WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Donald Trump’s lawyers on Saturday argued a robust version of one of his favorite phrases to tweet: “Read the transcript!”
It was the first day of defense arguments in Trump’s impeachment trial as the Senate gathered for two quick hours in a rare Saturday session. The White House lawyers had said it would be a “sneak preview” of their defense, continuing Monday, and they spent the morning rebutting the House impeachment managers’ arguments by charging that they were politically motivated.
To begin, they read parts of a rough transcript of a July call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is at the heart of the House impeachment case. While Democrats point to the conversation as a prime reason to remove the president, the White House lawyers say it points to Trump’s innocence. Trump often tweets, sometimes in all caps, that people should read the transcript in an effort to clear himself.
Highlights of Saturday's session and what's ahead as senators conduct just the third impeachment trial of a president:
THE CALL TRANSCRIPT
The House is charging that Trump abused power in a broad campaign to push Ukraine to investigate Democrats, including presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. They point to the July call, in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to probe Biden. At the time, Trump had ordered the U.S. to withhold military aid from Ukraine.
The defense argued that there’s no evidence that the military aid was a “quid pro quo” for the investigations. They said Trump was concerned about general corruption in the country and noted he eventually released the aid.
Deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura argued that everyone knows that when Trump asked Zelenskiy to “do us a favor," he meant the U.S., not himself. Democrats have disagreed and said Trump didn't release the aid until he “got caught.”
The defense lawyers said the House managers didn't know what Trump’s motivations were.
DIFFERENT STYLES, SUBSTANCE
Trump’s defense team used just two hours of the senators’ time on and promised not to run out the 24-hour clock allotted for the days ahead the way House Democrats nearly did prosecuting the case.
The White House team also displayed quick-cut video presentations on the Senate’s overhead screens, turning soundbites from key players in the impeachment case into fast-snapping clips. It all seemed to command the attention of senators, likely a welcome change of pace for those who had grown tired of the prosecution's long and often repetitive presentations.
Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow gave his word to the senators, “We’re not going to play the same clips seven times.” That prompted smiles from some senators.
The president’s team arrayed in the well of the chamber also looked different than the House managers — defending Trump were four white men. One woman, attorney Pam Bondi, is also on Trump’s team. The seven-person House manager team reflected a cross section of America that included women and people of color.
On Saturday the counsel’s table was without its TV-famous lawyers, Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, who have yet to appear before the Senate but are expected on Monday.
FOCUS ON SCHIFF
In arguing that the Democrats’ case is politically motivated, the White House lawyers focused on the person who has been at the head of the inquiry: lead impeachment manager and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
As part of their presentation, they played video of one of Schiff’s opening statements during a hearing early in the impeachment probe. In the statement, Schiff parodied Trump’s push for the investigations, comparing it to a mafia shakedown. Republicans, and Trump in particular, have focused on the monologue and said that Schiff made up a conversation that didn’t exist.
Schiff, in the chamber as as a prosecutor in the impeachment trial, looked straight ahead as they played the video, sitting just feet from the lawyers.
The lawyers also played video of Schiff saying early in the investigation that the Intelligence Committee hadn’t had any contact with the whistleblower who first revealed the call between Trump and Zelenskiy. In fact, the whistleblower had talked to committee staff. Schiff later said he should have been clearer in his comments.
After the session adjourned , Schiff said that the defense was employing an old courtroom trick. “When your client is guilty, when your client is dead to rights, you don’t want to talk about your client, you want to attack the prosecution,” he said.
NOT QUITE HIGH FIVES, BUT HANDSHAKES
As the Senate adjourned, several Republican senators, some closely allied with the president, made their way to the defense counsel’s table to shake their hands.
Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Mike Lee of Utah stopped by.
Sekulow and Purpura walked through an aisle greeting more senators as the cameras shut off, including John Thune of South Dakota. Sekulow also checked in with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch of Idaho.
One GOP senator mentioned in the impeachment inquiry Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, engaged for several minutes in conversation with the counsel team. Last year, Johnson attended Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s inauguration with other U.S. officials and was cited in the House proceedings as having discussed the Ukraine situation with Trump.
The Trump team’s outreach did have some bipartisan moments. At one point, White House counsel Pat Cipollone chatted extensively with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and later appeared to be lingering to say hello to Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democratic presidential candidate.