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Trump’s closing impeachment argument involved misrepresenting a tweet from the whistleblower’s lawyer

Team Trump wants you to believe Democrats were planning a “coup.” In fact, the opposite is the case.

Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow arrives at the Capitol on February 3, 2020.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Jay Sekulow’s closing argument against convicting President Donald Trump on Monday centered on how Democrats purportedly had it out for Trump since the beginning. But as has been the case with much of Trump’s impeachment trial defense, a key part of Sekulow’s argument involved misleading people.

Sekulow tried to make a big deal out of a January 30, 2017 tweet posted by Mark Zaid, an attorney representing the whistleblower who first sounded the alarm about Trump’s Ukraine dealings, in which he wrote that a “#coup has started” and added, “#impeachment will follow ultimately.” The point Sekulow was trying to make is that Trump’s opponents were planning to topple him ever since he took office, and that the Ukraine scandal was just a pretext for trying to make it happen.

“And here we are,” Sekulow said, after reading Zaid’s tweet. “What this body, what this nation, what this president have just endured, what the House managers have forced upon this great body, is unprecedented and unacceptable.”

To be fair, some Democrats did want to impeach Trump before reports broke that he had attempted to coerce Ukraine into opening an investigation into his domestic political opponent.

But with regard to Zaid’s tweet specifically, what Sekulow didn’t tell people is that it was actually in response to another tweet from CNN’s Jake Tapper about Trump firing then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Trump, you might recall, fired Yates after she announced she wouldn’t defend court legal challenges to Trump’s executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States, citing concerns about the order’s legality.

Read in that context, Zaid’s tweet is clearly meant as commentary on Trump’s early moves to purge government of any and all officials who wouldn’t carry out his policy directives, not as an announcement of Zaid’s intentions. And, as CNN’s Daniel Dale notes, any lingering doubts should’ve been cleared up by another tweet Zaid posted days later about “the coup [the Trump administration] just perpetrated to take over the country.”

Zaid’s law partner, Bradley Moss, responded to Sekulow’s comments with a Twitter thread in which he wrote that Zaid’s 2017 tweet “has nothing to do with the representation two years later of the [whistleblower].”

“The tweet, which was edited by the President’s lawyers and taken completely out of context, was actually about how the rule of law, supported by lawyers, judges, whistleblowers and advocates would ultimately rule the day, rather than the president’s legally questionable and borderline bigoted travel ban.” Moss wrote, who went on to describe’s Sekulow’s interpretation as “patently ridiculous.”

Sekulow’s closing argument wasn’t the first time during the impeachment process that Republicans have sought to capitalize on Zaid’s tweet in a bad faith manner — they did the same thing during the House hearings in November.

At that time, Zaid told Law&Crime that Republicans were trying to make a fuss over his tweet as part of “the continuing partisan deflection to desperately avoid discussing the substance of my client’s whistleblower complaint.”

Indeed, even though the White House itself corroborated the whistleblower complaint and what it says about Trump’s efforts to strongarm Kyiv into doing political favors for him, Trump continues to insist that the whistleblower is part of a nefarious conspiracy to take him down.

Sekulow leaned into this theory of the case during his closing argument. In addition to twisting Zaid’s tweet, he played a video montage of a number of Democrats talking about Trump’s possible impeachment over the years — the implication being that it’s their general animus toward Trump, and not the wrongness of his Ukraine dealings, that culminated in his impeachment.

The montage was even accompanied by scary-sounding music:

But there’s another way of looking at this. The context surrounding Zaid’s tweet serves as a reminder that Trump was doing legally dubious stuff since the very first days of his administration. Can Democrats really be blamed for talking about possibly impeaching the president in the wake of him taking unilateral action to fulfill a racist campaign promise that caused chaos at airports and tore families apart?

Trump’s legal team’s argument is that they can. Then again, other arguments they presented during the trial would let presidents get away with almost anything short of the most egregious and clear-cut of crimes. And yet with closing arguments now in the books following a trial that didn’t include witness testimony, it appears the arguments presented by Sekulow and company were sufficient to carry the day with the Senate’s Republican majority.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.