The first legal filings for the Senate impeachment trial gave a preview of what to expect in the upcoming weeks: The House impeachment managers called for President Donald Trump’s removal, arguing that his “conduct is the Framers’ worst nightmare,” while the president’s defense team called the entire impeachment process “brazen and unlawful.”
House impeachment managers filed their 111-page trial brief to the Senate on Saturday. Throughout the document, the managers explain why Trump was impeached and why House Democrats believe he must be removed. They outline the manner in which Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rivals, and how he denied Congress access to material illuminating that pressure campaign.
Essentially, the trial brief states the case for Trump’s removal as: He abused his presidential power for his own political benefit, then tried to cover it up.
Trump is expected to deliver his own brief by Monday, but his team has already filed a six-page response to the House managers’ document, in which they cast impeachment as an unfair and unconstitutional power grab by the House.
The filings come a month after the House voted to approve two articles of impeachment against Trump. The first article charges him with abuse of power by withholding military aid and a White House meeting, to pressure the Ukrainian government into digging up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The second charges Trump with obstruction of Congress for directing his officials to ignore congressional subpoenas for documents and testimony.
The legal brief explains that House Democrats decided to impeach Trump after reviewing the evidence available to them, including witness testimony and statements by the president himself. This evidence will be presented to the Senate, the brief suggests, along with new evidence that has emerged in recent days.
The brief makes reference to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the US government’s top internal watchdog. Released Thursday, the report stated the Trump administration broke the law when it withheld military aid to Ukraine without notifying Congress.
The managers also cite evidence from Lev Parnas, a close associate of Rudy Giuliani who helped connect Trump’s personal lawyer with Ukrainian officials. After being indicted for violating campaign finance laws, Parnas handed over multiple files and documents to the House as evidence of his work with the Trump administration in Ukraine. Observers can expect both Parnas’s evidence and the GAO’s report to factor into the managers’ prosecutorial efforts once the trial begins.
The House trial brief directly addresses the president and the Republican senators
President Trump and his allies have long cast the impeachment process as unfair, and of late, the president and Giuliani have claimed it is also unconstitutional. Top Senate Republicans have been criticized for claiming, as Sen. Lindsey Graham did, that they don’t plan to “pretend to be a fair juror” in the trial — essentially admitting that they’ve made up their minds to vote against removing the president before hearing the manager’s case.
The managers addressed both the president and his Senate allies in the brief, rebutting questions of the process’s fairness by pointing out that the Constitution gives the House the power to decide how to conduct impeachment.
They also argued, “President Trump has been afforded protections equal to or greater than those afforded Presidents Nixon and Clinton during their impeachment proceedings in the House,” noting that he was invited to participate in inquiry hearings, but refused.
They claim Trump’s argument that he was impeached unfairly because he didn’t commit a crime to be invalid, writing, “Any claim that President Trump was entitled to due process rights modeled on a criminal trial during the entirety of the House impeachment inquiry ignores both law and history. A House impeachment inquiry cannot be compared to a criminal trial because the Senate, not the House, possesses the ‘sole Power to try Impeachments.’”
And they rebut Trump’s assertion that House Democrats should have fought him in court over his efforts to block subpoenas, writing that his administration’s strategy in combating the one congressional subpoena case that is before the courts shows it is trying to use the courts to run down the clock.
“He is saying to Congress that the Committees should have sued the Executive Branch in court to enforce their subpoenas,” the brief reads. “But he has argued to that court that Congressional Committees cannot sue the Executive Branch to enforce their subpoenas.”
To their colleagues in the Senate, the managers repeatedly plead that all jurors look beyond career-oriented calculations, and that they think about what long-term effects a vote to allow Trump to remain in office would have.
“If the Senate permits President Trump to remain in office, he and future leaders would be emboldened to welcome, and even enlist, foreign interference in elections for years to come. When the American people’s faith in their electoral process is shaken and its results called into question, the essence of democratic self-government is called into doubt.”
Trump’s legal team’s response: The impeachment process is “brazen and unlawful”
In response to the House managers’ legal briefings, Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer, wrote that Trump “categorically and unequivocally” denies all the claims. Rather than directly tackle the evidence and arguments presented by the House Democrats, however, Cipollone and Sekulow criticized Democrats and the impeachment process.
Trump’s defense team reiterated an argument Republicans have made throughout the impeachment process: that impeachment is an attempt to “overturn the results of the 2016 election and interfere with the 2020 election” and a “dangerous attack on the right of the American people to freely choose their President.”
“The highly partisan and reckless obsession with impeaching the President began the day he was inaugurated and continues to this day,” the statement reads.
The White House also denied obstructing the House’s investigation for two reasons.
One, the lawyers wrote, confidentiality within the executive branch is a constitutional privilege. They did not respond to the manager’s argument that executive privilege is inapplicable when used to cover up wrongdoing, however. And they did not rebut the managers’ claim that Trump “diminished any confidentiality interests” by giving statements and tweeting about the matters the administration has claimed privilege over.
Two, the White House argued, the subpoenas that Trump ignored were unconstitutional to begin with because they were issued without a congressional vote. The House, however, has the authority to determine the rules of impeachment procedures — and it decided a full vote was unnecessary for the subpoenas.
Addressing the charges that Trump abused his power in pressuring Ukraine, Cipollone and Sekulow wrote that his actions were “perfectly legal, completely appropriate, and taken in furtherance of our national interest” — and were focused on rooting out corruption in Ukraine.
Overall, there isn’t much substance to Cipollone and Sekulow’s letter; however, Trump’s defense team is expected to file a more thorough legal brief akin to the document shared by the managers by Monday at noon. Following a written rebuttal from House Democrats on Tuesday, the managers are expected to begin making their case before the Senate on Wednesday, with Trump’s team following as early as Friday.