Welcome to the Trump show: defense argues president is a victim and Democrats are villains

Lauren Gambino in Washington
Photograph: AP

Welcome to Day One of the Trump Show.

It was, admittedly, an inauspicious start to what was teased as a “trailer” for the rollicking show to come next week in the historic impeachment trial of Donald Trump.

The president’s legal team, ever performing for an audience of one, kept Saturday’s opening session short and sweet at just under two hours, less time than the entirety of the opening statement delivered by the House’s lead impeachment manager, congressman Adam Schiff.

Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer and a member of his legal team, had promised that there would be “plenty” of material to delight the Sunday talk shows. He vowed to fill their 24 hours of allotted time over three days with all manner of conspiracies that ping from Fox News segments to the president’s Twitter feed: the Bidens, the FBI warrants, FISA court orders and the like.

But on Saturday, the team mostly avoided the fever swamps, focusing instead on rebutting the prosecution’s case.

Pat Cippolone, the White House counsel whose surname the prosecution never quite agreed on how to pronounce (it’s SIP-uh-loan-ee), began with a time-honored trick of the trade: he flipped the script, seeking to turn those trying to impeach Trump into the villains who undermine American democracy.

“They,” he said, his voice indignant as he faced the prosecution, “are here to perpetuate the most massive interference in an election in American history.”

The Democrats – who just laid out a comprehensive case accusing Trump of soliciting help from Ukraine to undermine his political rivals in the next presidential election – are asking the Senate to not only remove the president from office, Cippolone said, but to “remove president Trump from the ballot” in 2020.

“They are asking you to tear up all of the ballots across this country on your own initiative, take that decision away from the American People,” he implored.

Left unsaid were the political repercussions for any Republicans tempted to defy the president. After all, his unwaveringly loyal base fully endorses a world view of Trump as victim of a leftist plot and are swift and unforgiving in their punishment of those who betray him.

Ever mindful of the television ratings, Trump himself was uneasy with a Saturday morning debut; a weekend window known as “Death Valley” in TV parlance, the president explained on Twitter.

But before the proceedings got underway he urged supporters to tune in: “Our case against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam “Shifty” Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nervous Nancy Pelosi, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC, & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrat Party, starts today at 10:00 A.M. on @FoxNews, @OANN or Fake News @CNN or Fake News MSDNC!”

Still to come, presumably, are the conservative superstars of the president’s defense team.

Among them, the celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, best known for defending a long list of high-profile clients such as OJ Simpson, disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, film director Roman Polanski, boxer Mike Tyson and former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel whose investigation culminated in the impeachment of Bill Clinton two decades ago.

In the chamber on Saturday, there was a shift in mood, a changing of the guard after three very long days. Now it was Republicans who took furious notes, nodding their heads in agreement while Democrats sat stone-faced, occasionally shaking their heads in disagreement.

As Trump has demanded for months, Cipollone “READ THE TRANSCRIPT” of his now-famous call with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Not in its entirety, of course, but the the bits that suited their defense.

In short order, Trump’s legal team cued a video clip of Schiff, a one-time aspiring screenwriter whose district includes the Sunset Strip, delivering a dramatized reading of the 25 July call. His rendition of the call as “a classic organized crime shakedown” blared from the monitors installed on the Senate floor. No matter that Schiff said explicitly that he was only conveying “the essence” of Trump’s words “shorn of its rambling character”.

Senator John Barrasso, a staunch conservative from Wyoming, told reporters he watched the “blood drain” from Californian’s face when the defense played his “made up words”, which Trump has said amount to “treason”.

But Schiff had predicted this play, quite literally. In his closing remarks on Friday, he recalled the president’s wrath: “For a man who loves to mock others, he does not like to be mocked.”

In the coming days, the defense is expected to use their time to air the president’s long litany of grievances. In particular, they will spend time promoting the evidence-free claim that the Democratic frontrunner, Joe Biden, pushed to remove a Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that employed his son Hunter on its board.

Sekulow said the House managers, by devoting time to a lengthy pre-buttal of the claim, had not simply opened the door to calling the Bidens as material witnesses but “kicked the door down” on raising the matter.

“Believe me, you’ll hear about that,” Sekulow said.

The chamber is riven over calling witnesses, especially Biden. Democrats argue the baseless corruption allegations are a red herring promoted by Republicans to confuse and distract from the charges against Trump. A handful of Republicans are also uncomfortable with the idea, warning that it could turn the Senate into a “circus”.

Allowing any witnesses at all would be a stunning plot twist. And the prospect has tempted Trump.

“Honestly, we have all the material,” Trump said blithely during a press conference in Davos this week. “They don’t have the material.”

Whatever the president is withholding, Trump’s team seemed to argue on Saturday, is immaterial to the case at hand.

“The president did nothing wrong,” Sekulow declared.

And for the most part, Republicans agreed, which is all that matters at the end of the day. The defense has the votes.

The trial resumes on Monday. And the only question that remains: were the ratings high enough to satisfy the reality TV star in the White House?