Trump impeachment trial: Democrats say president ‘cheated but got caught’ as defence team readies ‘robust’ case

John T Bennett
Donald Trump: Senate TV/AP

Donald Trump’s legal team will begin a “simple and straightforward” case beginning Saturday to convince senators the president “did nothing wrong” with Ukraine. It comes a day after House Democrats wrapped their case to remove him by urging senators to avoid “being fooled” by his attorneys – with one offering a stern warning to Senate Republicans.

A White House official said on Friday that the president’s attorneys intend to answer some of the Democratic side’s many allegations – and it’s a safe bet to assume their client will be watching closely from the White House – possibly even live-tweeting his own defence.

“This will be the defence opening statement tomorrow. Could there be some surprises? Sure,” said the official, granted anonymity to be candid. “We reserve the right to hold some things in our back pocket.”

Jay Sekulow, one of Mr Trump’s attorneys, told reporters on Capitol Hill he expects the team will only use about three of its allotted eight hours during the Senate’s rare Saturday session.

A source with the Trump legal team told reporters Friday evening to expect a Saturday “preview” of the defence side’s remaining two days of case-making.

Notably, the source said the team will spend time on former vice president Joe Biden, which will hang a new 2020 election cloud over the proceedings – and likely garner the approval of the president, who has favoured a muscular defence that attacks the former VP’s son, Hunter, for his business dealings in Ukraine while his father was fighting corruption there.

“We’ll be presenting a strong rebuttal to what we’ve heard the last few days,” the source said, promising a “more detailed presentation on Monday” that includes a “robust defence” of “all the charges”. Saying the three days will focus on their claim that “the president didn’t do anything wrong”, the source said Trump team’s case will be “simple and straightforward”.

One former White House official believes that will be the case on Tuesday and Wednesday, the defence team’s other days to present its case.

“My hunch is that Trump would love to strut into the State of the Union [on 4 February] waving his acquittal. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his lawyers take less than the allotted 24 hours, maybe a full day less,” said William Galston of the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, who worked in the Clinton White House.

“If so, as I understand it, Tuesday and Wednesday would be given over the questions, followed by pivotal votes on witnesses and evidence on Thursday,” he added. “If there’s a majority for additional witnesses and/or documents, Trump won’t be acquitted by 4 February. If there isn’t, he probably would be.”

As House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff delivered another lengthy plea to senators that Mr Trump “must be removed” from office, White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway mocked him from the White House briefing room. He described the president as a threat to national security. She charged Mr Schiff and other Democrats with wasting the country’s time with a repetitive presentation that is in its third day. But it was Mr Schiff who had a warning for the 53 Republican senators sitting in front of him.

“It could be you,” he said in the silent chamber. “I don’t care how close you are to this president. Do you think for a moment that he wouldn’t investigate you if it was in his political interests?”

“He is who he is. That will not change,” Mr Schiff said, predicting “the president will solicit foreign help again”. That was part of a closing day message that Mr Trump tried to “cheat” at the start of the 2020 US presidential election

The opposition party began wrapping up their case by focusing on a $391m military aid package Mr Trump himself ordered frozen during the same period he and his aides, including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, were pressing Ukrainian leaders to announce investigations of top US Democratic politicians.

Colorado congressman Jason Crow, a military veteran, led off Democrats’ last eight hours of case-making. And he quickly went directly at acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, saying the former GOP congressman “confirmed” that Mr Trump ordered his aides and surrogates to set up a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine’s new president.

“When pressed that he had just confirmed the quid pro quo that the president had been denying, he doubled down,” Mr Crow said of Mr Mulvaney’s 17 October press conference at the White House. “He knew exactly what was going on in the Oval Office. Mr Mulvaney confirmed why the president ordered the hold.”

Democrats believe Mr Trump’s request of Ukraine’s president during a 25 July phone call to “do us a favour, though”, after Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned wanting to buy more US-made antitank systems amounts to a quid pro quo and shows Mr Trump abused his office. They impeached him on one count of abuse or power over that call, and on another for obstructing their investigation.

Back in October, Mr Mulvaney had a message for his former House colleagues and others who believe what Mr Trump did was corrupt and deserves to cost him the presidency: “Get over it: there’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”

“Obama did it in one way,” he said of Mr Trump’s predecessor. Mr Mulvaney told shocked reporters. “We’re doing it a different way.”

Mr Crow noted that the White House only lifted the freeze on the Ukraine aid monies after it was made public in press reports.

“It wasn’t lifted for any legitimate reason,” the politician told senators. “It was only lifted because president Trump had gotten caught.”

New York congressman Hakeem Jeffries, mentioned in Washington circles as a possible House speaker candidate once Nancy Pelosi retires, went further after he took over for Mr Crow.

“The president tried to cheat. He got caught,” Mr Jeffries said. “And then he worked hard to cover it up.”

Congresswoman Val Demings of Florida, one of the Democratic managers, told senators Mr Trump is guilty of a “constitutional crime”. She also implored GOP politicians to join Democrats in calling for the testimony of current and former White House officials, which the president says he would block by invoking executive privilege.

So far, however, no Republican senator has said they intend to do so next week when the chamber will have such votes.

Ms Demings’ comments came as House Democrats began laying out their case for the second impeachment article, this one on obstructing Congress. “His obstruction is ongoing,” she said after Mr Trump earlier this week said of potential evidence in the case: “We have all the material, they don’t.” He did not elaborate, and Ms Conway on Friday declined to answer a question about what he meant.

Mr Trump blocked 71 requests for information from various federal agencies during House Democrats’ probe, said congresswoman Sylvia Garcia of Texas, another manager. She accused the president of waging a “relentless” public relations effort to “attack” and discredit the House impeachment probe, noting he called it a “coup” and “fraud against the American people”.

Mr Crow earlier explained Democrats’ view of why the aid freeze mattered for Washington and a key eastern European ally.

“The delay wasn’t meaningless. Just ask Ukrainians sitting in trenches today,” he said, adding they are “still waiting on millions in aid that hasn’t reached them”.

“The fact the hold was on was important. Russia was looking for any sign of weakness,” Mr Crow said of the volatile situation there. “The damage was done.”

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