WASHINGTON — President Trump’s legal defense team mounted an aggressive offense on Saturday as it opened its side in the Senate impeachment trial by attacking his Democratic accusers as partisan witch-hunters trying to remove him because they could not beat him at the ballot box.
After three days of arguments by the House managers prosecuting Mr. Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors, the president’s lawyers presented the senators a radically different view of the facts and the Constitution, seeking to turn the Democrats’ charges back on them while denouncing the whole process as illegitimate.
“They’re asking you to tear up all of the ballots all across the country on your own initiative, take that decision away from the American people,” Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, said of the House managers. “They’re here,” he added moments later, “to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history, and we can’t allow that to happen.”
From the White House, Mr. Trump weighed in on Twitter with attacks on prominent Democrats including Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the lead prosecutor for Democrats, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, portraying his impeachment trial as a forum for convicting them instead.
“Our case against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam “Shifty” Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nervous Nancy Pelosi, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC, & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrat Party, starts today at 10:00 A.M.,” he wrote.
The abbreviated Saturday trial session, which opened earlier than previous days and lasted about two hours so that senators could leave town for the rest of the weekend, was the first time Mr. Trump’s representatives have formally made a case for him in a congressional proceeding since the House opened its impeachment inquiry back in September.
With the odds stacked against him in the Democratic-run House, Mr. Trump refused to send lawyers to participate in Judiciary Committee hearings last month, complaining that he was not given due process. But he faced a more receptive audience in the Republican-controlled Senate, where the White House has been working in tandem with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader.
President Trump’s defense team will a more receptive audience in the Republican-controlled Senate, where the White House has been working in tandem with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.Credit…Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times
While the House managers presented a damning case against the president over three days of arguments that wrapped up Friday night, Mr. Trump still appeared certain to win acquittal in a trial that requires the support of two-thirds of senators to convict and remove him from office. So the main priority for the president’s legal team as it opened its arguments was not to undermine its own advantage or give wavering moderate Republican senators reasons to support Democratic requests for witnesses and documentary evidence.
A vote on that question will not come until next week, and it remained the central question of the impeachment trial, with the potential to either prolong the process and yield new revelations that could further damage Mr. Trump, or to bring the proceeding to a swift conclusion. But after long days of exhaustive arguments by the House managers, there was little indication that there would be enough Republican support to extend the trial by considering new evidence.
In keeping with their combative client’s own style, Mr. Trump’s lawyers not only insisted he “did absolutely nothing wrong,” as Mr. Cipollone put it, but also assailed his accusers in unrelenting terms, painting them as partisans not prosecutors. The lawyers sought to turn the tables on the Democrats by hurling back at them some of the same allegations they have made against their client. By their account, the Democrats were the ones who were abusing their power to steal an election.
Mr. Trump faces two articles of impeachment, for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, stemming from his effort to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into his Democratic rivals while withholding nearly $400 million in congressionally approved security aid, a decision that a government agency called a violation of law.
His lawyers maintained that he had every right to set foreign policy as he saw fit and that he had valid concerns about corruption in Ukraine and burden sharing with Europe that prompted him to suspend the aid temporarily. They also have argued that he was protecting presidential prerogatives when he refused to allow aides to testify or provide documents in the House proceedings.
Michael Purpura, a deputy White House counsel, said that Mr. Trump did not explicitly link American aid to his demand for investigations during his July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and noted that Mr. Zelensky has publicly said he did not feel pressured. Mr. Purpura added that there could not have been an illicit quid pro quo because the Ukrainians did not know about the aid freeze until a month later, although some American and Ukrainian officials have said in fact they knew as early as the day of the presidents’ call.
Mr. Purpura dismissed much of the testimony collected during the House impeachment hearings as hearsay, and played video clips of former officials saying they knew of no quid pro quo. He also played a succession of clips of Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, testifying that he “presumed” there was a link between the suspended aid and the demand for investigations but did not actually know it for a fact.
And following the president’s lead, they targeted Mr. Schiff, replaying video from a hearing last year in which he embellished Mr. Trump’s conversation with Ukraine’s leader for dramatic effect, saying he was describing the “sum and character” of what the president had tried to communicate.
“That’s fake,” Mr. Purpura, a White House lawyer, said after the clip ended. “That’s not the real call. That’s not the evidence here.”
The lawyers said the House managers had also left out any exculpatory evidence during their presentation to the Senate.
“Every time you see one of these pieces of evidence, ask yourself, ‘Why didn’t I see that in the first three days?’” Mr. Cipollone said. “They had it. It came out of their process. Why didn’t they show that to the Senate?”
Mr. Purpura offered his own answer: “Because none of this of this fits their narrative and it wouldn’t lead to their predetermined outcome.”
Over the course of their arguments, Mr. Trump’s lawyers signaled they plan to discuss in detail former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden. The younger Mr. Biden earned large paychecks sitting on the board of a Ukrainian energy company at the same time his father managed Ukraine policy for the Obama administration. They also assailed the F.B.I. for its surveillance of a onetime Trump campaign aide, which has been criticized by an inspector general report.
Under the trial rules, the House managers had no speaking opportunity on the floor on Saturday, but they delivered a 28,578-page trial record to the secretary of the Senate that served as the foundation of their case.
“The record delivered today presents a mountain of evidence showing the president has committed the impeachable offenses that the House has charged — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — and he should be removed from office,” the managers said in a statement. “The factual and legal record laid out by the House managers has yet to be substantively rebutted by President Trump or his lawyers, who have instead sought to hide behind novel and frivolous legal theories.”
The White House arguments on Saturday were meant to be what Jay Sekulow, another of the president’s lawyers, called a “sneak preview” before being resumed on Monday.
The White House has also tapped Ken Starr, the former independent counsel whose investigation led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, and Alan M. Dershowitz, the celebrity lawyer who represented O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein and other famous defendants.
The White House side has 24 hours over as many as three days to present its side but the president’s lawyers said they will not take that much time.
Senators on both sides of the aisle grew weary as the House team used all of its time, going late into the evening three nights in a row and repeating many of the same arguments. Mr. Trump’s team played to senators’ exhaustion, repeatedly noting that the other side took nearly all of its allotted 24 hours and vowing to be “efficient” themselves.
After the president’s defense is complete, the senators themselves will enter the trial for the first time, although even then without speaking. They will have up to 16 hours over a couple of days to submit questions in writing that will be read by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who is presiding over the trial.
The Senate will then consider any motions to dismiss the case or to call witnesses and demand documents. The House managers need at least four Republican senators to join the Democrats to call witnesses. If no witnesses are called and no motion to dismiss the case is passed, the Senate would then move to final deliberations on conviction or acquittal, with a verdict possible as early as next week.
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