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Trump’s defense counsel attempt to cast doubt on facts of impeachment case

The counsel’s opening arguments inadvertently helped Democrats make the case for calling new witnesses.

Senate Impeachment Trial Of President Trump Continues
Jay Sekulow, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, leaves after speaking to members of the media during a break in the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on January 24, 2020, in Washington, DC. 
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

In their first arguments of the impeachment trial, counsel for President Donald Trump accused House Democrats of obscuring facts while distorting the impeachment process. Inadvertently, they also presented an argument about past testimony that actually made Democrats’ rationale for calling more witnesses even stronger.

Over the course of roughly two and a half hours on Saturday, Trump’s defense team laid out their case, focusing primarily on two threads.

For one, they argued Democrats’ impeachment inquiry had nothing to do with concerns of the president’s wrongdoing but was actually aimed at overturning the results of the 2016 election — or, failing that, impeding Trump’s 2020 campaign.

Additionally, they claimed the House impeachment managers who argued for Trump’s removal maliciously left out facts that prove the president did not condition military aid to Ukraine on the the announcement of investigations into his political rivals. Instead, they said his decision to withhold aid was driven by worries over corruption and burden-sharing with other nations.

“They’ve basically said, ‘Let’s cancel an election over a meeting with Ukraine,’” White House counsel Pat Cipollone said.

To provide support for the two prongs of their defense, Trump’s counsel addressed a wide range of topics, many of which have become familiar refrains: They attacked impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff (as he predicted on Friday), questioned the role of the whistleblower, and began confronting the facts of the case directly — something Senate Republicans were eager for them to do.

“We believe when you hear the facts, and that’s what we intend to cover today, the facts, you will find the president did absolutely nothing wrong,” Cipollone said. “We intend to show you some of the evidence that they did in the House that they ... made a decision not to show you.”

Trump’s counsel provided an alternative set of facts

Utilizing video clips and excerpts from some of the same witness testimony and documents that impeachment managers showcased during their arguments, Trump’s counsel offered evidence aimed at undercutting the charges included in Trump’s articles of impeachment — particularly the charge that he abused his power.

Among the points they made: Trump counsel Mike Purpura argued that EU ambassador Gordon Sondland’s knowledge of any quid pro quo was based on his own “presumptions,” an assertion highlighted by a supercut of Sondland’s remarks on the subject.

However, Democratic impeachment managers have pointed to testimony from other officials, including acting ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, who previously said Sondland spoke with Ukrainian official Andriy Yermak and told him there would be no aid without the investigations.

The managers also noted Sondland told State Department aide David Holmes that Trump only cared about “big stuff,” like the investigations, when it came to Ukraine. They further emphasized how acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, during a public press conference, explicitly referenced the conditioning of the release of military aid on an investigation into an alleged Democratic server in Ukraine.

Trump’s counsel did not mention any of this, nor did they explain how Sondland saying he made some “presumptions” apparently negates the facts Democrats presented.

Trump’s attorneys did, however, mention that Ukraine wasn’t aware of the hold until late in the summer, a detail intended to rebut the idea there was a pressure campaign tied to the political investigations. Like their arguments involving Sondland, this claim does not quite align with available testimony: Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, previously testified that Ukrainian officials inquired about the aid in late July, on the same day as Trump’s infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The defense did make one claim that is less disputed: that both Trump and Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, have denied there was a quid pro quo with regard to the military aid.

Both sides have incentives to do so, Democrats argued this past week: Trump to evade accountability, and Zelensky to maintain a positive relationship with the US president. The defense’s argument also ignored Zelensky’s recent comments to the press, which seem to indicate a willingness to abandon that cautious approach.

In an interview with Time magazine and other news outlets published in early December, the president of Ukraine told reporters he was concerned the delay in military aid would make Ukrainians “look like beggars.”

“We’re at war. If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us,” Zelensky added.

Trump’s counsel bolstered the case for witnesses

Notably, Trump’s counsel further strengthened the case for calling more witnesses.

As part of their opening arguments, the defense team said many witnesses Democrats brought in to testify in the House impeachment inquiry were unable to provide firsthand information about the hold on Ukraine aid and the political investigations Trump demanded.

“Most of the Democrats’ witnesses have never spoken to the president at all, let alone about Ukraine security assistance,” Purpura said.

One key reason for this is that several witnesses with more direct knowledge about these developments, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, did not respond to House subpoenas. These witnesses could still testify in front of the Senate if lawmakers vote in favor of it. By drawing attention to the role that these witnesses could play, Trump’s counsel suggested there are unheard-from officials who could, in fact, offer more direct information about the charges levied against the president.

Democrats emphasized this point after trial proceedings concluded for the day.

“They made a really compelling case for why the Senate should call witnesses and documents,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters. “They kept saying there are no eyewitness accounts, but there are people who have eyewitness accounts.”

Trump’s counsel, including celebrity lawyers Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz — who, like the president, has been accused of sexual misconduct, though he has denied the allegations — are slated to return to the Senate to continue their arguments on Monday and Tuesday. That means the question about additional witness testimony won’t be resolved for at least a few more days.

In the meantime, expect to hear a lot more about the failings of the impeachment inquiry and arguments about the role of Congress in checking the president’s authority.

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