Senators heard the contours of an impeachment defence strategy on Saturday that promises to be vintage Donald Trump: Bold, personal, on the attack – and always thinking about his re-election bid.
Within moments of the Trump defence team beginning their case, the tone of the trial changed. They spoke in more pointed tones, at times almost repeating Mr Trump’s tweets and fiery lines at political rallies, official events and over the loud hum of Marine One on the White House’s South Lawn. The lawyers discussed matters unrelated to the impeachment articles House Democrats passed late last year, and echoed the president by attacking an intelligence community officer whose complaint about his actions towards Ukraine prompted the entire impeachment affair.
“The president’s lawyer’s are working for a man who believes that the best defence is a good offence,” William Galston, who worked for also-impeached Bill Clinton’s White House, told The Independent.
Of the remaining two days of the defence team’s time, Mr Galston expects more of the same: “I’d expect lots of attacks on the witnesses, the whistleblower, House Democrats, and the Bidens, coupled with the argument that what the president did does not come close to grounds for removal from office.”
Legal experts pounced quickly when Patrick Philbin, deputy counsel to the president, suggested that the whistleblower acted not out of concerns about national security but because of an alleged political bias.
“Nothing about the whistleblower (even bias if it existed) matters. He tipped the police off to the bank robbery. The tip has no bearing on the evidence compiled during the investigation that proves the crime. This is just a big red herring. Don’t be distracted,” Joyce White Vance, a former US attorney, tweeted.
Since House Democrats opened their impeachment inquiry last October, Mr Trump has accused them of trying to take down his presidency because they “know” they cannot defeat him in November. His lawyers on Saturday wasted no time in making the Senate’s impeachment trial as much about the next election as the charges the president is facing.
A sometimes-animated White House Counsel Pat Cipollone accused the Democratic managers of “asking you to tear up all of the ballots across this country”, adding: “I don’t think they spent one minute of their 24 hours talking to you about the consequences of that for our country.”
The tactic was vintage Mr Trump. That’s because the president often takes a charge levied against him and turns it around on an opponent. House Democrats spent the last three days telling senators that he was out to steal an election. So Mr Cipollone did what his boss would do: he accused them of the same thing.
The top White House lawyer turned back to the Trump-like tactic as he wrapped up the rare Saturday session. With his client having been impeached on an abuse of power charge, Mr Cipollone projected that same offence onto the 100 senators who will decide Mr Trump’s fate.
“We ask you out of respect to think about whether what you’ve heard would really suggest to anybody anything other than it would be a completely irresponsible abuse of power to do what they’re asking you to do: to stop an election,” he said. “To interfere in an election. And to remove the president of the United States from the ballot. Let the people decide for themselves.”
Mark Rom, a Georgetown University public policy professor and a former congressional aide, called the case and approach the defence team laid out “perfectly predictable”.
“Trump’s defence is seeking to deny, dissemble, discredit and disavow any suggestion that Mr Trump in any way acted inappropriately in his conduct with Ukraine,” Mr Rom said as the Saturday session closed. “The relevant jury is not in fact the Senate. It is President Trump, and the voters who support him.”
Another favourite Trump tactic his legal team deployed on Saturday was to use certain words over and over. The president has done the same since taking office, making such words and phrases like “fake news” part of the national vocabulary.
Deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura spoke for nearly a half hour, trying to rip apart House Democrats’ case. He accused them of cherry-picking evidence and excluding information that would “exonerate” Mr Trump.
That’s a word the president used last year following the release of the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s election meddling report. The former FBI director did not “exonerate” Mr Trump, but that did not stop him from using the word over and over again.
Then there were Mr Trump’s lawyers’ attempts to distance their client from some of the key witnesses who delivered damning testimony against him during the House’s impeachment process.
“Most of the Democrats’ witnesses have never spoken to the president at all,” Mr Purpura told senators. That sounded a lot like Mr Trump’s claims – even when there is evidence to the contrary – that he doesn’t know someone who might create political or legal heartburn for him.
Jay Sekulow, one of Mr Trump’s lawyers, held up Mr Mueller’s report and again and again, and said it failed to prove Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign organisation “colluded” with Russia in order to gain an advantage over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
The Mueller report’s findings have nothing to do with the Ukraine matter, making Mr Sekulow’s inclusion confusing. No matter, however, because it surely pleased his client – Mr Trump still brings up the Mueller report almost weekly.
The president often describes himself as a unique chief executive, claiming his “America first” approach has produced a string of accomplishments – trade deals and deceased terrorist leaders that his predecessors lacked the gumption to pull off. Mr Sekulow’s argument about his client’s actions towards Ukraine was as blunt as it was simple: Mr Trump’s approach was new “but the president did nothing wrong”.
“Disagreeing with the president’s decision on foreign policy matters and whose advice he is going to take is in no way an impeachable offence,” Mr Sekulow said. Had he then played Mr Trump’s political rally walk-off song – The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” – it would have been fitting.
At the White House, the press office called a “lid” about 20 minutes after Mr Trump’s attorneys began laying out their case. That means the group of journalists responsible for tracking his movements and statements on Saturday were dismissed. The early “lid” was a sign the president would not be moving far from television coverage of his own defence.
Likely sensing their client was watching, they opted to go right at House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff, who closed House Democrats’ case on Friday night by describing Mr Trump as a corrupt king who should be swiftly kicked out of the Oval office.
In a move that surely pleased Mr Trump, Mr Purpura played a video clip of Mr Schiff’s now-infamous parody last year of the president’s 25 July call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Although the House Intelligence chair led his hyperbolic version of the talk, based on a White House-prepared summary, by saying his parody was “in so many words”, Mr Trump has used it to rhetorically bludgeon the man he calls “Shifty Schiff”.
“That’s not the evidence. That’s fake,” Mr Purpura said of Mr Schiff’s satire. “Let’s stick to the evidence.”
Also playing a big role in the defence team’s presentation was that very White House “transcript” of the Trump-Zelensky call.
Mr Purpura and company echoed Mr Trump by contending that the document is an “actual transcript” of the conversation. Yet, that very White House-crafted document states it is “not a verbatim” account of the Trump-Zelensky chat. No matter for the defence team, however. If the boss says it’s a transcript, they will too.
Their strategy appears as much about election day in nine months than the Senate’s final votes on the two articles of impeachment in the coming days. So, as Georgetown’s Rom noted, contending the call summary is a word-for-word “transcript” that Democrats have twisted should help keep Mr Trump’s conservative political base motivated to get to their polling place in November.
Choppy waters, however, could still lie ahead for the defence team.
Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York wasted little time finding a group or reporters and television cameras at the Capitol following the Trump team’s presentation. With a grin, he contended the president’s lawyers inadvertently made Senate Democrats’ case about witnesses for them. That’s because the lawyers panned the Democratic managers for leaving out this and that during their case-making; Mr Schumer said any holes in his party’s case could be plugged by new witnesses and documents.
The legal team has two days to come up with a convincing argument on another potentially troublesome claim, Mr Galston said.
“The defence team is on notice” because their coming claim that “you can’t impeach/remove without an actual crime”, he said, “is going to get a chilly reception – even among some of the president’s supporters.”