President Donald Trump’s lawyers briefly laid out his defense Saturday at the Senate impeachment trial, focusing their attacks on what they called a lack of evidence, the actions of lead House manager Adam B. Schiff and a flawed House investigation.
Trump’s legal team did not make arguments about former Vice President Joe Biden or his son Hunter Biden. Trump and some Republican senators have focused on that issue for the president’s defense that his Ukraine dealings were meant to uncover corruption, not ask the country’s president to influence the 2020 presidential elections in exchange for releasing military aid.
But there will be plenty of time for that on Monday and Tuesday, when Trump’s team will begin the defense in earnest.
The team used just two hours of their allotted 24 to make an opening presentation.
There’s some expectation that, unlike the House Democratic managers, the defense team will not go that long. After they are done, the senators will be able to ask questions of the House managers and Trump’s team. And after that, the Senate could start deliberations if they vote against issuing subpoenas for more witnesses or documents that the White House has blocked from House investigators.
Trump’s team made it clear that time was a major consideration on the rare Saturday session. “We’re going to be very respectful of your time,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone said at the beginning of the day.
The president’s legal team started his defense by arguing that the House managers had “no evidence” and that senators “will find that the president did absolutely nothing wrong.”
Cipollone told senators the House managers had failed to make their case over the past three days that Trump should be removed.
“We don’t believe that they have come anywhere close to meeting their burden for what they’re asking you to do,” he said.
And Cipollone said the managers had asked senators to do something “dangerous” and “tear up all of the ballots across this country on your own initiative.”
Cipollone said he would present evidence the House had but did not use at the trial. And he said that impeaching a president, a process laid out in the Constitution, would be unconstitutional.
“For all their talk about election interference … they’re here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history,” he said.
The president’s team focused in the first hour on what it cast as the most important piece of evidence: a rough transcript of the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The first thing Mike Purpura, the deputy counsel to the president, did for his portion of the presentation was to play a video clip of Schiff’s opening remarks at a House Intelligence hearing in November.
Trump has repeatedly asserted that Schiff made up the president’s words in those remarks, while Schiff has said it was an obvious parody or paraphrasing of the call, which the California Democrat says at the end of the clip.
On the clip Trump’s team played Saturday, Schiff says the Ukraine call transcript “reads like a classic organized crime shakedown,” describes it, and then says, “This is in sum and character what the president was trying to communicate.”
Purpura then told the senators: “That’s fake. That’s not the real call. That’s not the evidence here. That’s not the transcript that Mr. Cipollone just referenced.”
“And we can shrug it off and say we were making light or a joke, but that was in a hearing in the United States House of Representatives, discussing the removal of the president of the United States from office,” Purpura said. “There are few things, if any, that can be as grave and as serious.”
Barrasso, No. 3 in Senate Republican leadership, said he watched the lead House manager as the president’s counsel played the video of him ad-libbing Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy.
“The blood drained from Adam Schiff’s face as they played that video and his made-up words,” he said.
For his part, Schiff said after the session that the Trump team was just using a common defense tactic in going after him.
“As a prosecutor I’ve seen it time and time again: When your client is guilty, when your client is dead to rights, you don’t want to talk about your client’s guilt. You want to attack the prosecution. It is a fairly elemental strategy, and I think that’s all you’re seeing here is that effort to distract.”
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, who as the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee is a fellow member of the “gang of eight” that includes Schiff, was not surprised that the Democrat from California was a target of the Trump legal team.
“Clearly, the president himself has voiced his problems with Adam Schiff on a regular basis,” Warner told CQ Roll Call, before pointing out there was “still no explanation why a dozen Trump appointees or career civil servants put their career in jeopardy because they felt something was amiss in the call. I really am going to question whether the president’s lawyers are going to present their sense that the call was ‘perfect’ as the president described.”
Warner said he was curious why officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were not providing testimony to support the defense.
“If they can come in and swear to tell the truth on evidence that clears the president or reinforces the president’s case why aren’t they testifying,” Warner asked.
Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth said Republicans’ opposition to witnesses hurts their case.
“I would think that the president’s counsel and the president’s team would want to call the witnesses in order to exonerate him, that they would want to show us the evidence that proves this innocence,” she said.
Lindsey McPherson, Niels Lesniewski and Herb Jackson contributed to this report.