Trump lawyers contradict one another as they conclude first phase of impeachment trial

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — The president’s top White House lawyer has repeatedly told the Senate that Trump did nothing wrong in withholding aid to Ukraine, even as other lawyers on his defense team directly contradicted that assertion over the last two days. 

In the opening moments of the Senate impeachment trial last Tuesday, some of Pat Cipollone’s first words were that the president “has done absolutely nothing wrong.”

Cipollone asserted again on Saturday that Trump “did absolutely nothing wrong.” 

But on Monday, Trump lawyer Robert Ray, who is working with Cipollone on the president’s defense, said something very different when addressing the Senate.

“I know that many of you may come to conclude, or may have already concluded, that the call was less than perfect,” said Ray, referring to the president’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian president.

Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to do him “a favor” and investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, a rival for the presidency. 

Trump has repeatedly described this call as “perfect.”

But Ray, in one of the most noteworthy moments of the president’s defense, took a position contrary to Trump and even to Cipollone. Ray said Trump had not acted perfectly at all. 

“It would have been better, in attempting to spur action by a foreign government in coordinating law enforcement efforts with our government, to have done so through proper channels,” Ray said. “While the president certainly enjoys the power to do otherwise, there is consequence to that action, as we have now witnessed. After all, that is why we are all here.”

Ray went on to say, however, that Trump’s actions were not “clearly and unmistakably impeachable as an abuse of power.”

Ray defended Trump’s leaning on Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens. “There can be no serious question that this president, or any president, acts lawfully in requesting foreign assistance with investigations into possible corruption, even when it might potentially involve another politician.”

The reason that there are conflicting messages from Trump’s team is because many Republican senators believe Trump is guilty of acting badly but don’t want to remove him from office, either because they don’t think he should be or because they fear the political consequences of doing so, or some combination of those things, as multiple Republican sources have told Yahoo News.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said in December, he thought the president’s actions in pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation of Joe Biden was “inappropriate” but “not impeachable.”

Trump attorney Jay Sekulow. (Screengrab: Senate TV via AP)

Alan Dershowitz, a well-known defense attorney, continued Ray’s line of reasoning Monday night, arguing that presidents can only be removed from office for committing a crime. 

“Purely noncriminal conduct, including abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, are outside the range of impeachable offenses,” Dershowitz argued. 

And Republican senators repeated this message on Tuesday. “The question is not whether, I think, a phone call was perfect, or whether something was advisable or not. The question is: Is this an impeachable offense?” asked Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

Trump’s insistence that he has done nothing wrong is the reason for his legal team’s bifurcated — and sometimes incoherent — messaging: He’s innocent, but if he did it, you can’t impeach him for it. 

But Trump’s defense team has multiple audiences to satisfy: the public, Republican senators and the president himself. 

The public, and primarily Republican voters, like to hear that the impeachment process has been a partisan witch hunt, and that there are open-ended questions about Biden that justified Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine. 

The Republican senators need to have a constitutional and legal argument to justify voting for acquittal, especially given the fact that there is substantial evidence that Trump did what he is accused of in the articles of impeachment that the House passed on Dec.18. 

And the president wants to hear his own line repeated back to him, that he is completely innocent. Cipollone, it should be noted, did not repeat his claim on Tuesday that the president did nothing wrong. 

But Jay Sekulow, another member of Trump’s legal team, did carry forward the arguments made by Ray and Dershowitz during the last day of opening arguments for the president’s defense. 

Sekulow dismissed the idea of testimony by Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, and said it would be “inadmissible.” Bolton reportedly submitted a book manuscript to the White House for review, in which he alleges Trump told him to block Ukraine aid to gain help in the 2020 election.

Former national security adviser John Bolton. (Photo: Luis M. Alvarez/AP)

“Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, even if true, would rise to the level of abuse of power or an impeachable offense,” Sekulow said. 

The day ended rather abruptly, giving senators a welcome break ahead of what promises to be a grueling next few days. 

Cipollone played a few clips of Democrats railing against impeachment from 20 years ago, and then sat down before the clock had even struck 3 p.m.

The media clips played by Cipollone were a jarring way to conclude opening arguments. The trial will now move to two days of questions submitted in writing by senators, and then the debate over whether to call witnesses on Friday, in what’s expected to be another lengthy session that could stretch past midnight. The outcome Friday will determine whether the trial ends Saturday or stretches into next week.

Cipollone stood in the well of the Senate as an aide showed video from two current House impeachment managers. First there was Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., decrying “a narrowly voted impeachment.” Then there was Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., criticizing the “partisan use of impeachment.” Both were in the House in 1998, when the lower chamber impeached then-President Bill Clinton.

Cipollone then played Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. — who was in the House then as well — yelling about the Clinton impeachment being “a coup d’etat” that would “haunt this body and the country forever.” Markey, talking to Yahoo News afterward, said he stood by that quote, and that the Clinton impeachment belonged in “family court,” while the Trump impeachment is a proper matter for the U.S. Senate.

Finally, Cipollone played video of the current Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who said two decades ago that the Clinton impeachment had “lowered the bar on impeachment so much” that in the future it would “be used as a routine tool to fight political battles.”

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind. (Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP)

“My fear,” Schumer said then, is that when a Republican wins the White House, Democrats will demand payback.”

The TV screen went blank, and Cipollone looked directly at Schumer, who sat at the front of the Senate chamber a few feet in front of him. “You were right,” Cipollone said, prompting audible laughter in the chamber. “But I’m sorry to say you were also prophetic.”

 The Trump team’s subtext was clear: This is all about a political animus. 

“You can’t view this case in a vacuum,” Sekulow the Senate during the most lengthy presentation of the day. Sekulow painted a picture of a Trump presidency under assault from hostile forces at the FBI and in the political establishment going back to the 2016 election. 

Sekulow talked about the FBI probe into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the role played by the infamous Steele dossier, which alleged nefarious connections between Trump and Moscow, and abuses at the FBI in obtaining warrants for surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Sekulow’s presentation, in particular, toggled between the three arguments the Trump team has made in defense of the president: Democrats are just out to get Trump; Trump was justified to withhold aid to Ukraine; and even if he wasn’t justified in doing so, and even if he abused his power, he shouldn’t be impeached. 

The impeachment charges “must be rejected,” Sekulow said, “even if there was a quid pro quo, which we have clearly established there was not.”

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