Trump’s lawyers prepare a blistering defense
Over the last three days, House Democrats have presented compelling evidence in the form of snappy video clips, punchy PowerPoint slides and impassioned oratory, building a case that removing President Trump from office is imperative to protect the Constitution and the country.
Starting Saturday, Trump’s lawyers will get their say — and they appear ready to deliver what the president had sought from Ukraine: the public tarring of 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Unlike the trial sessions so far, which all stretched into the night, Saturday’s proceedings will last only a few hours. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and outside counsel Jay Sekulow plan to outline a preliminary case — just enough, a source close to the legal team said, to offer fodder for Sunday morning TV talk shows.
“I guess I would call it a trailer, coming attractions,” Sekulow said Friday, explaining that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked Trump’s lawyers if they would start with a short session Saturday so senators could leave town to campaign, or at least catch up on their sleep.
“Next week is when you’ll see the full presentation,” he added.
The president’s team will get 24 hours, over three days, to argue his defense. It’s not clear if they will use all that time, but the outlines — less a response to the House arguments that concluded Friday than a blistering counter-offensive — came into sharper focus Friday.
If there is a theme, it may be from Trump’s top liaison to lawmakers, Eric Ueland, who was overheard vowing “revenge” as he left the Senate chamber.
Sekulow did not contest that Trump had indeed urged Ukraine to investigate Biden last year while the president had blocked $391 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine for its war with Russian-backed separatists.
Rather, Sekulow brushed off the matter at the heart of the Democrats’ impeachment case as no different than the Democrats’ hiring a Washington firm that used a retired British spy during the 2016 campaign to compile a dossier about Trump’s alleged dealings with Russia.
“Adam Schiff just said that this idea of solicitation of foreign interference is deplorable,” Sekulow said during a break in the trial, referring to the House lead impeachment manager.
“I wonder if he thought that about the fact that the Clinton campaign had sought ... the Steele dossier, who was utilizing assets that a former British spy had in Russia to get information on the president, then candidate. Is that not foreign interference?” he asked.
Alan Dershowitz, the veteran defense attorney who has joined Trump’s defense team, will appear Monday, when the president’s lawyers plan to roll out the bulk of their argument.
Dershowitz has been preparing his hourlong argument in Miami Beach, poring over old legal texts to find support for his argument that abuse of power, one of the charges against Trump, is “too vague” to constitute an impeachable offense.
In his view, Democrats have misinterpreted the writings of Alexander Hamilton, whom House managers have cited numerous times to make their case that Trump’s efforts to seek help from a foreign power — in this case Ukraine — in a U.S. election is the classic definition of an impeachable offense.
“His gravest concern was what happened here: a strictly partisan vote in the House. That’s not the way he thought impeachment should go,” Dershowitz said in a phone interview.
Republican senators appeared enthusiastic after House managers spent part of Thursday trying to knock down unsubstantiated allegations that Biden had acted improperly as vice president to protect his son Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company. Both Bidens have denied any wrongdoing.
In their presentation, Democrats clearly sought to inoculate Biden — and undermine the president’s defense — before Trump’s lawyers get to make their case.
But Trump’s lawyers will argue that the president’s demands to Ukraine were legitimate and are eager to hold Biden’s actions up to partisan scrutiny days before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, the start of the Democratic nomination contest.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s most ardent defenders, urged the president’s legal team to go after the Bidens’ dealings in Ukraine and later suggested that an independent counsel should be appointed after the impeachment trial concludes.
“When the [House] managers tell me this has been looked at and debunked — by who?” Graham said. “That’s becoming relevant because they talked about it almost 50 times that the president had no reason to believe that anything improper occurred in the Ukraine with the Bidens. The question is, will that withstand scrutiny?”
During their presentation, the House managers sought to preempt likely defense arguments that Trump’s actions were warranted, that Trump did not commit a crime, and that impeachment is a political vendetta by Democrats seeking to overturn the 2016 election and worried about November.
“When the president’s counsel now gets up and makes those arguments, every Republican senator and the American people would’ve heard already why they’re utter nonsense,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Friday.
Schumer said impeachment was “too important” for White House attorneys to resort to “name calling” and “conspiracy theories” when it’s their turn.
He also laid down a challenge for GOP lawmakers to allow for witnesses, noting that four Republicans would have to switch sides and vote with the 47 Democrats to make that happen.
“We’re seeking the truth at a momentous time in the American republic,” Schumer said. “It is on the shoulders of four Republican senators to join us in demanding it. Will four Republican senators, just four, rise to the occasion, do their duty to the Constitution and to their country to seek the truth?”
In many cases, Republicans have impugned the credibility of the Democrats arguing for impeachment rather than challenging the facts of their case — a strategy the president’s legal team is likely to continue to use.
Trump, who is intensely focused on media coverage and its effect on public opinion, has tried to counter-program this week’s impeachment proceedings.
He spent two days at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, returning on Wednesday night after firing off a 142 tweets and retweets, a personal record for the president, mostly about the impeachment. He spoke Friday at the March for Life on the National Mall, the first president to do so.
Meanwhile, in an unusual flurry of activity, the administration issued new rules that weakened protection for the nation’s wetlands and streams, and threatened to cut federal funds to California over its mandate that health insurers cover abortion.
And next week, as the Senate trial continues, Trump will play host to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, and will sign a revised trade pact with Canada and Mexico on Wednesday.
But the president remains intensely focused on the trial, eager for a robust defense in the Senate and on TV. In a tweet Friday, he complained about the Saturday morning opening slot for his lawyers, although the schedule was set by McConnell.
“After having been treated unbelievably unfairly in the House, and then having to endure hour after hour of lies, fraud & deception by Shifty Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer & their crew, looks like my lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.,” Trump tweeted.
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