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Trump attorneys blast impeachment, but defense arguments prompt new calls for witnesses

 Jay Sekulow lawyer for President trump
Defense attorney Jay Sekulow speaks during the impeachment trial of President Trump on Saturday.
(Senate Television)

President Trump’s legal team offered just two hours of defense arguments Saturday morning in his ongoing impeachment trial, delivering an emphatic, broad overview of their case for acquittal after three days of arguments from House Democrats advocating for his removal from office.

“You will find that the president did actually nothing wrong,” said Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, framing the Democratic case as driven by politics. “They’re asking you to remove President Trump from the ballot in an election that’s occurring in approximately nine months.”

Cipollone also sought to flip the crux of the impeachment case — Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations that would benefit him politically in 2020 — back against those prosecuting it. Democrats, he claimed, by trying to oust the president from office, “are here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history.”

Just as the trial got underway, Trump tweeted urging people to tune in on television to watch as his attorneys began their case.

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Democrats, who spent three days offering extensive arguments, buttressed by video clips of sworn testimony and PowerPoint slides, Cipollone said, had offered “no evidence” to support such an action.

“We can talk about the process, we will talk about the law, but today we are going to confront them on the merits of their argument, how they have the burden of proof and they have not come close to meeting it,” said Cipollone, who stated explicitly that he and his team did not intend to utilize the full 24 hours allotted to them, as Democrats had, to make its case.

Trump tweeted again when the session had wrapped up, stating: “Any fair minded person watching the Senate trial today would be able to see how unfairly I have been treated.”

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Following Saturday’s session, in comments to reporters, Democrats focused on Cipollone’s assertion that the House impeachment managers had not met their burden of proof as an argument to allow additional witnesses to be called, something the Republican Senate majority has thus far resisted.

“They made a really compelling case for why the Senate should call witnesses and documents,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the minority leader.

Last Tuesday, as the Senate debated and adopted rules for the trial, the GOP majority rebuffed numerous efforts by Democrats to ensure that witnesses could be called after both sides present their arguments. But Democrats, eager to hear from White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security advisor John Bolton in particular, are likely to try again this week.

Although there has been nothing to indicate that they can get the four Republican votes they would need to demand witnesses, Democrats continued Saturday to make their case.

“For anyone to argue there’s a burden of proof but then say, ‘But, I’m sorry, we’re not going to let you call witnesses ... that is called a rigged trial,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “That is the kind of trial you would expect in Russia or China, but not here in the United States of America.”

Trump’s defenders sought to portray the fullness of the Democrats’ arguments as overcompensation, with several Republicans complaining about it having been “repetitive” and too long. They framed the relative brevity of the president’s defense as a positive.

“We all figured out that we were just sitting there so they could talk to whoever was watching television at the time and I think that was a bad strategy on their part,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said of the Democrats’ presentation. “Hopefully the president’s counsel won’t make the same mistake.”

Jay Sekulow, the president’s private counsel, along with several Republican lawmakers, also made it clear in the trial’s opening days that the president’s defense would, at least to some extent, amount to an offensive against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter — the sort of public inquisition of a potential 2020 rival that he had been seeking from Ukraine.

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That aspect of the defense case did not take place during Saturday’s truncated session, but it is expected to be argued in the coming week.

Sekulow asserted that Trump had good reason to believe that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Democrat Hillary Clinton, repeating debunked Russian propaganda that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has said is wholly without merit.

“They kept telling you it was Russia alone that interfered in the 2016 election, but there is evidence that Ukraine also interfered,” Sekulow said. Trump, he went on, was right not to “blindly” follow the U.S. intelligence community’s assessments.

When the trial resumes on Monday, Trump’s lawyers plan to present a fuller case, featuring presentations from Alan Dershowitz, the veteran defense attorney and constitutional scholar, and Kenneth W. Starr, the prosecutor whose investigation led to President Clinton’s impeachment two decades ago.

The House voted along party lines in December to impeach Trump on a charge of abusing his office by withholding $391million in military aid to Ukraine for months as part of a pressure campaign to force the country’s new president into announcing a corruption investigation of Biden.

Hunter Biden joined the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, in April 2014. At that time, Ukraine — and its fight against corruption — was in the former vice president’s portfolio. In the nearly six years since, no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the Bidens has emerged.

In November, U.S. intelligence officials told senators and their aides that Moscow had engaged in a years-long campaign to frame Ukraine for Russia’s own interference in the 2016 election. U.S. intelligence indicated that Moscow was intensifying its efforts as 2020 approached.

Michael Purpura, another lawyer on Trump’s team, focused attention on Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, claiming that the president, who asked for investigations as “a favor” after Zelensky brought up his desire to purchase additional military defenses, never explicitly tied the investigations to U.S. aid.

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Moreover, he claimed the president’s request for investigations “was in line with the Trump administration’s legitimate concerns about corruption.”

“Most striking to me about the president’s presentation today is they don’t contest the basic architecture of the scheme,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the lead impeachment manager, after Saturday’s proceedings. “They do not contest that the president solicited a foreign nation to interfere in our election ... to help him cheat against Joe Biden. That is uncontested. Uncontested in our presentation and in theirs.”

Democrats approved a second article of impeachment for obstruction of Congress after the president blocked several witnesses from testifying during the House inquiry and refused to turn over documents that had been subpoenaed.

The president’s attorneys and Republicans have argued that Trump has the right to claim executive privilege in defying Congress’ requests.

Prior to Saturday morning’s opening gavel, House Democrats submitted a 25,578-page impeachment record, wheeling carts loaded with containers of thick binders to the Senate. One Democratic aide working on the trial told reporters that they expected a “masterclass... in distraction and distortion of truth” as Trump’s attorneys began their case.

“You can expect a lot of lies,” the aide said.

In his closing argument Friday night, Schiff sought to deflate a number of likely defense arguments in advance, given that the trial’s format allows both sides 24 hours to make their case but no opportunity for Democrats, who went first, to offer a rebuttal before this week’s question-and-answer sessions.

The Trump lawyers’ focus on the Bidens, Schiff argued, is a smokescreen, sending a message of “please do not consider what the president did.”

“If they couldn’t get Ukraine to do it,” he continued, referring to an investigation of the Bidens, “they want to use the trial to do it instead.”

Republicans left the chamber Friday night bristling over Schiff’s quotation of a news report that cited an anonymous source who suggested that the White House had informed GOP lawmakers that they’d get their “head on a pike” if they broke ranks and voted with Democrats during the impeachment trial.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), audibly reacted on the Senate floor, telling Schiff that the report wasn’t true. After the Senate adjourned, several raced to the microphones near the Senate subway to grouse to reporters. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said that he was “visibly upset.”

On Saturday morning, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a potential swing vote who could help Democrats open the trial up to new witnesses and evidence this week, told reporters: “I thought he went over the top with that comment.”

But a number of Democratic senators defended Schiff, asserting that, however dubious the anonymously sourced claim he cited, its truth has been effectively borne out by Republicans with their near-blanket loyalty to the president.

“The most dangerous place in America is near the exit doors of the White House,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “When someone falls out of favor with this president, he lops off their head, tosses their body in the snow and buries them in vicious tweets. So the notion that he may be following this trial and have strong feelings about those who don’t support him is not out of the question.”

Schiff addressed the GOP outcry Saturday afternoon, shrugging off the “attacks on managers” as attempts to “distract from facts” that are to be expected.

“Look, that’s what you do when your client is guilty ... you want to attack the prosecution,” he said. “If the worst they can point to is I referred to a published report by CBS, that’s pretty thin gruel.”


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