Trump's defense looks shaky on first day of impeachment trial

Analysis: Using the president's convoluted logic with none of his outsized passion, his defense team wasn't very persuasive.

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's defense failed him at the opening of his Senate impeachment trial on Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had one job. He just had to collect 51 votes for the trial rules he had written, in close consultation with White House officials, to deliver Trump an acquittal quickly, quietly and with as few surprises as possible.

He couldn't do it.

Fellow Republicans balked at his plan so late in the game — moments before the start of the trial — that he had to order up handwritten changes sought by Democrats just to secure enough GOP votes for the rules.

So much for the modern "master of the Senate."

The other half of Trump's squad, his legal team, chose not to defend his actions with a cogent explanation for them. Rather than rebutting hours of evidence presented by House Democratic impeachment managers, White House lawyers opted to repeat Trump's attacks on the process and the disjointed set of rejoinders he's delivered to Democrats in public.

Full coverage of President Donald Trump's impeachment trial

“If you can't even rise to the challenge of trying to defend your client," NBC News legal analyst Glenn Kirschner said on NBC News Now, "it becomes painfully obvious that the emperor has no defense."

Taken together, McConnell and the White House team demonstrated that, for all of their coordination and the institutional advantages afforded them by Republicans' Senate majority, they still appear focused more on pleasing their audience of one — Trump — than persuading any undecided senators or voters outside the chamber.

But Trump's defenders are as devoid of his passion as they are loaded with his logic, leaving them so weak in the face of the Democratic case that even the president may wind up displeased with the obvious imbalance in the quality of the execution by the parties.

"If there’s any unfairness in these proceedings, it’s the astounding mismatch between the high skill and preparation of the House managers and the rambling, dissembling and gaslighting of @realDonaldTrump’s counsel," George Conway, a conservative lawyer and prominent Trump critic, wrote on Twitter. "It’s like the New York Yankees versus the Bad News Bears."

At the outset, Trump's team was right on message, speaking to the president's allegation that he is the victim of Democratic political malfeasance and not the perpetrator of impeachable offenses.

"They're not here to steal one election, they're here to steal two elections," White House counsel Pat Cipollone said of Democrats, alluding to Trump potentially being removed in 2016 and denied the right to run in 2020 in separate votes by the Senate. Eric Ueland, a legislative aide to Trump, said the president was being updated and was "very impressed" by his team.

But at other times, Trump's lawyers contradicted each other.

Cipollone accused Democrats of initiating concerns about Trump withholding appropriated aid to Ukraine while seeking the announcement of an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. But Jay Sekulow, another one of the president's lawyers, later said it was an intelligence community whistleblower who brought attention to the matter.

The truth is that it was the whistleblower.

By the time senators broke for dinner at 7:30 p.m., many of the 100 members seemed exhausted by the redundancy of the day's proceedings, which mostly consisted of Senate Democrats offering motions to subpoena witnesses and documents, House managers and White House lawyers arguing over them, and the Senate voting "no."

The Senate rules will allow for another vote on witnesses after both sides have presented the entirety of their cases.

Trump himself mostly steered clear of his usual method of defense — social media — while at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, though he did call the impeachment trial a "hoax" shortly before plugging his economic achievements in a speech there.

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"It's a witch hunt that's been going on for years and it's, frankly, it's disgraceful," the president told reporters before delivering his remarks at the gathering.

Still, "READ THE TRANSCRIPT!" — a reference to the White House-released summary of a July 25 phone call he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — was the only tweet he sent during the first eight hours of proceedings.

The outlines of that case so far, as described Tuesday by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., allege that Trump abused his power at the expense of U.S. interests to boost his own, then covered up his actions by obstructing Congress.

"GOP Senators may vote to acquit, but there is something truly cleansing to the national conscience to see Adam Schiff walk into their chamber and shove a full dose of truth down their throats before they do," former Rep. David Jolly, who served as a Republican from Florida, wrote on Twitter.

Despite the rocky start for Team Trump, there's no indication the president will have trouble winning the 34 votes he needs to remain in office. But a shaky defense could cost him votes among the electorate — at this point, the audience that may matter most.