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Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president

President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Georgia secretary of state withholds support for 'reactionary' GOP voting bills 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 SchiffBiden administration open to restarting nuclear talks with Iran Kinzinger calls for people with info on Trump to come forward House Democrats renew push for checks on presidential pardons 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) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump 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 SchumerChuck SchumerHillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds House Rules release new text of COVID-19 relief bill Budowsky: Cruz goes to Cancun, AOC goes to Texas 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 MulvaneyOMB nominee gets hearing on Feb. 9 Republicans now 'shocked, shocked' that there's a deficit Financial firms brace for Biden's consumer agency chief 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 SchumerChuck SchumerHillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds House Rules release new text of COVID-19 relief bill Budowsky: Cruz goes to Cancun, AOC goes to Texas MORE, Nervous Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House House Republican attempts to appeal fine for bypassing metal detector outside chamber 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 BidenKlain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' Senators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Overnight Defense: New Senate Armed Services chairman talks Pentagon policy nominee, Afghanistan, more | Biden reads report on Khashoggi killing | Austin stresses vaccine safety in new video 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 SekulowThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by TikTok - New video of riot unnerves many senators Trump legal switch hints at larger problems Trump, House GOP relationship suddenly deteriorates 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 CornynPassage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Biden signs supply chain order after 'positive' meeting with lawmakers Democrats look to improve outreach to Asian and Latino communities MORE (R-Texas) was spotted briefly thumbing through a book on his desk, while Sens. Ben SasseBen SasseOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Key vote for Haaland's confirmation | Update on oil and gas leasing | SEC update on climate-related risk disclosure requirements Josh Hawley is a conservative without a clue Republican Party going off the rails? MORE (R-Neb.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottLobbying world Powell pushes back on GOP inflation fears Trump ready to make McConnell's life miserable 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 GrahamPassage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Progressive support builds for expanding lower courts McConnell backs Garland for attorney general 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.