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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

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

Democratic House managers respond to first day of Trump's defense arguments

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Saturday after the White House defense team made their arguments that the “most striking” thing to him about their presentation was that they didn’t “contest the basic architecture of the scheme.” 

“I think they acknowledge this by not even contesting this. The facts are overwhelming,” Schiff told reporters at a press conference. “The president invited Ukraine to get involved in our election to help him cheat against Joe Biden.” 

Schiff said the defense team claimed that the detailed summary of the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call on July 25 made no explicit reference to a quid pro quo or bribery. “That’s not what you would generally see in a shakedown,” he said, explaining that the people involved wouldn’t explicitly say it during such a conversation. Schiff said that the day after that call, Trump asked Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, if Ukraine was going to do the investigations. 

Reacting to the defense team's point that Zelenskiy hasn’t said in his public remarks that he felt pressure to engage in a quid pro quo, Schiff said, “as if a country wholly dependent on us is going to admit to being shaken down.”

Schiff said the defense team also claimed that Ukrainians didn’t know that the U.S. military aid was being withheld. “That’s just not true,” Schiff said, adding that they found out about the freeze before even members of Congress.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said during the press conference that the idea that House Democrats, according to the defense team, didn’t call certain witnesses also isn’t true.

“Remember the president gave a blanket order to everyone not to testify,” he said. “Why haven’t they testified? Because the president told them not to testify.” 

Responding to the GOP argument that removing a president would overturn the election, Nadler said it’s “nonsense” because impeachment’s purpose is to “deal with dangerous presidents who cheat.” 

Schiff added toward the end of the news conference when asked about the whistleblower, “I don’t even know who the whistleblower is.”

'Very effective': Senators react to first day of Trump defense

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told reporters that they thought the president's lawyers made a favorable first impression as they departed Capitol Hill on Saturday, while Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, declined to offer an evaluation.  

"I thought for the most part, the House managers were effective, and thought the president's attorneys this morning were very effective. They were low key, specific, and I thought they were persuasive so we'll see," Alexander said. 

"I thought that they did a good job in presenting the defense for the president," Manchin said. "The thing that I walked away with was, they were very clear in saying there’s not one witness they heard from in the prosecution's case that they made that's had direct contact with the president."

Trump's defense spent time Saturday going after E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a witness in the House's inquiry who did, in fact, have direct contact with Trump about the Ukraine dealings that sparked the impeachment inquiry. Sondland noted in his public testimony that the Trump administration would not provide him with access to documents he said would back up some of his assertions. Other witnesses in direct contact with Trump who were subpoenaed as part of the House's inquiry — such as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — were blocked by the White House from testifying.

Collins said she has no reaction to the day's arguments. "They just started," she said. 

Schumer: Trump's defense team made case for more witnesses, documents

House Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., rebutted Trump's defense team on the first day of their arguments on Saturday, saying they had made the Democrats' case for more witnesses and documents.

"Now, the first point that I would like to make is that the president's counsel did something that they did not intend: They made a really compelling case for why the Senate should call witnesses and documents," Schumer said.

Trump's defense team repeatedly argued that witnesses in the House impeachment investigation did not have firsthand knowledge of the events, and at one point showed a supercut of E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland's various assumptions about the Ukraine matter — although Sondland had spoken with Trump on multiple occasions about the issue and also told House investigators that "everyone was in the loop," referring to top administration officials. 

But Schumer argued that this bolstered the call by Democrats and House impeachment managers for witnesses with firsthand knowledge to testify and additional documents to be entered as evidence.

"They kept saying there are no eyewitness accounts, but there are people who have eyewitness accounts, the very four witnesses and the very four sets of documents that we have asked for," he said. "But there are people who do know."

Schumer said those people included acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and his adviser Robert Blair, and former national security adviser John Bolton. "'Why shouldn't we have witnesses and documents here?' I thought,'" the senator said.

Schumer also called out the defense team for claiming there was no due process for Trump in the House impeachment inquiry, but in the Senate process they have that option. 

"They believe the president couldn't participate in the House process because it didn't go by the rules of the Constitution and what was required," he said. "Here in the Senate we're doing it exactly as the Constitution requires. Will they participate, or will they find some other excuse?"

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.