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

Thoughts and threads on Trump defense's opener

White House counsel Pat Cipollone levied a serious accusation right off the bat: that House managers are looking to "perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history."

The president's attorney repeatedly hammered the argument that it's American voters — not Congress — who should decide whether the president is removed. This doesn’t speak squarely to the facts of the case, but appears to be more of a political rather than legal argument aimed at the Republicans who are uncomfortable with what the president allegedly did but don’t think it rises to the level of stripping his office.

On the facts

The defense team, as expected, engaged on the facts, arguing that the president "did nothing wrong" in part because the aid ultimately flowed to Ukraine.

But a couple of context checks: On the argument that witnesses did not have direct contact with president, keep in mind the people who would have had direct contact — like Mick Mulvaney, etc. — were blocked from testifying by the White House.

And on the argument Ukraine didn’t know about freeze on aid until the Politico report at end of August, remember that Laura Cooper testified Ukrainian officials knew at end of July. (See NBC News' fact check here.) They also, as we reported, attempted to use House managers’ evidence against them by pointing out other context that they argue was left out. 

Conspiracy theory watch

Trump's attorney Jay Sekulow tried to link both Russia and Ukraine to 2016 election interference. That is, in effect, Russian propaganda — and stands in contrast to what FBI Director Chris Wray said to ABC last month: "We have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election."

There's a big 'audience of one' factor here

Several parts of the presentation seemed squarely aimed at the man sitting at the White House (who, by the way, acted as his own team’s hype man by tweeting ahead of the start of the hearing to presumably try to boost viewership and goose ratings.) There was the early exhortation to “read the transcripts.” There was the early use of the “Schiff riff” from September, something that has been under the president’s skin for months and serves as another way for the White House team to attack Schiff’s credibility. (Same goes for the Schiff “more than circumstantial” collusion bite from 2017 that was played today.) And there was a lot of talk from Sekulow decrying the Mueller investigation — and we know how the president feels about that.

The defense team, as we've been reporting, is unlikely to go all 24 hours, per Cipollone: “We will finish efficiently and quickly so that we can all go have an election.”

On the rapid response

The typically Monday-through-Friday rapid-response team and war room are fully staffed up Saturday at their Rosslyn headquarters, tweeting away in lockstep with White House social accounts and sharing lots of clips, as would be expected. The rapid response team at the White House has blasted more than a dozen talking points supporting the team’s arguments to a group of reporters.

What you saw today

Cipollone, opening and closing with the broad overview of the team’s case, focusing largely on the election-year argument: that you shouldn’t “tear up the ballots” by voting for removal. Mike Purpura, deputy White House counsel, ticking through a fact presentation on Ukraine. Sekulow presenting on the timeline from Russia through now. Pat Philbin, also a deputy White House counsel, rebutting the Democrats’ obstruction argument and raising due process questions.

What you'll see Monday

Some repetition, given the bigger audience on weekdays. Biden references. Saturday wasn’t the day for that, but Monday almost certainly will be based on what the attorneys have said. Other higher-profile attorneys on the president’s team, like Alan Dershowitz, Ken Starr, etc.

What you'll see Tuesday

Maybe nothing. The defense team might wrap Monday night, as the president’s attorneys were looking at about 10 hours’ worth of arguments total. Big caveat, as always: This could change depending on how arguments go today and how the president’s team feels the Senate is responding.

Remember Gordon Sondland? Trump's defense pokes at his credibility

Trump's defense team put Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador the European Union, directly in its crosshairs on Saturday, seeking to paint him as an unreliable witness.

Sondland, a key House witness who spoke directly with Trump regarding the hold on nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, testified publicly that there was a quid pro quo with respect to the Ukrainian investigations Trump sought and the official White House visit for Zelenskiy. He also updated his closed door testimony to acknowledge, in light of the testimony of other witnesses, that he remembered telling a top aide to Zelenskiy that Ukraine would not receive U.S. military assistance until it committed to investigating the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden.

"How did Ambassador Sondland come to believe there was any connection between security assistance and investigations?" Purpura said. "Again, the House managers didn't tell you. Why not? In his public testimony, Ambassador Sondland used variations of the words, presume, assume, guess, speculate and belief over 30 times. Here are some examples."

Who is Gordon Sondland? Read more about him

Several Republicans laughed approvingly at the supercut of Sondland's testimony that Purpura then played. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., laughed loudly. 

"The Democrats' entire quid pro quo theory is based on nothing more than the initial speculation of one person, Ambassador Sondland," Purpura sad. "That speculation is wrong. Despite the Democrats' hopes, the ambassador's mistaken belief does not become true merely because he repeated it."

Sondland noted in his public testimony that the Trump administration would not provide him with access to documents he said would back up his assertions.

After the trial adjourned for the day, Trump allies pointed to the clip of Sondland as one of the most key pieces of the president's Saturday defense.

"That says it all, folks," Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., told reporters of the Sondland clip. 

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said the clip showed that Democrats "failed to mention" that Sondland was making presumptions and assumptions.

Sondland, a hotelier, was nominated to the ambassadorship after making a $1 million donation to Trump's inaugural committee.

Schiff responds to Trump team's defense

Fact check: No evidence for Trump defense claim that Ukraine interfered in 2016

"The House managers, over a 23-hour period, kept pushing this false dichotomy that it was either Russia or Ukraine, but not both," Sekulow said, attempting to suggest that Ukraine also interfered in the last presidential election as as part of Trump's defense that his actions with respect to the country were proper and predicated on legitimate national security concerns.

While this argument echoes the president — Trump has repeatedly suggested that the 2016 meddling began in Ukraine while expressing skepticism about what the U.S. intelligence community concluded was a concerted and far-reaching effort by Russia to interfere in 2016 — it's been previously debunked by numerous intelligence and government officials, including Trump appointees.  

"We have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in an ABC News interview.

White House lawyer argues Dems didn't allow whistleblower testimony, but Schiff explained why they chose not to

Deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin argued Saturday that Democrats never allowed an inquiry into or testimony from the whistleblower who filed a formal complaint about Trump’s alleged misconduct involving Ukraine, which triggered the House impeachment inquiry. 

Philbin pointed to Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson's assessment that the whistleblower had a political bias. But Atkinson, a Trump appointee, said that the whistleblower's complaint was still credible.

"Further although the ICIG's preliminary reviewed identified some indicia of bias of an arguable political bias on the part of the complainant in favor of a rival political candidate, such evidence did not change my determination that the complaint relating to the urgent concern 'appears credible' particularly given the other information the ICIG obtained during its preliminary review," Atkinson wrote.

“At first when things started, it seemed like everyone agreed they’d want to hear from the whistleblower, including Manager Schiff,” said Philbin. “What changed? At first manager Schiff said we should hear the unfiltered testimony from the whistleblower, but then he changed his mind.”

Philbin then played video of an interview Schiff did with MSNBC in which he said that they had not spoken directly with the whistleblower. 

“It turns out, that that statement was not truthful,” Philbin said. "His staff had spoken with the whistleblower before the person filed the complaint. ... After that point, it became critical to shut down any inquiry into the whistleblower.”

Schiff explained in his closing arguments Friday night, however, that while he initially wanted the whistleblower to come testify, that was at the time in which the only evidence lawmakers had was the person’s complaint. But then they heard from a first panel of witnesses, he said, and Trump and his allies began threatening the whistleblower, whose life, according to Schiff, was at risk. At that point, Democrats wanted to ensure that the person’s identity was protected. 

Senate gavels out after a short opening day for Trump's defense

President Donald Trump's attorneys ended Saturday's argument after just a couple of hours, about an hour shy of what was expected. 

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved to adjourn until 1 p.m. Monday, which is expected to be a longer day of the defense presenting much more of their arguments.

GOP senators seem more engaged Saturday

Perhaps it’s the prospect of a shorter day, or perhaps its hearing arguments they’re more inclined to agree with, but Republican senators are much more alert and attentive in the chamber today. 

During the end of deputy White House counsel Purpura’s presentation and the start of Jay Sekulow’s, all seats in the chamber were full. Several Republicans laughed approvingly at the supercut of Amb. Sondland's various assumptions and presumptions. Tim Scott laughed loudly. 

Richard Burr is once again sockless, but today neither he nor any other senator could be seen using a fidget spinner. Sekulow also got laughs from the GOP side of the room when he promised not to play the same clip seven or eight times. The managers sat unresponsive and taking notes throughout. 

Fact check: Did Ukraine get its meeting, no strings attached?

"The security assistance flowed on September 11 and a presidential meeting took place on September 25, without the Ukranian government announcing any investigations,” Trump attorney Purpura said on Saturday 

Indeed, Ukraine’s foreign aid was ordered to be released on September 11, after public reporting about an intelligence community whistleblower complaint that detailed an apparent campaign by the president to strong-arm a foreign leader into announcing investigations that could be politically beneficial to Trump.

The September 25 meeting — on the sidelines of the United Nations, amid political upheaval over the whistleblower complaint that would go on to trigger an impeachment inquiry — was not the meeting Ukraine sought.

A White House meeting was enormously important to Ukraine, former and current diplomats testified to Congress, because it signaled the legitimacy of the new Zelenskiy administration and the crucial partnership between the two countries.

The meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations — where the president espoused conspiracy theories and sought to use Zelenskiy to clear himself of accusations of wrongdoing — was not the kind of meeting a president who feared being used as a pawn in American politics would want. 

Asked during the White House meeting if he felt pressure to investigate the Bidens, Zelenskiy walked a careful line: 

"I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved to democratic, open elections — elections of USA," he told reporters. "It was normal.  We spoke about many things.  And I — so I think, and you read it, that nobody pushed — pushed me."

Trump spun this as an absolution.

"In other words, no pressure," Trump said.

Meet Trump's legal team for the impeachment trial

The legal team for President Donald Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate includes some high-profile members, including Alan Dershowitz, Kenneth Starr and White House counsel Pat Cipollone.

Read about the members of the team.