WASHINGTON, DC — President Donald Trump's lawyers opened their impeachment trial defense on Saturday by asserting that he “did absolutely nothing wrong" when he asked Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Joe Biden. They accused Democratic prosecutors of omitting key evidence when they presented their case.
The president's lawyers are pressing the Republican-led chamber to acquit Trump of charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress.
Trump's legal team planned an aggressive, wide-ranging defense asserting an expansive view of presidential powers and portraying him as besieged by political opponents determined to undo the results of the 2016 election and ensure he won't be reelected this November. The lawyers also aim to put Democrat Joe Biden on the defensive as he campaigns for the leadoff Iowa caucuses next month.
“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," said White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. “They're asking you to tear up all the ballots across this country on their own initiative.
The opening of the defense's case comes after a three-day presentation by House Democrats. As they wrapped up on Friday, they asserted 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.”
Schiff closed Democrats’ case after methodical and impassioned arguments detailing charges that Trump abused power by asking Ukraine for politically motivated probes of political rivals, then obstructed Congress’ investigation into the matter. Trump's lawyers contend Trump was within his rights as president when he asked Ukraine for the investigation.
House managers made the procession across the Capitol before the trial resumed Saturday to deliver the 28,578-page record of their impeachment case to the Senate.
The seven Democratic prosecutors peppered their arguments with video clips, email correspondence and lessons in American history. Republicans who found the presentation tedious and redundant can expect differences in tone and style from Trump's lawyers, who planned to attack the impeachment as much on political as legal grounds.
“It’s really trying to remove the president from the ballot in 2020. They don’t trust the American people to make a decision,” attorney Jay Sekulow said.
Defense lawyers were expected to press the argument that Trump was a victim not only of Democratic outrage but also of overzealous agents and prosecutors. The lawyers probably will cite mistakes made by the FBI in its surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide in the now-concluded Russia investigation. In response to allegations that he invited foreign interference, they already have argued that it was no different from Hillary Clinton's campaign's use of a former British spy to gather opposition research on Trump in 2016.
Acquittal was likely, given that Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, and a two-thirds vote would be required for conviction.
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.”
Arguments were scheduled for just a few hours Saturday in what defense lawyers called a sneak preview. They'll continue Monday.
The president is being tried in the Senate after the House impeached him last month on charges he abused his office by asking Ukraine for the probes at the same time the administration withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid. The second article of impeachment against Trump accuses him of obstructing Congress by refusing to turn over documents or allow officials to testify in the House probe.
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.
“This needs to end,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump confidant. He said he doesn't want to hear from Bolton or from Joe Biden or his son Hunter. The younger Biden who served on a Ukraine gas company’s board.
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 scheme was unraveling,” Crow said. The money for Ukraine was put on hold after Trump's July 25 call to Ukraine that launched the impeachment probe, and released Sept. 11 once Congress intervened.
Throughout the three days, Democrats balanced the legal and history lessons with plainspoken language about what they see as at stake: the security of U.S. elections, America's place in the world and checks on presidential power. The Democrats argued that Trump's motives were apparent, that he abused power like no other president in history, swept up by a “completely bogus” Ukraine theory pushed by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
“Let me tell you something. If right doesn't matter, it doesn't matter how good the Constitution is," Schiff said in an emotional plea to a pin-drop-quiet room. “If you find him guilty you must find that he should be removed. Because right matters."
They argued that Trump's abuse was for his own personal political benefit ahead of the 2020 election, even as administration officials were warning off the theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election.
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.
After both sides have concluded their arguments next week, senators will face the question of whether to call witnesses to testify. But that issue seems all but settled. Republicans rejected Democratic efforts to get Trump aides, including Bolton and Mulvaney, to testify in back-to-back votes earlier this week.
As for the Ukraine connections, evidence has shown that Trump, with Giuliani, pursued investigations of the Bidens and sought the investigation of the debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.