WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's lawyers opened their impeachment trial defense Saturday by accusing Democrats of striving to overturn the 2016 election, arguing that investigations of Trump's dealings with Ukraine have not been a fact-finding mission but a politically motivated effort to drive him from the White House.
Legal Counsel for President Donald Trump Jay Sekulow speaks during impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump in the Senate. (Senate Television via Getty Images)
“They're here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history," White House Counsel Pat Cipollone told senators. “And we can't allow that to happen."
The Trump legal team's arguments in the rare Saturday session were aimed at rebutting allegations that the president abused his power when he asked Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and then obstructed Congress as it tried to investigate. The lawyers are mounting a wide-ranging, aggressive defense asserting an expansive view of presidential powers and portraying Trump as besieged by political opponents determined to ensure that he won't be re-elected this November.
“They're asking you not only to overturn the results of the last election, but as I've said before, they're asking you to remove President Trump from an election that's occurring in approximately nine months," Cipollone said. “They're asking you to tear up all the ballots across this country on their own initiative."
Though Trump is the one on trial, the defense team made clear that it intends to place scrutiny on the FBI and to paint the impeachment case as a mere continuation of the investigations that have shadowed the president since before he took office - including one into allegations of Russian election interference on his behalf. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow suggested Democrats were investigating the president over Ukraine simply because they couldn't bring him down for Russia.
“That - for this," said Sekulow, holding up a copy of special counsel Robert Mueller's report, which he accused Democrats of attempting to “relitigate." That report detailed ties between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia but did not allege a criminal conspiracy to tip the election.
From the White House, Trump added name-calling, tweeting that his team was making his case “against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam “Shifty” Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nervous Nancy Pelosi” and others of “the Radical Left.” On the Senate floor, Trump's lawyers attacked Schiff, playing clips of past statements meant to undermine his credibility.
After three days of the Democrats setting up their case for impeachment, the president’s lawyers get their first chance to defend him Saturday, (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Trump's team made only a two-hour presentation, reserving the heart of its case for Monday. Acquittal appears likely, given that Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, and a two-thirds vote would be required for conviction and removal from office.
The Trump attorneys are responding to two articles of impeachment approved last month by the House - one that accuses him of encouraging Ukraine to investigate Biden at the same time the administration withheld military aid from the country, and the other that accuses him of obstructing Congress by directing aides not to testify or produce documents.
Trump's defense team took center stage following three days of methodical and passionate arguments from Democrats, who wrapped up Friday by warning that Trump will persist in abusing his power and endangering American democracy unless Congress intervenes to remove him before the 2020 election. They also implored Republicans to allow new testimony to be heard before senators render a final verdict.
“Give America a fair trial,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead Democratic impeachment manager. “She’s worth it.”
In making their case that Trump invited Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election, the seven Democratic prosecutors peppered their arguments with video clips, email correspondence and lessons in American history.
On Saturday morning, House managers made the procession across the Capitol at 9:30 to deliver the 28,578-page record of their impeachment case to the Senate.
But Republicans accused Democrats of cherrypicking evidence and omitting information favorable to the president, casing in a nefarious light actions that the president was legitimately empowered to take.
They argued that there was no evidence that Trump made the security aid contingent on Ukraine announcing an investigation into the Bidens and that Ukraine didn't even know that the money had been paused until shortly before it was released. Trump had reason to be concerned about corruption in Ukraine and he ultimately released the aid, they said.
“Most of the Democratic witnesses have never spoken to the president at all, let alone about Ukraine security assistance," said deputy White House Counsel Michael Purpura.
Pupura told the senators the other main reason for the July 25 call in which Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the Biden investigation was in line with the president's concerns about corruption, though Trump never mentioned that word, according to the rough transcript released by the White House.
Pupura said everyone knows that when Trump asked Zelenskiy to “do us a favor," he meant the U.S., not himself.
“This entire impeachment process is about the house managers' insistence that they are able to read everybody's thoughts," Sekulow said. “They can read everybody's intention. Even when the principal speakers, the witnesses themselves, insist that those interpretations are wrong.”
Defense lawyers say Trump was a victim not only of Democratic rage but also of overzealous agents and prosecutors. Sekulow cited mistakes made by the FBI in its surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide in the now-concluded Trump-Russia election investigation.
“You cannot simply decide this case in a vacuum," he said.
Trump, with his eyes on the audience beyond the Senate chamber, bemoaned the trial schedule in a tweet, saying it “looks like my lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.”
The Senate is heading next week toward a pivotal vote on Democratic demands for testimony from top Trump aides, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton, who refused to appear before the House. It would take four Republican senators to join the Democratic minority to seek witnesses, and so far the numbers appear lacking.
Democrats on Friday tried to preempt anticipated arguments from Trump's lawyers, attacking lines of defense as “laughable."
Those include that Trump had a legitimate basis to be concerned about potential corruption in Ukraine and to pause military aid to the country. One of the president's lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, was expected to argue that an impeachable offense requires criminal-like conduct, even though many legal scholars say that's not true.
With Chief Justice John Roberts presiding, the final day of the Democratic arguments opened with Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger, saying the only reason Trump eventually released his hold on the aid Ukraine desperately relied on to counter Russian aggression was because he had "gotten caught.”
The Democrats' challenge was clear as they tried to convince not just senators but an American public divided over the Republican president in an election year.
A poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed the public slightly more likely to say the Senate should convict and remove Trump from office than to say it should not, 45% to 40%. But a sizable percentage, 14%, said they didn't know enough to have an opinion.
One issue with wide agreement: Trump should allow top aides to appear as witnesses at the trial. About 7 in 10 respondents said so, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats, according to the poll.