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Trump defense team signals focus on Schiff

At several points during their opening argument, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's Facebook ban to stay in place, board rules Trump allies launching nonprofit focused on voter fraud DOJ asks for outside lawyer to review Giuliani evidence MORE’s defense team trained their fire on Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffGender politics hound GOP in Cheney drama Senate Intel vows to 'get to the bottom' of 'Havana syndrome' attacks Federal investigators search Giuliani apartment 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 GrahamMichael Flynn flubs words to Pledge of Allegiance at pro-Trump rally Police reform talks ramp up amid pressure from Biden, families Victims' relatives hold Capitol Hill meetings to push police reform 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 MurkowskiTrump muddles Republican messaging on Afghanistan Trump drama divides GOP, muddling message Moderate Republicans leery of Biden's renewed call for unity 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 BarrassoRepublican seeks to use Obama energy policies to criticize Biden  EPA proposes major rule to reduce certain greenhouse gases Republicans hammer Biden on infrastructure while administration defends plan 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 NadlerA historic moment to truly honor mothers Britney Spears to discuss conservatorship in court Schumer waiting for recommendation on Supreme Court expansion MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi mocks House GOP looking for 'non-threatening female' to replace Liz Cheney Caitlyn Jenner: California needs a 'thoughtful disruptor' Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel 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 SchumerOn The Money: How demand is outstripping supply and hampering recovery | Montana pulls back jobless benefits | Yellen says higher rates may be necessary Senate Democrats announce B clean bus plan NYC 24-hour subway service resumes May 17 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.