convince moderate senators that there is no need to hear additional evidence.

For at least some Republicans, Saturday was a strong start.

“I thought the House did a good job on the first day, particularly, of weaving a tapestry, a compelling narrative,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump says he's considering restricting travel to coronavirus 'hot spots' Coronavirus crisis scrambles 2020 political calculus Trump reviews Pelosi on morning TV: 'She wasn't bad' MORE (R-S.C.), an ally of Trump, told reporters following the two-hour presentation. 

“I think the defense did a very good job today to question that tapestry, and I heard some things that I didn’t know that are in conflict with the story told by the House,” Graham said. 

Olivia Beavers and Jordain Carney contributed.