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Trump defense team signals focus on Schiff

At several points during their opening argument, President TrumpDonald TrumpFacebook temporarily bans ads for weapons accessories following Capitol riots Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP Section 230 worked after the insurrection, but not before: How to regulate social media MORE’s defense team trained their fire on Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffSunday shows preview: Washington prepares for an inauguration and impeachment; coronavirus surges across the US What our kids should know after the Capitol Hill riot  Pelosi names 9 impeachment managers MORE (D-Calif.), removing any doubt about their intent to make the House manager’s credibility an issue at the impeachment trial.

Addressing the Senate on Saturday, Trump’s lawyers accused Schiff of repeatedly stretching the truth and creating false impressions amid his pursuit to take down the president.

“Chairman Schiff has made so much of the House’s case about the credibility of interpretations that the House managers want to place on — not hard evidence — but on inferences,” said Patrick Philbin, deputy counsel to Trump.

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“It is very relevant to know whether assessments of evidence he’s presented in the past are accurate,” Philbin said of Schiff. “And we would submit they have not been, and that that is relevant for your consideration.” 

The defense team portrayed Schiff as having first launched his overreaching efforts against Trump during 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 continuing through Trump’s impeachment trial.

The attacks on Schiff were perhaps unsurprising, as the House Intelligence Committee chairman has emerged as the lead prosecutor among House managers pressing the case against Trump in the Senate.

In fact, Schiff anticipated the offensive and delivered a warning to senators last night that spelled out specific attacks he expected to be lodged against him, some of which materialized Saturday.

“I think the second thing you'll hear from the president's team is, attack the managers. Those managers are just awful. They're terrible people,” Schiff said. “Especially that Schiff guy. He's the worst. He's the worst.”

Schiff’s prediction earned him smiles from some Senate Republicans, notably Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP An attack on America that's divided Congress — and a nation The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history MORE (R-S.C.), who has praised the congressman during the proceedings, despite his nearly assured vote for Trump’s acquittal. 

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If he wasn’t already, Schiff became one of the prominent faces of Democratic impeachment efforts Thursday, after an emotional speech went viral, during which he discussed the need for moral consensus, saying that “right matters, and the truth matters.”

"He's a good orator, you gotta give him that," said Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history MORE (R-Alaska), who is seen as one of several moderate Republican senators who could be persuaded to vote with Democrats in favor of allowing new witnesses to testify.  

Graham has been mostly effusive in his praise of Schiff, though he has said the congressman at times can take things too far.

"He's well spoken. Did a good job of creating a tapestry. Taking bits and pieces of evidence and emails and giving a rhetorical flourish,” Graham said Thursday. “Sometimes effectively, sometimes a little over the top."

Trump’s team today called into question whether Schiff can be trusted as an honest broker.

At one point, Trump’s defense team played video of Schiff on NBC’s "Meet the Press," saying that he had seen “evidence that is not circumstantial” that the Trump campaign had colluded in Russia’s 2016 election interference. 

Trump’s lawyers contrasted Schiff’s claim with Mueller’s conclusion that his nearly two-year probe had established no coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

The defense team also accused Schiff and his staff of coaching the whistleblower, who raised a red flag over Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president that set in motion the impeachment.

They paired the allegation with a clip of Schiff asserting on national television that “we have not spoken directly with the whistleblower,” a claim which fact-checkers found was false.

Senators were also shown a video of Schiff delivering a dramatized reenactment of the readout from Trump’s July 25 call, which later prompted Trump to suggest Schiff be arrested for treason. 

“That’s fake,” deputy White House counsel Mike Purpura said of Schiff’s performance. “That's not the real call. That's not the evidence here." 

However, Trump’s lawyers did not tell the Senate that Schiff, prior to his interpretative reading, said he would be describing "the essence" of Trump’s message "shorn of its rambling character and in not so many words." 

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The defense team’s opening argument earned praise from Trump’s allies in Congress. 

"It completely undermined the case of the Democrats and truly undermined the credibility of Adam Schiff,” Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Georgia keeps Senate agenda in limbo Spending bill aims to reduce emissions, spur energy development MORE (Wyo.), the No. 3 Senate Republican said. Barrasso said he watched Schiff’s reaction when the defense team played the clip of his “fictionalized, made-up” version of Trump’s call with Zelensky.

“I know the press couldn't see his face,” Barrasso said. “But the blood drained from Adam Schiff's face as they played that video and his made-up words."

Democrats dismissed the attacks on Schiff as a distraction and a continuation of recent ad hominems against House manager Rep. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerPelosi names 9 impeachment managers Republicans gauge support for Trump impeachment Clyburn blasts DeVos and Chao for 'running away' from 25th Amendment fight MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMissouri woman seen with Pelosi sign charged in connection with Capitol riots Boebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report Revising the pardon power — let the Speaker and Congress have voices MORE (D-Calif.). 

"I think they always look for diversions. A few days ago it was Nadler. A few days before that it was Pelosi. That's what they do,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Democrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial MORE (D-N.Y.). “We have to go forward and look at the truth and not be diverted by any kind of ad hominem attacks" 

For his part, Schiff stayed on message following the attack, redirecting the focus back on Democrats’ case during a press conference.

"They don't contest the basic architecture of this scheme,” Schiff told reporters Saturday. “They do not contest that the president solicited a foreign nation to interfere in our election, to help him cheat.”

Jordain Carney and Mike Lillis contributed.