(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s lawyers said House Democrats failed to prove their case for impeaching the president and now are asking the Senate to take the unprecedented step of removing him from office without evidence to justify such a consequential act.
“They are asking you not only to overturn the results of the last election, but, as I said before, they are asking you to remove President Trump from the ballot in an election that is occurring in approximately nine months,” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone said as he opened the president’s defense on Saturday. “They’re asking you to do something that no Senate has ever done and they’re asking you to do it with no evidence.”
Trump’s lawyers spoke for about two hours Saturday in what they called a preview of their broader defense. They’ll resume Monday at 1 p.m.
Cipollone and the other members of Trump’s team said they will provide a point-by-point rebuttal of the impeachment case presented by Democrats over the three previous days.
Attacking the heart of the House impeachment article charging Trump with abuse of power -- that the president pressured Ukraine to help his 2020 re-election campaign -- Cipollone said Democrats were attempting “to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history.”
The defense began after House impeachment managers wrapped up their case Friday night arguing that the president must be held accountable for holding up U.S. aid to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into a political rival, Democrat Joe Biden, and then engaged in unprecedented obstruction of a congressional inquiry into his conduct.
Attorneys for Trump will have 24 hours divided over three days to argue the president’s defense. The White House has not said whether they will use all of it. Trump tweeted on Friday that his lawyers were being “forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.”
Trump is all but assured of acquittal on the two articles of impeachment by the Republican-controlled Senate. But he and his lawyers still face the task of winning over the public. Failing to do so could have significant implications in November when Trump stands for re-election and control of Congress is at stake.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 47% of adults say the Senate should remove Trump from office while 49% say it should not. The same survey showed that roughly two-thirds of adults want to hear from additional witnesses -- such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton and Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney -- a move the White House has resisted and Senate Republicans have rejected.
The polling suggests that Senate Republicans -- even if they vote to acquit Trump -- must show that they’ve taken the allegations seriously. Several lawmakers have pushed Trump’s team to make a strong, defensible case.
As Democrats did in their presentation, members of the defense team made use of video clips from public testimony during the House impeachment inquiry last year.
Trump attorney Michael Purpura showed excerpts from several witnesses, including Timothy Morrison, a former senior director for the National Security Council, who testified that he didn’t believe Trump had brought up the Biden investigation as a demand in a July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“Why didn’t they give you the context of this testimony?” Purpura asked the senators.
He and the other Trump lawyers also said Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian officials have repeatedly said they didn’t feel pressured by the U.S.
“There can’t be a threat without the person knowing he’s being threatened,” Purpura said.
Trump’s lawyers attacked the foundations of the House impeachment case. That included arguing that there were good reasons for Trump to not trust the assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia was acting alone in interfering in the 2016 election, and for his suspicions regarding corruption in Ukraine.
They also said that the aid was released and Zelenskiy did get a meeting with Trump.“This meeting did in fact occur,” attorney Jay Sekulow said. “It occurred at the UN General Assembly on September 25, 2019.”The aid was released and the meeting at the UN was arranged after an uproar over the revelation of an intelligence community whistle-blower’s complaint. The complaint raised alarms about Trump’s July phone call with Zelenskiy and a subsequent decision by White House lawyers to put the record of the conversation in a secure server to restrict access.
During that meeting, Zelenskiy said he had a “good phone call” and that “nobody pushed it.” He added that he didn’t want to “be involved” in U.S. elections.
Trump’s legal team didn’t address in their opening arguments several central issues raised by Democrats as part of their argument that Trump abused his power.
For example, the lawyers didn’t discuss Trump’s role in freezing aid to Ukraine, who else was involved in the decision and why it was done. The lawyers also didn’t address why the aid was finally lifted. And they didn’t provide any information or justification as to why Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was leading an effort outside of normal diplomatic channels to pressure Ukraine to announce the investigations.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said afterward the defense presentation left open questions that could only be addressed by calling as witnesses some of the administration officials with first-hand knowledge of what took place with Ukraine.
“The president’s counsel did something they did not intend,” Schumer said. “They made a compelling case for more witnesses and documents.”
Among the witnesses Democrats want to call are Mulvaney and Bolton, both of whom were directly involved in decisions regarding Ukraine.
However, Schumer acknowledged it will be a “hard road” to get four Republican senators to join Democrats in voting for subpoenas for witnesses or additional documents.
Several GOP senators said Saturday that there was no need for addition testimony.
“I personally don’t see any need for witnesses whatsoever,” Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said. “The cross-examination should have been as they developed the record in the House. Some kind of fair due process there. I would like to conclude this trial as quickly as possible.”
Trump’s legal team has previously indicated they will go after Biden after House managers defended the former vice president from unproven allegations made by Trump and Giuliani that Biden sought to stymie investigations into his son Hunter’s role on the board of the Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Holdings.
Biden is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in November and any such attacks would come just days before the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the campaign.
The Democrats sought to pre-empt and undercut that line of attack in their closing arguments. They cited testimony and other material as evidence that Biden was acting in accordance with public U.S. policy and argued that Trump wasn’t concerned about the issue until the former vice president entered the presidential race.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, who led the House prosecution, said Trump’s lawyers “don’t contest the basic architecture of this scheme,” which was to seek Ukraine’s help “to allow him to cheat against Joe Biden.”
On Saturday, before his defense team took the Senate floor, Trump used Twitter to deliver a broadside against Democrats “& the entire Radical Left.”
Trump’s team won’t just be making its impeachment defense on the Senate floor. The president’s schedule next week is unusually packed with public events, including a Tuesday meeting with Israeli leaders about the White House’s forthcoming Middle East peace plan, a signing ceremony on Wednesday for the revised North American Free Trade Agreement and two political rallies.
A White House official said the scheduling is a deliberate effort to distract from the impeachment hearings, which have dominated television news coverage for the past week.
(Updates with lawmakers’ additional remarks starting in 18th paragraph)
--With assistance from Jordan Fabian and Chris Strohm.
To contact the reporters on this story: Billy House in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Steven T. Dennis in Washington at email@example.com;Laura Litvan in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Daniel Flatley in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org, Laurie Asséo
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
Subscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.