WASHINGTON — During their brief first day of opening statements Saturday, President Donald Trump’s defense lawyers aimed to undermine House Democrats’ assertions that their client committed impeachable offenses. They did so by accusing House Democrats of omitting evidence and saying their true goal is to remove Trump from the 2020 ballot.
“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 the ballot in an election that’s occurring in approximately nine months,” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone told senators. “They’re asking you to do something that no Senate has ever done. And they’re asking you do it with no evidence.”
Cipollone assured the body that his team wouldn’t take as much time to present their case as the Democrats had done over almost 24 hours the three days before. Saturday’s session lasted only two hours, a stark contrast to the marathon days senators endured during the trial’s first four days.
Trump is accused in two articles of impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. He is only the third president in history to be tried in the Senate.
Ahead of Saturday morning’s hearing, Trump tweeted: “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. on @FoxNews, @OANN or Fake News @CNN or Fake News MSDNC!”
Trump’s counsel accused the Democrats’ House managers of only showing testimonies that would benefit their case during their three days of opening arguments, omitting evidence that would support the president’s innocence.
“This case is really not about presidential wrongdoing,” Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s attorneys, said. “This entire impeachment process is about the House managers’ insistence that they are able to read everybody’s thoughts, they can read everybody’s intention.”
Deputy White House Counsel Michael Purpura said that once you get past “the bluster and innuendo, the selective leaks, the closed-door examinations of the Democrats’ hand-picked witnesses, the staged public hearings,” the facts of the case remain the same.
The defense argued the prosecution relied on unreliable testimonies from witnesses like William Taylor, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, formerly Trump’s top adviser on Russia and Europe.
Taylor and Morrison came to believe that there was a direct relationship between military aid being withheld from Ukraine and Volodymyr Zelensky’s refusal to announce investigations that Trump requested. But these beliefs rested on what they heard from Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the U.S. envoy to the European Union, before speaking with the president, Trump’s team claimed.
Sondland used words like “presumption,” “belief” and “speculation” over 30 times in his testimony related to the connection between the investigations and withheld military aid, Sekulow said. The defense played a montage of some of these references to underscore their point.
Purpura argued that Trump didn’t solicit investigations from Ukraine and that Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff from California, the House’s lead impeachment manager, had exaggerated the contents of a July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky to make it seem as though he did.
“That’s fake,” Purpura said. “That’s not the real call.”
Schiff said during House Democrats’ opening arguments that his comments on the July 25 call were, in part, parody.
“Of course, the president never said, ‘If you don’t understand me I’m going to say it seven more times.’ My point is, that’s the message that the Ukraine president was receiving in not so many words,” Schiff said.
Purpura countered that Ukraine hadn’t been aware of holds on aid before the end of August. He used this point to bolster his assertion that House Democrats’ claims of quid pro quo were wrong.
To combat the Democrats’ support for the obstruction of Congress article, Deputy White House Counsel Patrick Philbin argued Trump was denied due process during the House’s impeachment hearings.
“The president was completely locked out,” Philbin said. “He couldn’t be represented by counsel, he couldn’t examine witnesses, he couldn’t present evidence, he couldn’t present witnesses — for 71 of the 78 days. That’s not due process.”
The White House, however, has fought every House subpoena for documents and witnesses, and Trump ordered key figures not to talk to House investigators.
Philbin said the subpoenas were rejected because the House did not lawfully authorize the impeachment inquiry.
Senators seemed more attentive during Saturday’s shorter session than they were in earlier days of the trial. Some still left the chamber at times and whispered with their neighbors, however.
Compared to the days when the House Democrats presented their opening statements, Republicans overall appeared to be more engaged in Saturday’s proceedings. More of them stayed in their seats and a greater number were seen taking notes on the presentation from the president’s defense.
Republican House members appointed to advise Trump’s counsel said following Saturday’s proceedings that the defense had “eviscerated” the House Democrats’ claims in just the two hours used to plead its case so far.
“The word of the day… is ‘eviscerate,’” Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-New York, told reporters. “What we just witnessed, as we’ve been saying since the beginning of this process, Adam Schiff was aspiring to write the world’s greatest parody.”
Rep. Doug Collins from Georgia, another House Republican who is advising the president’s defense, tweeted: “The president’s team not only poked holes in the managers deeply flawed story, but they brought the truth to light in a concise and common sense manner. It’s easy to win when the facts are on your side.”
Democrats like Sen. Tim Kaine from Virginia had different takeaways from the defense’s opening day.
“I don’t think they poked holes in the case…They asserted facts that can be proven or disproven with witnesses and documents,” he said.
New witnesses and documents continue to be at the forefront of the Democrats’ discussions as the trial continues.
“If they do as well in their rebuttal as the case has been laid out (by the House Democrats), that would basically confirm that we need those witnesses, we need people to use their knowledge, we need to see the redacted documents to help people make a decision,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said to reporters ahead of Saturday’s proceedings.
In a press conference following Saturday’s session, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, expressed confusion at the theory offered by the president’s defense team.
“The president’s counsel is criticizing the case against the president for lack of sources close to the president, while simultaneously blocking testimony from witnesses close to the president,” Schumer said. “It makes no sense.”