WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s lawyers on Saturday 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 his own lines of defense.
It was a strategy that appeared to be tailored more at pleasing Trump’s base and giving Republican senators in the room help in 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.
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The approach seem to please the audience of one. After his lawyers wrapped up Day 1 of their case, the president tweeted that “any fair minded person watching the Senate trial today would be able to see how unfairly I have been treated and that this is indeed the totally partisan Impeachment Hoax.”
White House counsel Pat Cipollone kicked off Trump’s arguments Saturday with a theme the president often uses to stir up the crowd at campaign rallies: that impeachment is an attempt by Democrats to overturn the results of the 2016 election — and that they, not him, are the ones trying to interfere in the 2020 election.
“The American people decide elections,” Cipollone said, charging that Democrats were “here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history, and we can't allow that to happen.”
Trump has repeatedly tweeted “read the transcript,” and his lawyers did just that — reciting select portions of the memorandum reconstructing the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskiy that provided much of the basis for the complaint that helped launch the impeachment inquiry.
The lawyers repeated false claims by Trump that should have been clear to the senators sitting in the room. Addressing the Senate on Tuesday, Cipollone said that “not even Mr. Schiff’s Republican colleagues were allowed into the SCIF,” the secure place where members can view and be briefed on classified material, during the House impeachment hearings. But in fact, Republican as well as Democratic members of the three House investigating committees could attend — and dozens of GOP lawmakers did.
Several points of their defense echoed out-of-context claims Trump himself has made.
As evidence Trump didn’t pre-condition foreign assistance to Ukraine and a White House meeting for its leader on investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son and into a baseless conspiracy theory concerning alleged Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election, they note that the aid was eventually released without the launch of either probe. (They also pointed to a meeting between Trump and Zelinskiy at the U.N. — without noting that the requested White House meeting has yet to take place.)
But they failed to mention the release of the aid and the meeting both only occurred after media reports on, and the launch of a congressional investigation into, the administration’s pressure campaign on Ukraine.
The lawyers argued none of the witnesses had first-hand knowledge of the president’s decision-making — leaving aside that the administration had blocked those most likely to have had direct contact with Trump, such as acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, from testifying.
They claimed it would have been impossible for the White House to be using aid to pressure Ukraine to carry out the investigations because the Ukrainians didn’t know the aid was being withheld until news reports pointed it out. But witness Laura Cooper, a Pentagon official involved in Ukraine policy, had testified Ukrainian officials knew at the end of July there was a hold on the money.
Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow repeatedly tried to suggest Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election — echoing the conspiracy theory Trump himself referred to in his July 25 call with Zelinskiy — despite Trump’s own FBI Director Chris Wray's statement last month that “we have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election."
And the president's lawyers echoed his long-repeated theory of a “deep state” conspiracy to undermine him, using improper actions taken by the FBI related to the FISA warrant application on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page to justify Trump’s distrust of the entire intelligence communities’ findings.
While the Justice Department inspector general found the FBI mishandled parts of its application on Page, the overall investigation rebutted the president's depiction of a politically biased plot against him.
Beyond the Senate chamber, the rest of the president's team also echoed his favored arguments using his favored communication method: social media.
The campaign’s rapid response team and war room were fully staffed Saturday at the Rosslyn headquarters, tweeting in lockstep with White House social media accounts and sharing clips of Trump’s lawyers, as the rapid response team at the White House blasted more than a dozen talking points supporting the team’s arguments to beat reporters.
The president's legal team did not include all of Trump's favored impeachment defenses in their opening salvo. For instance, a keystone of Trump’s own defense has been the contention that there is reasonable evidence that Joe Biden’s son Hunter was involved in improper business dealings in Ukraine.
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But that theme expected to come up on Monday. A person working with the legal team said they believe those accusations will be fair game, since Democrats referred to them during their oral arguments.
The lawyers said they will give a more detailed presentation Monday with other high-profile attorneys on the president’s defense team weighing in, such as legal heavyweight Alan Dershowitz and former Bill Clinton independent counsel Ken Starr.
Even the decision of Trump’s team to save the meat of their case for Monday, when television audiences are expected to be higher, followed the president's description of his defense's scheduled Saturday start as the “Death Valley” of television time slots.
It has yet to be determined if the team will make arguments on Tuesday, with one person involved in the process saying it will depend on “where the jury is going into Monday evening.”
For now, all the president's men at his Senate trial have been speaking with one voice — his own.
"Why should I have the stigma of Impeachment attached to my name when I did NOTHING wrong?" Trump asked on Twitter this month.
On Saturday, Sekulow reframed the question as a mission statement. "We intend to show over the next several days that the evidence is actually really overwhelming that the president did nothing wrong," he said.