Trump impeachment: President’s lawyer claims Democrats are asking senators to ‘tear up the ballots’

John T Bennett
Senate Television via Getty

Donald Trump’s legal team began their defence of the president with an aggressive rebuttal of House Democrats’ charges that he tried to “cheat” to win the 2020 presidential race, while also warning senators they are being asked to remove their client from the ballot.

Using the kind of brash rhetoric employed daily by Mr Trump, White House counsel Pat Cipollone closed Saturday’s session by warning the Democratic and Republican senators who will decide whether the president is removed from office that doing so would amount to an “abuse of power”.

Mr Trump was impeached on an abuse of power charge. His top White House lawyer used a bit of his client’s political strategy by turning what Mr Trump has been accused of around – but in a twist, he applied it to those judging Mr Trump rather than the president’s political foes who made him just the third US president to be impeached.

“Impeachment shouldn’t be a shell game,” Mr Cipollone said moments before the Senate adjourned until Monday. “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. To interfere in an election. And to remove the president of the United States from the ballot. Let the people decide for themselves.”

About an hour into the defence team’s first day of case-making, Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s attorneys, attacked House Democrats’ motives. “This case is really not about presidential wrongdoing,” he said. “This entire impeachment process is about the House managers’ insistence they are able to ready everybody’s thoughts, they can read everyone’s intentions even when the principle speakers ... insist those interpretations are wrong.”

The attack came after the team’s lead attorney also panned the House prosecutors’ case, foreshadowing a morning of Mr Trump’s attorneys trying to plant seeds of doubt about the Democratic lawmakers’ motives. They argued the opposition party left out key evidence and urged senators to question if they had heard the full truth about the president and Ukraine over the past three days.

“We don’t believe they have come anywhere close to meeting their burden for what they have asked you to do,” Mr Cipollone said in his opening statement. “You will find that the president did absolutely nothing wrong. We are going to confront them on the merits of their argument.”

The latter comment was the latest indication that Mr Trump’s lawyers will opt not to pursue a case that tries to claim the commander in chief did not seek to trade a nearly $400m military aid package and a White House visit for Ukraine’s new president in return for the Ukraine government portraying his Democrat rivals in a bad light.

“They’re asking you to tear up the ballots,” said Mr Cipollone, adding Democrats want senators to decide the next election rather than the American people.

“They didn’t tell you what that would mean for our country ... forever into our future,” Mr Cipollone said.

Deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura followed Mr Cipollone and made clear the team has no intention of claiming Mr Trump did not use the military aid to get what he wanted from Mr Zelensky. Instead, they will argue he operated within the limits of US law.

“The president did absolutely nothing wrong,” Mr Purpura said. “The Democrats allegation that the president engaged in a quid pro quo is false.” He ran senators through several moments during the House’s public impeachment hearings during which current and former Trump administration witnesses testified Ukraine’s leaders did not know the military aid package was frozen by Mr Trump. He also provided statements from Mr Zelensky and others, which he said showed they did not feel any pressure by the president or his surrogates to do his bidding by investigating the Bidens. “There can’t be a quid pro quo without the quo,” Mr Purpura said in one of the proceeding’s most pithy and memorable lines.

He contended his boss’s actions were in line with the powers of the office of the president, in stark contrast to Democrats’ claim that he abused those authorities and violated the constitution. What’s more, Mr Purpura said “once the Ukrainians learned about the hold, they asked about it”, asking senators to question why those same officials, had they known before it became public via news reports, “said nothing at all to their US counterparts” during multiple meetings while the military package was on hold behind the scenes in Washington. “It’s absolutely fatal to the House managers’ case,” he said, accusing the Democrats of “purposely trying to muddy the waters” by not including it in their case.

Stacks of legal papers are wheeled in ahead of the hearing (Getty)

The two White House attorneys’ opening comments signalled the president’s lawyers intend to push back hard on many of the allegations House Democratic impeachment managers made during their three days of case-making on the Senate floor.

They also are expected to make their own raft of charges against former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, over the latter’s business dealings in Ukraine while his VP father was looking into government corruption there.

“We’ll have to be addressing that since they opened that up,” a source working on the Trump defence team said on Friday evening. The same source described Saturday’s session as a chance for Mr Trump’s lawyers to preview their case, with the bulk of their presentation coming on Monday and Tuesday.

The president’s defence team began previewing the case they intend to make in greater detail on Monday and Tuesday just over 12 hours after House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff delivered a passionate closing argument as House Democrats wrapped up their prosecution.

“Whether you like the president or dislike the president is immaterial. It’s all about the constitution and his misconduct,” the California Democrat told senators. “What matters is whether he is a danger to the country because he will do it again. And none of us can have confidence, based on his record, that he will not do it again because he is telling us every day that he will.

“Does anybody really question whether the president is capable of what he is charged with? No one is really making the argument, ‘Donald Trump would never do such a thing’,” an animated Mr Schiff said. “Because, of course, we know that he would. And of course, we know that he did.”

Mr Schiff’s closing statement followed three days of House Democrats trying to convince 20 GOP senators to vote for Mr Trump’s removal because his actions towards Ukraine – pressing its government to investigate his domestic political rivals – amounted to him trying to “cheat” and “steal” the 2020 US presidential election.

They argued he abused the powers of his office, violated the constitution, then tried to cover it all up by hamstringing House Democrats’ investigation of the matter. But as Mr Trump’s lawyers began unveiling their case, not a single Republican senator had signalled they intend to join the Democrats in voting for additional witnesses or evidence to be brought into the Senate trial – or to remove Mr Trump.

The defence team’s strategy is shaping up more like a re-election message at a time when a new Washington Post-ABC poll on Friday put Mr Trump’s approval rating at 44 per cent, matching the highest level of his presidency. On removing the president, Americans – like on most political matters – are split: 47 per cent say Mr Trump should be ousted, while 49 per cent say senators should not remove him.

About a half hour before his lawyers took to the Senate floor, Mr Trump showed just how much he views the proceeding and his presidency as a made-for-television affair, tweeting: “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!”

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