Donald Trump‘s legal team kicked off the bulk of its defence case by contending the president did not freeze a massive military aid package for Ukraine to investigations of top US democrats — and tried to undermine the legitimacy of impeachment itself.
The president’s lawyers started their second day of case-making by attacking the very nature of a presidential impeachment, with one of his lawyers telling senators it is “tantamount to domestic war”.
Still, the bold rhetoric showed again how the president’s lawyers are taking cues from the always-tough-talking Mr Trump.
“It’s filled with acrimony and it divides the country like nothing else,” Mr Starr said in the Senate chamber. “Those of us who lived through the Clinton impeachment understand that in a deep and personal way.”
Notably, Mr Starr did not contend Mr Trump is innocent of the actions House Democrats accused him of. Rather, he said impeaching a sitting commander in chief brings “grave disruption to the government ... regardless of what the president has done.”
Mr Starr began his presentation with a detailed lecture on impeachment, describing it as a flawed and outdated process. Saying other countries have all but abolished it, he declared it “fails to meet modern procedural standards of fairness”.
Attempting to discredit impeachment itself was a theme of the session’s opening hour.
Jay Sekulow, one of Mr Trump’s personal lawyers, led off for the defence, telling senators House Democrats had wrongly rebuked the president for actions that fail to clear the Constitution’s impeachment bar.
“If this becomes the new standard, the future is going to look a lot different,” Mr Sekulow warned senators.
The president’s defence team began its second day of laying out their case after the trial was rocked — and potentially changed — by a New York Times report that a former senior adviser to Mr Trump heard him say he intended to keep a military aid package for Ukraine frozen until that country announced probes of top US Democrats.
That contradicts the president’s claims that he held up aid over concerns about widespread corruption in the Eastern European country. Mr Trump on Monday morning denied Mr Bolton’s allegation.
Mr Sekulow did not mention Mr Bolton, but said Mr Trump never conditioned the military aid package on the Ukraine investigations he desired.
“Those are the facts,” he told senators, moments before the defence team played a video of Trump administration officials testifying before the House — in which they said there were no investigations announced after the aid monies were allowed to flow.
Michael Purpura, deputy White House counsel, soon walked the senators through a series of events, including more House testimony clips from administration officials he said shows Mr Trump was concerned about “burden-sharing” on Ukraine aid with America’s European allies and corruption inside Ukraine.
“It’s the same two convincing themes every time,” Mr Purpura said.
Mr Trump’s legal team is not expected to bring up the former White House official on Monday or Tuesday as they make and close their case. But the Ukraine aid and other allegations in the leak of his coming book now hangs over the entire proceeding, with two GOP senators — Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah — signalling they likely will now join Democrats in voting to call Bolton as a witness. Two more Republicans would have to do the same, then the White House could claim executive privilege over Mr Bolton’s testimony, setting up a legal battle.
Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana told reporters he has talked with several Republican senators who have “grappled” with whether to support calling new witnesses, and believes Mr Bolton’s account of the military aid will change the “dynamic” around the trial.
Seeking to plant seeds of doubts about House Democrats’ intentions, the defence team played a video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi handing her seven impeachment managers the pens she used to sign the articles against Mr Trump.
During that ceremony, Pelosi and other Democrats at times smiled. Some insisted on posing for pictures, with wide grins, alongside the speaker.
“A celebratory moment,” Mr Sekulow said to a silent chamber. “Think about that.”