EVENT ENDED

Trump impeachment trial live coverage: The president's defense begins

Senators heard from House prosecutors for three days. Now, Trump's team is making the case in his defense.
Image: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House voted to send impeachment articles against President Donald Trump to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell officially received the House managers on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House voted to send impeachment articles against President Donald Trump to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell officially received the House managers on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

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President Donald Trump's lawyers began their case in his defense Saturday as the Senate impeachment trial concludes its first week of arguments.

The defense phase of the trial follows three days of arguments against the president from House impeachment managers.

Trump's lawyer Jay Sekulow said Friday that Saturday's arguments, which lasted only about two hours, would be "our sneak preview" of their broader case.

Highlights from the Senate trial

Live Blog

Senators are busy taking notes

Every seat was full Saturday morning for the first day of Trump's defense. Nearly every Democratic senator was taking notes throughout except for Sanders, who later jotted a note or two, and Warner.

Republican Sens. Sasse, Scott, Cassidy and Perdue (all seated together) vigorously took notes and watched all the clips — a departure from their regular chatting and absence from their desks during the House managers' presentation.

Schumer, the minority leader, stared at Michael Purpura, the deputy White House counsel, but occasionally looked away to confer with his aides next to him, while Majority Leader McConnell focused intently on the presentation.

Senate pages were very busy with pen and pencil duty this morning, with one page bringing Sen. Reed, D-R.I., what looked to be about a dozen black pens at one point. Shortly after, the same page restocked Sen. Markey's pencil stash and then came back to bring Sen. Gillibrand five or six fresh pens. 

Trump's lawyers deride Dems for leaving out testimony that played on live TV

Sekulow and Pupura have spent some time during their defense of the president by playing testimony from witnesses, such as diplomats Kurt Volker, George Kent and Gordon Sondland, and arguing that Democrats tried to hide it from Senators. 

"Why didn't they show you this testimony? Why didn't didn't they tell you about this testimony?" Purpura said after playing Volker's testimony saying that, to his knowledge, Ukrainians did not know about the pause in military aid until Aug. 29. "They didn't they put Ambassador Sondland's testimony in its full and proper context.

Purpura claimed Democrats did this to support a "pre-determined outcome" in the trial.

But, as MSNBC contributor Joyce Vance pointed out, the hearings were televised live, and the full transcripts of their earlier depositions were publicly available. 

Fact check: Trump lawyer says Ukraine didn't know about hold on aid

Two claims from Purpura on what and when Ukraine knew about the hold on Congress-approved security assistance — and the Trump administration's apparent reluctance set a date for a White House meeting — are inaccurate, according to publicly available evidence. 

"The transcript shows that the president did not condition either security assistance or a meeting on anything. The paused security assistance funds aren't even mentioned on the call," Purpura said. 

Though it was not explicit, Trump did appear to tie the award of aid to Ukraine to Zelenskiy's willingness to cooperating with Trump on investigations he desired into the Bidens and the 2016 election, according to the White House's five-page description of the call, which notes that it is not an exact transcript as Trump and his attorneys have claimed.

Additionally, text messages from former special U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker reveal that top aides to Ukraine's president were aware of those conditions before the call took place. 

“heard from White House — assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” Volker texted an aide to the Ukrainian president hours before Trump and the Ukrainian president spoke via phone.

"President Zelenskiy and high-ranking Ukrainian officials did not even know — did not even know — the security assistance was paused until the end of August, over a month after the July 25 call," Purpura continued.

While some witnesses said they were not sure when Ukraine first knew of a hold on their military aid, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper testified that the Ukrainians knew of an issue with the assistance on July 25 and were asking questions about it to U.S. counterparts. A former foreign minister in Ukraine also told The New York Times that Ukraine knew of the aid freeze in July.

Sekulow: Trump didn't trust his intelligence officials

Trump had reason to doubt his intelligence officials, giving him good reason to enlist a shadow Ukraine operation to investigate alleged electoral interference in 2016, his attorney Jay Sekulow said in his opening arguments Saturday.

Sekulow began by highlighting the years-long Mueller investigation and report in addition to FBI FISA court mishaps detailed by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz in a report late last year. He added that Trump chose not to "blindly trust" the advice of his intelligence officials as a result of those matters.

"In his summation on Thursday night, Manager Schiff complained that the president chose not to go with the determinations of his intelligence agencies regarding foreign interference and instead decided he would listen to people that he trusted, and he would inquire about the Ukraine issue himself," Sekulow said. "Mr. Schiff did not like the fact that the president did not apparently blindly trust some of the advice he was being given by the intelligence agencies."

"They kept telling you it was Russia alone that interfered in the 2016 election, but there is evidence that Ukraine also interfered," Sekulow added. 

One of the biggest instances of so-called Ukrainian interference Trump's allies have highlighted involved the publication of what was referred to as the "Black Ledger," a document showing that Trump's then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort was taking in millions in undisclosed payments from Ukraine's pro-Russia political party. The revelation led to Manafort's resignation from the Trump campaign and eventual prosecution and conviction in the Mueller probe. Manafort is now in prison.

Meanwhile, Trump had asked Zelenskiy to probe the "CrowdStrike" conspiracy, a theory even one former top Trump administration official called "debunked." It alleges that a Democratic National Committee server was placed somewhere in Ukraine and used to frame Russia for 2016 electoral interference. And Trump asked his counterpart to announce a probe into the Bidens in an investigation seemingly unrelated 2016. 

Graham: Looking at Bidens, Burisma is 'better done outside impeachment'

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., spoke to reporters off camera before heading to the Senate trial Saturday morning. On witnesses, Graham said he doesn’t “want to call Hunter and Joe Biden at this forum.”

“But somebody needs to look at the Biden’s connection to Ukraine,” Graham continued. “I think it’s better done outside impeachment.”

Graham said he has not spoken to the president about an independent counsel to investigate the Biden connection to Ukraine. 

“But somebody needs to think about this,” Graham said. “If you want me to do it, I’ll do it. I’d rather have somebody like Mueller do it because I think it’s important to look, but if my Democratic colleagues say looking at the Bidens has been done, there’s no reason to look, I find that offensive.”

Fact check: Cipollone adopts Trump's falsehoods on European aid to Ukraine

White House attorney Pat Cipollone kicked off the defense’s opening arguments on Saturday by adopting the president’s routine false claims that the U.S. is picking up the bulk of the tab for Ukraine's foreign aid.

The president addressed cost sharing in his July call with the Ukrainian president, Cipollone said, reading through the call transcript.

"Now what does President Zelenskiy say? Does he disagree? No, he agrees,” Cipollone continued, reading the Ukrainian president’s effusive thanks for the aid.

But while the Ukrainian president chose to give effusive thanks and agree with Trump's claim, Europe's aid dwarfs American financial assistance to Ukraine.

The European Union put up $16.5 billion in financial aid, according to a fact sheet from the E.U.'s diplomatic arm. The International Monetary Fund said it would put forward at least $14 billion in a bailout as well. The U.S. has given $1.5 billion in security assistance since 2014 and $1 billion in loan guarantees.

Purpura goes after Schiff's parody of Trump's July 25 phone call

In his opening, White House deputy counsel Mike Purpura went directly after Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead House impeachment manager and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, by playing the video of Schiff reading the record of Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Purpura derided Schiff for his mocking interpretation of the call during a House Intelligence Committee hearing last September, which Schiff said was "in essence" and “in sum and character” of what the president was asking the Ukrainian president.

The White House's five-page description of the call shows that Trump asked Zelenskiy to "look into" the family of possible 2020 rival Joe Biden. Trump also said the words, "I would like you to do us a favor, though" — which appears to involve discovering whether Ukraine might possess a server that contained some of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. Though it was not explicit, Trump also appears to tie the award of aid to Ukraine to Zelenskiy's willingness to cooperate with Trump.

But Purpura told the chamber that Schiff’s retelling was “fake” and that Senators should focus on the actual reading of the transcript in which Purpura said there was no link between investigations and withholding security assistance. 

“That’s fake, that's not the real call,” he said. “That’s not the evidence here, that's not the transcript Mr. Cipollone just referenced.” 

He added, “We can shrug it off and say we were making light and making a joke...Let’s stick with the evidence, let’s talk about the facts in this case.”

During his closing on Friday, Schiff said he expected this line of attack from Trump's team. 

"I discovered something very significant by mocking the president and that is for a man who loves to mock others, he does not like to be mocked. As it turns out, he's got a pretty thin skin. Who would have thought it?” Schiff said. “Never mind that I said I wasn't using his words before I said, and I wasn't using his words after I said it, and I said I was making a parody of his words — 'It's an outrage! He mocked the president, that Schiff! Terrible!'"

Cipollone: Democrats trying to 'interfere' in the election

Cipollone opened Trump's defense Saturday arguing that House managers are asking senators to "remove" Trump from the general election ballot.

"As House managers, their goal should be to give you all of the facts, because they’re asking you to do something very, very consequential and I would submit to you, to use a word Schiff used a lot, very, very dangerous," Cipollone said, adding, "They’re asking you to remove President Trump from the ballot in an election that's occurring in approximately nine months, they’re asking you to tear up all of the ballots across the country on your own initiative — take that decision away from the American people and I don’t think they spent one minute of their 24 hours talking about the consequences of that for this country."

"They didn’t tell you what that would mean for our country, today, this year, and forever into our future," he continued, saying that the managers are asking senators to "tear up all the ballots" with Trump's name on them.

Cipollone said Saturday's presentation will take between two and three hours and that Trump's defense does not plan to use all of their allotted 24 hours.

"You will find the president did absolutely nothing wrong," Cipollone said, echoing the Trump's frequent defense.

What to expect from Trump's defense

Here's what to expect from Trump's defense team:

What you'll hear Saturday

A “coming attractions” preview of the president’s defense case. As we've reported, sources close to the president want to make sure they get at least some of their messaging out there, but they’re also cognizant of the weekend’s lower ratings. It’s why you’ll see a fair amount of repetition Monday. White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow will likely handle much of the presentation, though you could see others. But a source on the team says the bulk of the arguments will occur Monday. That’s when we expect Dershowitz, Starr, and others to make their presentations.

Will they go to Tuesday?

It’s possible, but at this point we are not betting big on it. A senior administration official and Republican leadership source tell NBC News that arguments are likely to last roughly 10 hours (a few Saturday and the rest Monday). Caveat: things could still change, as the defense team is reserving the right to go longer if they feel it’s needed.

How will Parnas recording affect arguments?

A source on the president’s legal team said he doesn’t believe this new reporting of Trump apparently talking to Lev Parnas in an audio recording would have “any impact” on their team’s case. Note: NBC News has not heard the entire audio recording and is working to obtain it; it's also unclear whether the audio published by ABC News has been edited.

POTUS call 'perfect'?

Asked if the defense would include Trump's assertions that his call with the president of Ukraine was “perfect,” the source on the legal team said part of the defense would be that the president “didn’t do anything wrong, and that is clear from the transcript of the call.” The source clarified that the defense won’t be “limited just to the transcript of the call,” but it will be a “key” piece of evidence because that’s the “primary” thing Democrats have “based their case on.”

Joe Biden 

Asked how much the Trump team is planning to talk about Joe Biden and specifically why it was relevant for the president to bring up Biden to the Ukrainians, a source on the president’s legal team said they wouldn’t get into details of their strategy but added that it “became quite apparent” in the House managers’ presentation that they’ve “made it very relevant to the case” and “spent a lot of time bringing the Bidens into this case,” and the Trump legal will address that.

Trump hints his defense team will begin by attacking Democrats

Moments ahead of the start of his impeachment trial defense, Trump tweeted: "Our case against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam “Shifty” Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nervous Nancy Pelosi, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC, & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrat Party, starts today at 10:00 A.M. on @FoxNews, @OANN or Fake News @CNN or Fake News MSDNC!"

It's a clear sign that the president's defense will rely heavily on criticizing prominent Democrats.

The tweet comes after House managers spent three days pressing their case that Trump should be found guilty and removed from office over his efforts to push Ukraine to probe the Bidens and Democrats as he withheld nearly $400 million in military aid and an official White House visit for Ukraine's president, as well as his obstruction of Congress' investigation into the matter.

Democrats tweeted ahead of Saturday's proceedings, too.

"As we head into today’s arguments, I implore the White House counsel to present a substantive argument as to why the President shouldn’t be impeached," Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., tweeted. "Don’t continue to insult the country by saying he did nothing wrong."

"Conducting this impeachment trial is one of our biggest responsibilities as senators," Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., posted. "Let’s focus on the facts. Let’s focus on the law. Let’s ensure this is a fair trial—and that we deliver fair and impartial justice."

Who is Dmytro Firtash? The man linked to $1 million loan to Giuliani ally has a shadowy past

In September, one month before Lev Parnas was indicted on campaign finance charges, his wife received wire transfers from a bank account in Russia.

The sum was $1 million, and the source was a lawyer for Dmytro Firtash, according to a court filing by U.S. prosecutors.

Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch who made a fortune in the natural gas trade, is perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the scandal that has played a key role in President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

A billionaire with alleged ties to the Russian mob, Firtash is facing bribery-related charges in the U.S. and fighting extradition from Vienna. He once attempted to buy and redevelop the famous Drake Hotel in New York with the now-incarcerated Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman. And he’s seen by Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and Western governments as a corrupt instrument of Russia.

Read the full story.