President Donald Trump’s legal team is making his case.
After days of arguments in which Democrats exhaustively laid out the case that Trump illegally held up aid to Ukraine, used taxpayer dollars to pressure that country’s new President to help him hurt political opponents and then tried to obstruct Congress and cover it all up, Trump’s team had their turn to argue for their client.
It was important since the White House has, before now, officially refused to cooperate with the impeachment process.
While Trump’s lawyers refuted specific elements of the case against Trump, their arguments Saturday boiled down to two key points:
1. Democrats are trying to steal the 2020 election
“For all their talk about election interference, they’re here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history — and we can’t allow that to happen,” said White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is leading Trump’s team.
2. There is no direct evidence of wrongdoing
“They think you can read minds, I look at the words,” he said, after pointing out that neither Trump nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said there was pressure, despite Trump’s request in the White House call transcript.
Need for White House evidence
Speaking after the arguments, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the defense arguments were proof the Senate trial should feature witnesses and subpoenas for documents.
“So the President’s counsel is criticizing the case against the President for lack of sources close to the President while at the same time blocking testimony from witnesses close to the President,” he said. “It makes no sense.”
Will any senators actually flip on Trump impeachment?
The current question is not whether Trump will be removed from office — he won’t. It’s whether senators vote to hear from witnesses and see new evidence. I spent much of Friday going over which senators might flip — from both parties. Democrats seem completely united. There is a small universe of Republicans to watch. And even they are complaining about this process. It could be a stretch for even four Republicans to support more information at this trial. See everyone here.
Smart for Trump’s team to go quickly
The arguments lasted just about two hours. Cipollone, literally at the stroke of noon, said he was done for the day.
The fact of their brevity was a theme Trump’s lawyers continually mentioned.
“I am not going to continue to go over and over and over again the evidence that they did not put before you. Because we would be here for a lot longer than 24 hours,” said Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lead attorneys.
‘If you’re winning, shut up’
Some supporters of impeachment praised the move, in part because Saturday morning is, as Trump has said, the Death Valley of ratings, but also as a sign of respect to senators itching to get out the door and smart, given the defense team’s strategic position.
“If you take less time and make your point more crisply, that’s probably better,” said Preet Bharara, former US attorney for the Southern District of New York
“If you’re winning, shut up,” added lawyer Jeffrey Toobin on CNN. “I think that’s the guiding principal of what they’re doing.”
Some flaws in the Trump defense
There were some flaws in their arguments.
For instance, deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura played several moments from impeachment hearings in which witnesses — former US Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, former special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker and former National Security Council staffer Tim Morrison — said the first time they knew the Ukrainians expressed concern about security funding being frozen was in August.
And all that testimony did occur.
Purpura did not include the testimony of Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official who mentioned emails her office received from Ukrainians about the aid on the same day as Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian President.
Nor did he mention documents that show Ukrainians concerned about the holdup in early August, reported on by The New York Times.
Schiff turned into anti-Trump villain
After days in which Rep. Adam Schiff, the House’s lead impeachment manager and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, became a viral hero to supporters of impeachment, with his methodical arguments and passionate, urgent pleas to hold Trump accountable, he was given a new role by the President’s defense team.
His satirical paraphrasing of Trump’s call with Zelensky, for which Trump and his defenders have routinely criticized Schiff, was played and the California Democrat was accused of being a liar.
“That’s fake, that’s not the real call,” Purpua said after playing the moment. “That’s not the evidence here, that’s not the transcript.”
Purpura showed the clip from the acting DNI hearing, Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, looked at him and was watching along without expression, according to CNN’s Manu Raju.
Schiff tried to head that claim off during his arguments Friday.
“I discovered something very significant by mocking the President and that is for a man who loves to mock others, he does not like to be mocked. As it turns out, he’s got a pretty thin skin. Who would have thought it?” Schiff said, anticipating the line of questioning against him. “Never mind that I said I wasn’t using his words before I said, and I wasn’t using his words after I said it, and I said I was making a parody of his words — ‘It’s an outrage! He mocked the President, that Schiff! Terrible!'”
Trump’s defense played multiple video clips of Schiff, not just from that hearing, but also from a cable news interview in which he said there was evidence of the Trump campaign colluding with Russia. The Trump defense disputed this point and said it was part of a pattern by Schiff, misrepresenting things.
Pompeo fires back, on official letterhead, at a reporter who talked about his expletive-laced outburst at her when she asked Pompeo why he hasn’t done more to defend Yovanovitch.
When asked by CNN about the newly revealed ABC recording of Trump, Sen. Lindsey Graham downplayed its impact. “No, I think the President had lost faith in her for reasons that are known to him, and I just don’t think there’s a problem,” said the South Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
And the Pentagon’s vow to protect Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman against retaliation is being tested after Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee this week repeatedly attacked the decorated veteran.
Point of order: Conviction does not automatically disqualify Trump in 2020
When Cipollone alleged that Democrats are asking Americans to “remove President Trump from the ballot” in the 2020, it wasn’t technically correct.
As CNN’s Jamie Ehrlich pointed out to me earlier this week, Article 1 Section 3 of the Constitution holds that “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.” It does not specify, however, whether those votes — removal and disqualification — should be held concurrently.
In our case, removal and disqualification are listed together in the articles of impeachment, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi handed over to the Senate to vote on. The precedent shows, however, that the Senate has separated removal and disqualification when they have voted on federal judges and officials. In the past, removal has required a supermajority (67 votes) and disqualification only required a simple majority (51 votes).
For example, in 1913, US Circuit Judge Robert Archbald was removed from office by a super majority and then disqualified by a simple majority. In 1989, US District Judge Alcee L. Hastings was convicted by the Senate by a super majority but a vote on disqualification never happened, and eventually he won a seat in the US House of Representatives, where he currently serves and represents Florida.
This opens the door to Trump being removed from office, yet he is able to run for reelection in the fall. It also opens up the possibility that the Senate bars him from running for office, but allows him to remain President.
This is just a point of order, however, since there are not currently anywhere near the 67 votes needed to convict Trump.