'Brazen and unlawful': Trump team attacks House impeachment effort in first formal response

By Darren Samuelsohn, Kyle Cheney and Anita Kumar

President Donald Trump launched his first formal attack on the House’s effort to remove him from office on Saturday, calling the Democrats’ impeachment case against him fatally flawed and “constitutionally invalid” while blasting the effort as a political hit job by his adversaries.

“This is a brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election and interfere with the 2020 election — now just months away,” Trump’s lawyers argued in a six-page response filed with the Senate just days before the president’s trial begins in earnest.

The allegations raised by Trump’s attorneys — a soft swing at the substance of the impeachment articles and a more direct rebuke of the process Democrats used to get there — mirror the House’s charges against him. Democrats allege the president pressured Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf by launching investigations into his political opponents.

Saturday’s filing from Trump marks his initial entry into the impeachment battle. The president and his lawyers had explicitly sat out the House investigation, complaining in a December letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that “more due process was afforded to those accused in the Salem Witch Trials.”

But that approach won’t fly in the Senate, where Chief Justice John Roberts last week outlined a detailed schedule of separate legal filings for both sides of the debate. Trump’s initial reply will be followed by a more exhaustive trial brief from his lawyers that’s due on Monday.

In its first filing, the Trump legal team hammered what it calls “procedural irregularities” in the House’s impeachment process and the decision by Democrats not to accuse the president of committing a statutory crime — a threshold that constitutional scholars have long said isn’t a necessity when Congress seeks to remove a federal officeholder.

“In the end, this entire process is nothing more than a dangerous attack on the American people themselves and their fundamental right to vote,” the Trump legal filing says.

The president’s lawyers won’t be first to make arguments in the Senate trial. Seven House Democratic impeachment managers are expected to begin their presentation at the start of the week after the Senate signs off on the formal rules for the proceedings, including time limits for all the speakers and an outline for future floor votes over whether witnesses should be called to give their first-hand account of the issues at the center of the impeachment.

The House impeached Trump last month, charging him with abusing his power by pressuring the Ukrainian government to launch investigations into his political rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden. A second charge states that Trump obstructed congressional investigations by ordering a blanket stonewall of the House’s Ukraine probes.

Previewing their arguments Saturday, the House managers in their own opening 111-page trial brief featured a slate of evidence that has emerged in the month since the House impeached Trump on Dec. 18. The new evidence, which continued to pour in even after the trial began last week, underscores the rapidly evolving case against Trump, a particularly acute risk for Republicans seeking a rapid dismissal of the charges.

Among the new evidence the House will rely upon: a Government Accountability Office report that found Trump illegally withheld military aid from Ukraine when he failed to notify Congress of the move, which came at the precise time he and his allies were pressuring Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden. The brief also cites emails recently unearthed by national security publication Just Security, indicating the legal turmoil that Trump’s hold on military aid caused inside his administration.

Democrats’ argument also includes one reference to Lev Parnas, the indicted associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who turned over multiple flash drives containing evidence to the House in recent days. Among Parnas’ documents: a May 2019 letter from Giuliani to Zelensky in which he requests to meet the newly elected president and indicates he’s working on Trump’s behalf.

The brief will be presented next week by the seven managers appointed by Pelosi, who include House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Reps. Zoe Lofgren, Hakeem Jeffries, Val Demings, Sylvia Garcia and Jason Crow.

In its brief, the House argues that removing Trump from office is the only appropriate remedy for the charges against him because he presents an ongoing threat to national security.

“President Trump’s ongoing pattern of misconduct demonstrates that he is an immediate threat to the Nation and the rule of law. It is imperative that the Senate convict and remove him from office now, and permanently bar him from holding federal office,” they write.

“If the Senate permits President Trump to remain in office, he and future leaders would be emboldened to welcome, and even enlist, foreign interference in elections for years to come.”

The Democrats’ filing comes as the Trump legal team wraps up its final plans for the trial.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone is in line to open the defense case by taking on some of the core constitutional issues behind the House impeachment effort. He’ll then give way to Trump’s longtime personal attorney Jay Sekulow for an overview of the entire process.

New high-profile additions include former Bill Clinton special prosecutors Kenneth Starr and Robert Ray, and retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz will also be called on to tackle “discrete functions” during the trial, according to sources close to the Trump lawyers.

The Trump lawyers’ plans, however, are also far from final. “We may break it up,” said one of the people close to the president’s legal team who briefed reporters on Saturday. “We don’t know yet.”

One area the Trump legal team does plan to put up a fight: The Democrats’ attempts to fold in new information that’s surfaced since last month’s House floor vote. That includes the GAO report.

“We’re dealing with discrete articles of impeachment. They brought up two articles of impeachment. That is what’s before the United States Senate,” said one of the sources close to the Trump legal team.

Trump’s prospects of holding onto his job appear solid once the Senate trial reaches its conclusion. He’d need to lose support from 20 Republicans alongside all of the Democrats and independents in the Senate — a threshold that few observers see as even remotely possible given the president’s tight hold on the GOP’s base. Still, the multi-week trial promises to put Trump and his Republican supporters in a tough political spot as the House prosecutors go blow by blow through the Ukraine scandal and why they say the president continues to pose a threat to the integrity of the 2020 election.

Democrats contend the case against Trump is overwhelming, buttressed by the transcript of a July 25 call between the Trump and Ukraine’s newly elected president Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as a slew of witnesses who testified in the House’s impeachment inquiry throughout the fall. The new evidence they cited in their brief has only added to the weight of their allegations, they say, and no exculpatory evidence has emerged.

But they’re demanding that Senate Republicans force the Trump administration to turn over reams of documents and make senior officials available for testimony that Trump had blocked during the House inquiry. Those witnesses, they say, can help prove another central allegation by the House: that Trump leveraged $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, as well as the promise Zelensky could visit the White House in exchange for him launching the president’s favored investigations.

Democrats also contend that Trump’s pressure on Ukraine depended on U.S. support amid an ongoing war against Russian invaders and threatened national security for Trump’s personal benefit.

In a joint statement released after the president's response, the House managers accused Trump of "naked, unapologetic and insidious" corruption.

House Democratic aides working on the impeachment inquiry said the Schiff-led team will use the president’s arguments against them to persuade senators that the White House is leading a “challenge, if not an assault” on their authority as a coequal branch. They also plan to push back on any suggestion that Trump wasn’t afforded due process in the House inquiry, noting that the president opted against calling witnesses when offered a chance by investigators.

The House aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, were also quick to slam Trump’s first legal submission Saturday as an unserious document that reads more like a campaign fundraising email.

“This answer,” said one of the aides, “is not like any answer we have ever seen in an impeachment.”