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

Republicans laugh during whistleblower presentation

Several Republican senators were laughing during the whistleblower portion of the defense's presentation, including Cramer, Cotton and Barrasso, who looked at each other and nodded. Schiff was silent during this moment and looked serious, while the rest of the legal team took copious notes. Overall, senators seemed to be paying attention.

Minority Leader Schumer had a binder open on his lap, its open pages showing what appeared to be photos and bios of the White House defense team, when Philbin, the soft-spoken deputy White House counsel, took over the presentation from Sekulow.

To the left of the press gallery, columnist Connie Schultz, who is Sherrod Brown’s wife, sat with Kamala Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff. 

As White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrapped up his remarks at just after noon, the sounds of senators shuffling papers and closing binders filled the chamber, which had the energy of a high school class anticipating the last bell of the school day. Before Majority Leader McConnell even rose from his chair to motion to adjourn, several senators had already made their way to the doors.

Senators seemed happier at the end of Saturday's session compared to the last several days days. Many waved to each other as they left the chamber. Cipollone made his way around the room to chat with a few senators on both sides of the aisle, including Kyrsten Sinema and Lisa Murkowski, as the chamber began to clear out.

Pompeo steps up attacks on NPR reporter, but doesn't deny her account

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday attacked an NPR correspondent who reported that he berated and cursed at her following questioning over Ukraine, claiming “she lied to me” and describing her actions as “shameful.”

“NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly lied to me, twice. First, last month, in setting up our interview and, then again yesterday, in agreeing to have our post-interview conversation off the record,” Pompeo said in a statement. “It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency.”

Pompeo did not challenge the details of Kelly's claims about his statements or demeanor during their conversation.

Read the full story.

5 takeaways from Saturday's defense arguments

President Donald Trump's legal team began their defense of the president in Trump-ian fashion on Saturday, charging Democrats were the ones who are trying to interfere in the 2020 election and accusing lead House manager Adam Schiff of being dishonest.

Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow also gave an astonishing explanation for why his client turned to outsiders for his dealings with Ukraine — he doesn't trust his own officials.

Here are five takeaways from Saturday's abbreviated opening arguments in the president's Senate trial, which will continue on Monday.

Trump responds a 'fair minded person' watching defense would see 'how unfairly' he's been treated

Romney says he's 'likely' to vote for witnesses

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, indicated Saturday that he is "likely" to vote to call witnesses in Trump's impeachment trial, but would not commit to doing so just yet. 

"I think it's very likely I'll be in favor of witnesses but I haven’t made a decision finally yet and I won't until" arguments on both sides are done, Romney told reporters after the first day of Trump's defense, according to CNN. 

Romney's office confirmed his comments to NBC News.

Democrats need four Republicans to vote with them in order to try and call additional witnesses and admit documents House impeachment managers have said are necessary to reveal the full truth of Trump's Ukraine dealings. Other Republican targets for Democrats hopeful of hearing additional testimony include Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, among others.

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.