President Trump’s legal team will argue in his Senate trial that abuse of power is not an impeachable offense, while Democrats called that claim “absurdist” and a signal that the president has no defense against the case against him.
The third impeachment trial in U.S. history will start in earnest on Tuesday, after its ceremonial opening last week with the swearing-in of senators who will serve as jurors and of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who will preside.
Both sides took to the TV talk shows Sunday to preview their arguments and court public opinion that has shown little movement since House impeachment proceedings began in September.
Democrats said they have built an unassailable case that Trump improperly sought to trade congressionally mandated security aid to vulnerable U.S. ally Ukraine in exchange for political favors, in what they allege was an abuse of power.
Trump also is charged with obstructing Congress, an accusation leveled after the White House blocked House requests for key witnesses and documents..
But one of Trump’s lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, best known for defending celebrity clients like Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson, said he will argue that even if Trump did everything Democrats say he did, that conduct does not merit impeachment and removal from office.
“You can’t charge a president with impeachable conduct if it doesn’t fit within the criteria for the Constitution,” Dershowitz said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Dershowitz said his legal approach would render irrelevant the question of whether witnesses should be called. Democrats insist the Republican-controlled Senate should subpoena witnesses, while Republican leaders have refused to commit to doing so.
“If the House charges do not include impeachable offenses, that’s really the end of the matter,” Dershowitz said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who recently abandoned a run for the Democratic presidential nomination, took sharp exception.
“This is preposterous that this would not be an impeachable offense — that the standard in America is now that presidents could abuse their power to help them in elections,” Booker said on “This Week.”
Trump stands accused of orchestrating an effort to press Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival, and his son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while Biden was vice president.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the Trump’s most fervent backers and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, echoed Dershowitz’s line of reasoning. Interviewed on “Fox News Sunday,” he said abuse of power was “so poorly defined here” that future presidents would not have a clear sense of pitfalls to be avoided.
Rep. Adam Schiff, (D-Burbank), who leads the team of seven House managers who will essentially serve as prosecutors in the Senate trial, said the Trump team’s legal strategy, outlined in a six-page document released Saturday night, showed they could not refute the allegations House Democrats laid out against the president.
“The only thing really new about the president’s defense is that they’re now arguing — I think because they can’t contest the facts — that the president cannot be impeached for abusing the power of his office,” Schiff said on ABC. He called that an “absurdist position.”
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), another House manager, also said the president’s team would not be able to disprove the testimony given by witnesses in House hearings last year about Trump’s campaign to withhold the aid from Ukraine until President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to investigate the Bidens.
“Our case is simple; the case is uncontested,” Jeffries told “Fox News Sunday.” He added that the evidence against Trump was “overwhelming.”
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) suggested that Trump may have erred in the heat of the moment. Democrats contend it was an effort spread out among a number of agencies over a period of months.
Asked whether it was “OK” for a president to solicit foreign help in tilting an election, Shelby said Trump is “human” and thus might “make mistakes.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not unveiled rules for the proceedings. But Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that McConnell may try to compress the 24 hours each side is allotted to make their case into four 12-hour days, meaning the first part of the trial could wrap up as early as next weekend.
McConnell has abandoned proposals to seek a preemptory dismissal of the case without hearing arguments, said Graham, his fellow GOP Trump stalwart.
“Yeah, that’s dead for practical purposes,” Graham said in his Fox interview.
He revived a threat that if the Democrats manage to secure the votes of four Republican senators and seek witness testimony from Trump’s acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney or his former national security adviser John Bolton, Republicans will demand testimony from several people Democrats consider peripheral because they do not have direct knowledge of Trump’s actions.
“If we call one witness, we’re going to call all the witnesses,” said Graham. Some Republicans, including the president, have repeatedly demanded that Biden, his son and the still-anonymous whistle blower whose complaint set the inquiry in motion be called to testify if any of Trump’s top aides are summoned.