Saturday, the defense of President Donald Trump began in his impeachment trial in the Senate. Here's a look at claims and issues raised by the president's lawyers as they lay out their response to the case made by the Democratic House managers prosecuting the articles of impeachment – for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – against Trump.
Trump’s team puts the Bidens on trial over Burisma
Trump’s lawyers focused Monday evening on Hunter Biden, the son of his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, during their arguments in the Senate impeachment trial.
Pam Bondi said the defense team would have preferred to avoid Biden and his work on the board at Burisma Holdings, a natural gas company in Ukraine. But the impeachment articles accuse Trump of abuse of power for pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and Burisma.
"We would prefer not to be discussing this,” she said. “But the House managers have placed this squarely at issue, so we must address it."
Bondi focused on news reports that suggested Hunter Biden was hired solely because he was son of the former vice president. Bondi also highlighted a number of media reports chronicling what could appear to be a conflict-of-interest for the vice president due to him and the Obama administration’s pressuring Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who had previously attempted to probe Burisma.
House managers had said that allegations against Burisma had been debunked. Biden’s effort to have Shokin fired for corruption was part of the U.S. national policy and was supported by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
USA TODAY has reported that Shokin was ousted because he wasn’t pursuing corruption by Ukraine’s politicians. More specifically, Bondi’s implication Monday that then-Vice President Biden withheld $1 billion in aid to Ukraine in order to pressure the government to remove Shokin because the top prosecutor was investigating Burisma and its oligarch owner -- a move that Trump and his allies say benefited Hunter Biden -- is a suggestion contradicted by foreign diplomatic officials who were following the issue at the time.
And FactCheck.org concluded “there is no evidence that Hunter Biden was ever under investigation or that his father pressured Ukraine to fire Shokin on his behalf.”
Eric Herschmann, another private lawyer representing Trump who addressed senators after Bondi, questioned why Hunter Biden was hired and paid so much by Burisma without any experience in the natural-gas industry, the energy sector generally or with Ukraine.
“What are the House managers afraid of finding out?” Herschmann asked.
A former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during the Clinton administration told USA TODAY it's not unusual for Ukrainian companies to bring on high-profile people from the West in an effort to burnish their image and gain influence.
USA TODAY spent a week in Ukraine and reported “the message from two dozen government officials and anti-corruption investigators quickly became clear: The allegations against the Bidens are entirely lacking in evidence.”
Hunter Biden told ABC News in October 2019 that he was focused on corporate governance while on Burisma’s board.
“Bottom line is that I know I was completely qualified to be on the board to head up the corporate governance and transparency committee on the board, and that’s all that I focused on,” Biden said in the video that Herschmann played at the trial.
But during the same interview, Biden refused to disclose how much he was paid. Bondi said public records from an unrelated criminal case suggested that Biden was paid $83,333 per month for 17 months. Herschmann said Democrats circled the wagons in August to protect Joe Biden, but that questions linger.
"They contend that any investigation into the millions of dollars in payments by a corrupt Ukrainian company owned by a corrupt Ukraine oligarch to the son of the second highest officer holder in our land, who was supposed to be in charge of fighting corruption in Ukraine – they’re calling that type of inquiry a sham, debunked,” Herschmann said. “But there has never been an investigation, so how could it be a sham?"
Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman, said accusations against Biden and his son had been debunked by fact-checkers at the Washington Post, New York Times and others. "Joe Biden was instrumental to a bipartisan and international anti-corruption victory," Bates said. "It's no surprise that such a thing is anathema to President Trump."
The lead House manager, Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Trump’s lawyers spent about two hours trashing the Bidens, but couldn’t explain why the president only took an interest in investigating them during 2019. Schiff said it was “crystal clear” that the pressure for investigations came after Joe Biden had announced his Democratic candidacy to challenge Trump.
“At the end of the day, they don’t contest that President Trump sought to coerce Ukraine into conducting two political investigations in order to help him cheat in the election,” Schiff said.
–Bart Jansen, Christal Hayes, and Martina Stewart
Trump falsely claims House of Representatives never asked Bolton to testify
As bombshell reporting surfaced about the contents of a forthcoming book by Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, lawmakers grappled Monday with new calls for witnesses to be allowed in the Senate impeachment trial, and Trump falsely claimed Bolton was never asked to testify by House Democrats.
Democrats have called for witnesses like Bolton and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to be subpoenaed in the trial, and Republicans argue that the House missed its chance to hear from those witnesses during the House's impeachment inquiry.
Trump went so far as to tweet Monday morning before the trial resumed, “The Democrat controlled House never even asked John Bolton to testify. It is up to them, not up to the Senate!”
The Democrat controlled House never even asked John Bolton to testify. It is up to them, not up to the Senate!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2020
In fact, the House committees overseeing the impeachment inquiry asked Bolton to testify in a letter dated Oct. 30, 2019, and had scheduled a deposition for Nov. 7, at which he did not appear.
Bolton’s counsel said he would only testify if he was legally compelled to do so by a subpoena, and indicated he would join onto a lawsuit by his deputy Charles Kupperman. Kupperman wanted the courts to decide whether he could be legally compelled to testify by subpoena from the legislative branch when the executive branch, the White House, was directing him not to cooperate with the inquiry.
House investigators withdrew their subpoena of Kupperman, and his case was dismissed by a judge. Democrats also decided not to issue a subpoena to Bolton because it would delay the investigation.
After Trump was impeached by the House, Bolton said in a statement that he would be willing to testify in the Senate if subpoenaed. Reporting on his upcoming book includes that Bolton wrote Trump told him that aid money to Ukraine was directly tied to investigations into the Bidens and election interference.
"There can be no doubt now that Mr. Bolton directly contradicts the heart of the president’s defense and therefore must be called as a witness at the impeachment trial of President Trump," the seven Democratic House impeachment managers said.
Sekulow: It was Trump – not Obama – that provided Ukraine with lethal military aid
As the president’s legal team made its opening arguments Saturday, Jay Sekulow, one of the private attorneys on Trump’s team, said that it was Trump -- not his predecessor Barack Obama -- who provided Ukraine with lethal military aid, including anti-tank Javelin missiles.
Indeed, Sekulow said that U.S. policy toward Ukraine policy under Trump got stronger, stronger than it had been under former President Obama.
While Sekulow is correct about the provision of lethal aid, the charge in the impeachment trial against Trump for abuse of power turns on his decision to delay aid to Ukraine that had been appropriated by Congress and his motivations for doing so. House Democrats allege Trump delayed the aid in order to pressure Ukraine’s newly elected president into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, a top Trump political rival, and into entertaining a debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“The Obama administration refused to provide lethal weapons in 2014,” PolitiFact writes, after Russia invaded Crimea. “But the United States under Obama did provide extensive military and security aid but not lethal weapons,” PolitiFact adds.
The Obama administration rejected a request from Ukraine for lethal aid in 2014, even after its then-president visited Washington and reportedly said “Blankets and night vision goggles are important, but one cannot win a war with a blanket.”
“U.S. officials were concerned that providing the Javelins to Ukraine would escalate their conflict with Russia,” PolitiFact writes, adding “key allies, including Germany, were not keen on sending weapons into the conflict zone.”
In 2014, the Obama administration approved $53 million in aid “that included vehicles, patrol boats, body armor and night-vision goggles, as well as humanitarian assistance,” according to PolitiFact. And, between 2014 and 2016, the U.S. committed more than $600 million in security assistance to Ukraine.
While the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act had called for lethal assistance, “the equipment ultimately provided during Obama’s tenure was non-lethal aid,” PolitiFact writes.
"’The first lethal deliveries came from Trump,’" Jim Townsend, deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO Policy during the Obama administration, told PolitiFact. Townsend also explained that the aid provided by Obama was what had been “recommended by European command and others who went in to see what [the Ukrainians] needed."
But Trump has been impeached and is facing trial in the Senate over the delay in congressionally approved aid to the U.S. ally as it fights Russian aggression.
On that issue, a government watchdog agency recently concluded that the Trump administration violated federal law when it withheld the funds intended to help Ukraine.
"Faithful execution of the law does not permit the president to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law," the report by the Government Accountability Office says. "OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted" under the law.
A spokesperson for the Office of Management and Budget disagreed with the GAO’s conclusion.
And speaking Saturday, Deputy White House Counsel Mike Purpura told senators “the president did absolutely nothing wrong.”
He added: “The president was at all times acting in our national interest and pursuant to his oath of office.”
Trump’s defense focuses on his concern with burden-sharing in helping Ukraine
In laying out their defense of President Trump, his legal team touched Saturday on his concerns about whether European allies were doing enough to help Ukraine.
“The president rightly had real concerns about whether European and other countries were contributing their fair share to ensuring Ukraine’s security,” Deputy White House Counsel Mike Purpura told senators.
Earlier in the week, during an interview with Fox Business Network, the president expressed those concerns again. “There’s something else I’m always stressing,” the president said during the cable TV interview. “Why isn’t Germany and France and U.K. and all these other countries in Europe that are much more affected than us, why aren’t they paying something?”
“They are paying plenty.“ the Associated Press wrote in assessing Trump’s assertion.
While the AP observed that “the U.S. is a heavy source of military assistance” to Ukraine, it also pointed out that “Since 2014, the EU and European financial institutions have mobilized more than $16 billion to help Ukraine’s economy, counter corruption, build institutions and strengthen its sovereignty against further incursions by Russia after its annexation of Crimea.”
FactCheck.org reached a similar conclusion: “In fact, the European Union and European financial institutions have contributed more than $16.4 billion in grants and loans to Ukraine since 2014.”
And, “the U.S. isn’t even the majority contributor of total official development assistance” to Ukraine, according to FactCheck.org.
One analyst has concluded that on average the EU has given almost twice as much per year to Ukraine since 2014 than the U.S. has averaged.
With regard to just military aid, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine told The Washington Post’s Fact Checker that “‘The United States is the largest provider of military aid to Ukraine.” This is because of “‘skittishness’ among many European countries that ‘don’t want to provoke Russia,’” former Ambassador John Herbst said. Furthermore, the Post explained: “This is how the aid burden is usually divided between the United States and the Europeans, with the United States providing the muscle and Europe providing the ‘soft power’ to stabilize troubled nations.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump: Fact-checking arguments