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

'Insulting and contemptuous': Democratic senators blast Pompeo for attack on reporter

Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and several Democratic colleagues criticized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday over his attack on the integrity of an NPR reporter who said he berated and cursed at her after she pressed him on why he hasn't defended former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

“At a time when journalists around the world are being jailed for their reporting — and as in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, killed — your insulting and contemptuous comments are beneath the office of the secretary of state,” the senators wrote in a letter to Pompeo. “Instead of calling journalists ‘liars’ and insulting their intelligence when they ask you hard questions you would rather not answer, your oath of office places on you a duty and obligation to engage respectfully and transparently.”

Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., joined Menendez on the letter.

 

GOP senator drafts motions to subpoena Schiff, the whistleblower, Bidens

Trump appears on audio to demand Yovanovitch's ouster without knowing her name

President Donald Trump appears to have asked donors for their assessment of how long Ukraine could survive against Russia and called for ousting the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine without even knowing her name, according to a recording obtained Saturday by NBC News.

The recording is from an April 2018 dinner attended by indicted Rudy Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, according to Parnas’ attorney. NBC News has not confirmed that the voices on the tape are of Trump, Parnas and Fruman, but Trump can be seen in early parts of the video. Neither he nor the White House have disputed that the recording is authentic.

Trump, who has asserted publicly he doesn’t know Parnas and Fruman, appears to have spoken at length about Ukraine and Russia with them during the dinner, along with other topics, including cannabis legalization and their natural gas venture.

In the recording, a voice that appears to be Parnas' tells Trump during a conversation on Ukraine that “where we need to start is we got to get rid of the ambassador, she’s still left over from the Clinton administration.” He says the ambassador has been” basically walking around telling everybody 'Wait, he's gonna get impeached, just wait.'"

Trump asks for the ambassador’s name, but both Parnas and another person at the table say they don’t have her name at the front of their memory. Trump says to “get rid of her.”

Read more about what was said.

ANALYSIS: Trump's Senate defense so far echoes his Twitter feed

President Donald Trump’s lawyers provided opening arguments on the first official day of his defense that sounded at times like a public reading of their client’s Twitter feed — a sign of what’s to come as their case moves forward next week.

While Trump has technically turned over his defense to his lawyers, his voice could clearly be heard on the Senate floor this week as they offered the start of their opening arguments, in Trumpian arguments involving many of the same discredited accusations, confusing conspiracy theories, and unrelated events that have been hallmarks of the president's personal defense.

It was a strategy that appeared to be tailored more at pleasing Trump’s base and giving Republican senators in the room help justifying their vote for acquittal — whether the arguments had a factual basis or not — than swaying an undecided audience at home.

Multiple elements of the presentation seemed aimed squarely at the man sitting at the White House, with attacks on Trump’s favorite villains, such as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and former special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators.

Read the full analysis.

Democratic aide offers points to counter defense's claims

A Democratic aide working on the Senate trial provided a multi-part rebuttal to the defense team's arguments on Saturday afternoon, some of which follows:

Claim: Zelenskiy and other Ukrainians publicly said they never felt pressured to open investigations.

Response: 

  • Ambassador Sondland testified that on Sept. 1 he personally delivered a message to Zelenskiy’s aide, Andriy Yermak, that Ukraine would not receive the assistance unless Ukraine announced the investigations. It defies logic that Ukraine would not have felt pressure.
  • The Ukrainians were repeatedly rebuffed in their request for Zelenskiy to visit the White House, they knew the security assistance was frozen, and Zelenskiy even prepared to give in to Trump’s pressure campaign and make the desired public announcement on CNN.
  • In September, Zelenskiy agreed to a CNN interview and planned to announce the investigations.  He abandoned the interview only after Trump released the aid.

Claim: Ukraine did not know Trump was withholding security assistance until it was disclosed publicly in late August 2019.

Response:

  • Defense Department official Laura Cooper testified that her staff received two e-mails from the State Department on July 25 revealing that the Ukrainian embassy was “asking about security assistance” and that “the Hill knows about  the FMF [foreign military financing] situation to an extent, and so does the Ukrainian embassy.”
  • The former deputy foreign minister of Ukraine stated publicly that top Ukrainian officials, including Zelenskiy’s office, learned of the hold no later than July 30, but were told to keep it confidential.
  • Career diplomat Catherine Croft said she was “very surprised at the effectiveness of my Ukrainian counterparts’ diplomatic tradecraft, as in to say they found out very early on, or much earlier than I expected them to.” She got two separate inquiries from Ukrainian officials who wanted to keep it confidential because it would be damaging to their position with Russia if it became public.
  • Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman testified that by mid-August, he was getting questions from Ukrainians about the status of security assistance. He testified that “it was no secret, at least within government and official channels, that security assistance was on hold.” He went on to say that, “to the best of my recollection, I believe there were some of these light inquiries in the mid-August timeframe.” 

Claim: No witnesses said security assistance was conditioned on the investigations.      

Response: 

  • Sondland called Zelenskiy and said if he did not “clear things up in public,” they would be at a “stalemate” and the security assistance would not  flow, according to diplomat Bill Taylor's testimony.
  • White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said in October that the president conditioned the aid, stating: “Did he also mention to me in passing the corruption related to the DNC  server?  Absolutely. He added, "And that’s why we held up the money.”
  • Sondland mentioned the quid pro quo for the security assistance to Secretary of State Pompeo in an August 22 email and to Vice President Pence on Sept. 1, and neither of them disputed that understanding.
  • Contemporaneous documents corroborate the quid pro quo. For example, in a text message to Sondland, Taylor said: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for  help with a political campaign."

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