USA

Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Trump expands tariffs on steel and aluminum imports CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group MORE’s defense team on Saturday delivered a brisk two-hour opening argument in the Senate impeachment trial, offering rebuttals to several specific claims that House impeachment managers made in arguing that the president abused his office and obstructed Congress.

The attorneys’ presentation also contained a number of Trumpian flourishes likely to please an audience of one watching back at the White House. 

The lawyers quickly made House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Schiff says Justice Roberts should rule on witnesses Schiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line MORE (D-Calif.) a key foil in their arguments, questioning why he didn’t appear before the House Judiciary Committee and accusing him of cherry-picking evidence.

They also sought to impugn the credibility of the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment inquiry, raising the possibility he or she was motivated by political bias.

The defense team sought to characterize the president as a victim, invoking former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay MORE’s investigation and alleged improper surveillance of the Trump campaign to paint the picture of a beleaguered executive unable to trust the intelligence community.

And in defending a president whose own words featured prominently in the House presentation, the attorneys did not address some of the key pieces of evidence cited by Democrats.

Still, the defense was effective at poking holes in aspects of the Democrats’ argument in a way that will play well among Republicans and potentially stave off an affirmative vote to call further witnesses in the trial. 

The attorneys used clips and snippets of witness testimony from the impeachment hearings to rebut Democrats’ assertions while downplaying statements made by those who had no direct contact with Trump as unreliable hearsay. 

The two-hour argument on Saturday advanced the White House's narrative that House Democrats were driven by partisan aims in pursuing the impeachment of Trump, and that the entire House process was flawed from the start because Trump was not afforded due process. 

"They're asking you to tear up all of the ballots across this country on your own initiative, take that decision away from the American people,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone said in remarks from the Senate floor. 

The attorneys pointed to a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainain President Volodymyr Zelensky to argue that Trump discussed burden sharing with other European countries, calling on them to provide more funds to Ukraine, something they noted Democrats have overlooked.

Democrats, meanwhile, said Saturday that the president’s lawyers made the case for calling witnesses who were blocked from testifying in the House by pointing out the lack of firsthand evidence in the case. 

“They kept saying there are no eyewitness accounts. But there are people who have eyewitness accounts: The very four witnesses and the very four sets of documents that we have asked for,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerVeronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters immediately following the opening arguments. “Why shouldn’t we have witnesses and documents here?”

Schiff, speaking at a press conference, noted that the lawyers did not mention Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneySenate Republicans must stand up for the rule of law and ensure a fair, open proceeding Democrats cap impeachment arguments with focus on Trump stonewalling Lindsey Graham will oppose subpoena of Hunter Biden MORE, the president’s acting chief of staff, asserting that the White House doesn’t want the public to have the facts of the administration’s motivation of temporarily suspending military assistance to Ukraine.

Most Republicans have resisted the idea of calling more witnesses, pointing to the potential for a prolonged fight over executive privilege. But a handful of moderate Republicans have suggested they’re open to the possibility following opening arguments, foretelling the potential for defections. 

Deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin attempted to undercut the charge that Trump obstructed Congress by accusing Democrats of conducting a rushed process in the House. He argued that the House proceedings were unconstitutional and lacked due process, and that the executive branch therefore refused to participate and didn’t need to obey subpoenas for documents and testimony. 

“They weren’t really interested in getting at the facts and the truth,” Philbin said. “They had a timetable to meet. They wanted to get impeachment done by Christmas, and that’s what they were striving to do.”

The tone of the president’s team was one of the more anticipated aspects of their opening arguments given Trump’s own scorched-earth attitude and desire for a made-for-TV performance.

Just before the Senate convened Saturday, Trump urged his followers on Twitter to tune in to watch “Our case against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam “Shifty” Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nervous Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Social Security emerges as flash point in Biden-Sanders fight | Dems urge Supreme Court to save consumer agency | Trump to sign USMCA next week Veronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address MORE, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC, & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrat Party.”

But the defense team was largely methodical and measured in defending the president and rebutting specific aspects of the House managers’ 24 hours worth of arguments. They avoided wading into potentially messy attacks on former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSchiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Conservative reporter on Sanders: He's not a 'yes man' Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE and his son Hunter, though they teased that would come up on Monday.

Still, the two-hours of arguments at times mirrored Trump’s fiery criticisms of the impeachment process and its central players.

Cipollone opened the day by arguing that Trump did nothing wrong on the call with Zelensky, during which he raised investigations into the Bidens and a debunked theory about 2016 election interference. 

The White House counsel read directly from the call transcript – something Trump regularly demands people do during his public appearances and on his Twitter feed. 

Trump has called for Schiff’s resignation and suggested that he committed treason by exaggerating an account of the call with Zelensky. Within minutes of Saturday’s arguments beginning, the president’s attorneys had queued up a clip of Schiff’s remarks.

"That’s not the real call,” Purpura said. “We can shrug it off and say we were making light or a joke, but that was in a hearing ... discussing the removal of a president of the United States from office.”

Trump and some of his GOP allies have called for Schiff to testify in the Senate trial. While the president’s defense team opposes hearing from additional witnesses, they suggested Schiff had been a “fact witness” during the House proceedings because of reported contact between his team and the whistleblower who raised concerns that the July 25 call was improper. 

The whistleblower, another point of fixation for Trump throughout the impeachment process, also came up during Saturday’s proceedings as the defense attempted to dismiss allegations that the president had behaved inappropriately as the result of partisan politics.

Philbin cited media reports that said the whistleblower worked with Biden, suggesting it raised concerns about the individual’s potential biases and motivations in filing a complaint.

And in attempting to refute testimony from a cavalcade of witnesses who have spent their careers in the intelligence community or foreign service, Trump’s attorneys pointed to one of the president's favorite target of derision: Mueller and the FBI.

Jay SekulowJay Alan SekulowTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Schiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Democrats worry Trump team will cherry-pick withheld documents during defense MORE referenced Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign and a recent Department of Justice Inspector General’s report that sharply criticized the surveillance warrants used by the bureau to assert that Trump had reason to distrust the very people who were wary of his Ukraine policy.

“The president had reason to be concerned about the information he was being provided,” he said. “We can ignore this. We can make believe this did not happen. But it did.”

The GOP-controlled Senate is nearly certain to acquit Trump at the end of the trial, so instead, much of the focus will be on whether the defense can convince moderate senators that there is no need to hear additional evidence.

For at least some Republicans, Saturday was a strong start.

“I thought the House did a good job on the first day, particularly, of weaving a tapestry, a compelling narrative,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSchiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Schiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE (R-S.C.), an ally of Trump, told reporters following the two-hour presentation. 

“I think the defense did a very good job today to question that tapestry and I heard some things that I didn’t know that are in conflict with the story told by the House,” Graham said. 

Olivia Beavers contributed.