Trump defense team signals focus on Schiff

At several points during their opening argument, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE’s defense team trained their fire on Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats hit Trump for handling of Russian bounty allegations after White House briefing Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November Democrats face tough questions with Bolton 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) 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 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 GrahamThe Hill's Campaign Report: The political heavyweights in Tuesday's primary fights Harrison goes on the attack against Graham in new South Carolina Senate ad Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police 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 MurkowskiSenators will have access to intelligence on Russian bounties on US troops Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators push to limit transfer of military-grade equipment to police 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 BarrassoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump nominates controversial, longtime acting head of BLM as director | Ernst sinks vote on Trump EPA nominee | Massive dust storm from Africa hits Texas, Louisiana Ernst sinks vote on Trump EPA nominee Cruz urges Trump to support Israeli annexation 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 NadlerNadler wins Democratic primary Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November Clyburn threatens to end in-person coronavirus committee hearings if Republicans won't wear masks MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse votes unanimously to extend deadline for coronavirus small-business loan program Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated 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 SchumerOvernight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday Top intelligence officials to brief Gang of Eight on Thursday Over 1700 veterans ask Senate to pass statehood bill 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.