- President Donald Trump’s lawyers took centre stage Saturday as they begin opening arguments in his historic impeachment trial.
- Over the course of roughly two hours, they made more than a dozen false or misleading claims, stated that the president did nothing wrong, and promoted conspiracy theories started by Russia.
- Scroll down to read coverage of the blockbuster event.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
President Donald Trump’s lawyers took centre stage Saturday as they begin their opening arguments in his historic impeachment trial.
Trump was impeached last month for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Both articles of impeachment relate to his efforts to coerce Ukraine to launch politically motivated investigations targeting former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic frontrunner and Trump’s political rival, and the Democratic Party as a whole.
While doing so, the president withheld $US391 million in vital military aid to Ukraine, as well as a White House meeting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky desperately sought and still hasn’t gotten.
Beginning around 10 a.m. ET, Trump’s defence team began laying out what they say is a preview of “coming attractions” as they argued that the charges against him are constitutionally invalid and should be tossed out.
The Trump team’s opening arguments come after three days of opening arguments from seven impeachment managers, lawmakers from the House of Representatives who act as prosecutors in Trump’s impeachment trial. The group is led by Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which oversaw majority of the impeachment hearings against Trump last year.
C-SPAN and TV networks are relying on the Senate’s live feed of the trial.
C-SPAN is airing the trial at cspan.org.
Watch the trial below:
Scroll down to read our coverage of the blockbuster event.
Trump’s defence team ended the first portion of their opening arguments around 12 p.m. ET, after two hours of remarks
The trial will resume at 1 p.m. ET on Monday.
Deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin falsely claims Trump had a legal basis for refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas
Deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin took aim at House impeachment manager Hakeem Jeffries for claiming Trump had a “blanket defiance” to the House’s impeachment inquiry that had no legal justification.
Philbin disputed the claim and pointed to an October 18 letter in which the White House said it would not comply with subpoenas issued by House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff – who is also the lead impeachment manager – for documents.
The reason the White House cited for not complying with the subpoenas was that the House had not yet formally launched the impeachment inquiry and therefore was “not authorised to conduct any such inquiry or to subpoena information in furtherance of it.”
Fact check: The separation of powers doctrine indicates that even when it’s not conducting an impeachment inquiry, Congress has the constitutional power to conduct oversight of the executive branch. Trump has stonewalled Congress at every turn, however, by falsely arguing that he is “absolutely immune” from not just prosecution, but any investigation whatsoever while he’s in office.
He also issued a sweeping order directing all executive branch officials and six government agencies not to comply with any requests for documents or witness testimony even after the House formally opened its impeachment inquiry.
Republican senators toyed with fidget spinners and doodled during House managers’ opening arguments. They took diligent notes during the Trump team’s opening arguments.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr distributed fidget spinners on Thursday morning, NBC News reported.
— Catie Edmondson (@CatieEdmondson) January 24, 2020
“They do last for quite a while,” Republican Sen. Mike Rounds said, according to the reporter Nicholas Wu. “Not that it might outlast some of the dissertation we have in there, but it might make the time go a little quicker.”
Sen. Mike Rounds showed off his fidget spinner to reporters. pic.twitter.com/lEUEXyeozz
— Nicholas Wu (@nicholaswu12) January 24, 2020
Sens. Tom Cotton and Pat Toomey were seen with fidget spinners on their desks, too. Cotton’s was purple, and Toomey’s was white.
But GOP senators struck a different tone as President Trump’s legal team began its opening arguments in his impeachment trial on Saturday.
CNN reported that Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, Joni Ernst, Lamar Alexander, Cory Gardner, David Perdue, Mitt Romney, all took notes at various points, particularly when Trump’s lawyers made arguments to dispute Democrats’ claims and prop up the president.
Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow pushes conspiracy theory about Ukrainian election interference
Sekulow accused Democrats of creating a “false dichotomy” and suggesting that either Russia or Ukraine meddled in the election, but not both.
The US intelligence community determined with high confidence that the Russian government interfered in the race.
Sekulow accepted that conclusion but added that it was possible Ukraine could have interfered as well.
Fact check: There is no evidence to suggest Ukraine – meaning the Ukrainian government – carried out a campaign to intervene in the election. While it’s true that some Ukrainian government officials voiced their disapproval of Trump during the 2016 campaign, so did officials from other countries, many of which are close US allies.
If a foreign official criticising Trump is the standard to prove a government-sanctioned interference campaign in the 2016 election, that would mean well over a dozen countries meddled in the race.
More importantly, the theory that Ukraine interfered in the election was created by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, as Fiona Hill, the White House’s former senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs, testified to Congress.
In November, Putin indicated his pleasure that Trump and right-wing politicians had picked up the conspiracy theory.
“No one is accusing us of interfering in the US elections anymore,” Putin said at an economic forum in Moscow. “Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”
Trump defence team takes aim at FBI for surveillance of former campaign aide Carter Page
Trump’s personal defence lawyer, Jay Sekulow, said the president “had reason to be concerned about the information he was provided” by the US intelligence community.
He referred to a recent Justice Department inspector general’s report on the origins of the Russia probe which found irregularities and bureaucratic errors in the FBI’s application for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to monitor the Trump campaign aide Carter Page during and after the election, because he was suspected of being an unwitting agent of the Russian government.
The inspector general, Michael Horowitz, ultimately found no evidence that political bias had any effect in the FBI’s decision to launch the Russia investigation.
Meanwhile, this week, the Justice Department told a federal judge that two of the four FISA warrants targeting Page were invalid.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, slams Democrats for trying to ‘re-litigate’ the Mueller probe before he himself proceeded to re-litigate the Mueller probe
Sekulow opened his remarks by asking senators and the public to put themselves in President Trump’s shoes when he first came into office.
At the time, his campaign was under FBI investigation over whether it coordinated or conspired with the Russian government as it interfered in the 2016 election.
Six months into his term, Sekulow said, Trump “found a special counsel being appointed to investigate a Russia collusion theory.”
Fact check: Former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel after Trump himself fired then FBI director James Comey. Trump later cited “this Russia thing” as driving his decision to oust Comey.
“In their opening statement, several members of the House managers tried to once again re-litigate the Mueller case,” Sekulow said, as he himself began to re-litigate the Mueller case.
Sekulow held up a stack of papers and said, “This is part one of the Mueller report. This part alone is 199 pages.”
He continued: “The House managers, in their presentation, a couple of times referenced ‘this for that,'” referring to the English translation of the latin phrase “quid pro quo.”
“Let me tell you something,” Sekulow said as he held up the first part of Mueller’s report. “This cost $US32 million. This investigation took 2,800 subpoenas. This investigation had 500 search warrants. This had 230 orders for communication records. This had 500 witness interviews. All to reach the following conclusion, and I’m going to quote from the Mueller report itself… ‘Ultimately … this investigation did not establish that the campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election interference activities.'”
Fact check: Mueller’s report did not conclude that there was “no collusion,” as Trump, Sekulow, and their allies have claimed. It found that there was insufficient evidence to bring a criminal conspiracy charge against the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it. Prosecutors also found, however, that the campaign enthusiastically welcomed Russia’s interference and sought to benefit from it.
Deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura lays out ‘6 key facts’ about Trump and Ukraine that have no basis in the facts
Purpura accused House Democrats of “selective leaks” and holding “closed-door examinations” with “handpicked witnesses,” and later having “staged public hearings.”
He then outlined what he said were six “key facts” that “have not and will not change”:
The July 25 call transcript shows that the president did not condition either security assistance or a meeting on anything.
- Fact check: The “transcript” Purpura referred to is a rough summary the White House released. The summary shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky telling Trump Ukraine is ready for more military aid. Trump replied: “I would like you to do us a favour, though,” and immediately asked Zelensky to pursue investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, as well as conspiracy theories about Ukrainian election interference.
Zelensky and other Ukrainians have repeatedly said there was no quid pro quo or pressure on them to launch investigations.
- Fact check: It’s true that Zelensky said he didn’t feel pressured and that there was “no blackmail.” But context matters, especially in a geopolitical relationship like this one, where there’s a clear imbalance of power. As Insider’s John Haltiwanger reported last year, Ukraine is still reliant on US military assistance as it fends off Russian aggression. By acknowledging feeling pressured, Zelensky would risk angering Trump.
- “Whether the hold, the security assistance hold, continued or not, Ukrainians understood that that’s something the president wanted and they still wanted important things from the president,” Holmes testified. “So I think that continues to this day. I think they’re being very careful. They still need us now going forward.”
Zelensky and Ukrainian officials did not even know the security assistance was paused until the end of August, over a month after the July 25 call.
- Fact check: Laura Cooper, a Russia and Ukraine expert at the Pentagon, revealed in public testimony last year that the State Department emailed a member of her staff on July 25 – the day of the Trump-Zelensky phone call – saying Ukrainian embassy officials and the House Foreign Affairs Committee were asking about US military aid. In other words, Ukraine seemed aware of the freeze at the time Trump spoke with Zelensky.
Not a “single wintess testified that the president himself said that there was any connection between any investigations and security assistance, a presidential meeting or anything.”
- Fact check: Gordon Sondland, the US’s ambassador to the European Union, testified that Trump engaged in a quid pro quo that involved conditioning military aid and a White House meeting on Ukraine launching the investigations he wanted.
- Sondland also told Holmes Trump only cares about “the big stuff” as it relates to Ukraine. When Holmes noted that Ukraine is at war with Russia, Sondland said “the big stuff” is more about the Bidens. And Sondland raised the request for investigations at a July 10 meeting with Ukrainian officials after they asked when Zelensky could expect a White House meeting with Trump.
Security assistance was released on September 11 and a Trump-Zelensky “presidential meeting” happened on September 25, without Ukraine announcing any investigations.
- Fact check: The president released the aid only after Politico publicly reported, on August 28, that he had frozen it, and after Congress and the public learned about a whistleblower’s complaint against Trump. The “presidential meeting” Purpura referred to was a brief meeting on the sidelines of the UN. Zelensky himself said at the pull-aside that he was keen on meeting Trump at the White House. The president has not yet granted that request.
Democrats’ “blind drive” to impeach Trump doesn’t change that he’s been a “better friend” and “stronger supporter” of Ukraine than his predecessor.
- Fact check: Republican lawmakers have repeatedly pointed to Trump’s sale of javelins to Ukraine as a sign of his strong support for the country’s fight against Russian aggression on its eastern border. However, as Haltiwanger wrote, under the rules of the sale, the Javelin missiles have to be stored in western Ukraine, which is far from the frontlines of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine against pro-Russia separatists.
- In short, the Javelins were essentially provided to Ukraine under the condition that they not be used in the conflict zone.
Purpura concluded that each of the “facts” he laid out are “enough to sink the Democrats’ case.”
Deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura claims lead House impeachment manager Adam Schiff fabricated the details of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s president
Here’s what Purpura said of Schiff’s comments: “That’s fake. That’s not the real call. That’s not the evidence here. That’s not the transcript that [White House counsel] Mr. Cipollone just referenced. And we can shrug it off and say we were making light or a joke, but that was in a hearing in the United States House of Representatives discussing the removal of the President of the United States from office.”
Fact check: Schiff was paraphrasing the call. He said as much before describing “the essence of what the president communicates,” and not “the exact transcribed version of the call.”
It’s also impossible to access an exact transcript of the call because the White House has not released it to Congress or the public.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone attacks Democrats for running a closed impeachment process
Addressing the impeachment process, Cipollone said: “If you were really interested in finding out the truth, why would you run a process the way they ran it? If you were really confident in your position on the facts, why would you lock everybody out f it from the president’s side? Why would you do that?”
Fact check: The House committees overseeing the impeachment inquiry repeatedly invited Trump’s lawyers to participate in the hearings. They declined to do so. The hearings themselves were initially conducted behind closed doors, but about 100 lawmakers – Democrats and Republicans on each committee spearheading the impeachment inquiry – were allowed to attend.
Afterward, the House Intelligence Committee released full transcripts of all the depositions. It also held public hearings with more than a dozen officials. The White House declined to send lawyers representing Trump to the public hearings as well.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone claims Trump has a ‘strong record’ of confronting Russia. It’s a misleading statement.
Cipollone told senators that Trump has “a strong record” of confronting Russia.
“You will hear that President Trump has a strong record of support for Ukraine,” he added. “You will hear that from the witnesses in their record that [House managers] didn’t tell you about.””
Fact check: Here, Cipollone was likely referring to the Trump administration’s decision to send lethal weapons known as Javelins to Ukraine, which the Obama administration refused to do.
Republican lawmakers have repeatedly pointed to Trump’s sale of javelins to Ukraine as a sign of his strong support for the country’s fight against Russian aggression on its eastern border.
However, as Insider’s John Haltiwanger wrote, under the rules of the sale, the Javelin missiles have to be stored in western Ukraine, which is far from the frontlines of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine against pro-Russia separatists.
In short, the Javelins were essentially provided to Ukraine under the condition that they not be used in the conflict zone.
Experts on the region have also repeatedly said that Ukrainian soldiers are more appreciative and in greater need of nonlethal aid.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone: House managers are trying to ‘remove President Trump from the ballot’ in the 2020 election
White House counsel Pat Cipollone kicked things off by claiming House impeachment managers are trying to “remove President Trump from the ballot” in the 2020 election.
Addressing the Senate, he added: They’re asking you to “take that decision away from the American people.”
“They’re asking you to do something that no Senate has ever done, and they’re asking you to do it with no evidence,” Cipollone said.
He also referenced a “transcript” of the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky and said it was the “best evidence of what happened on the call.”
Fact check: No transcript of the call has been released. The White House put out a rough summary of the conversation, but the full transcript is on a top-secret, codeword National Security Council server. White House lawyers made the unusual decision to move the transcript to the server – which is typically used to house sensitive information pertaining to national security – after multiple White House officials reported the call as being inappropriate and a potential violation of US law.
What to expect on Saturday
The president’s defence team is spearheaded by White House counsel Pat Cipollone. It also features his personal lawyers Jay Sekulow and Jane Raskin, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, former Whitewater independent counsels Ken Starr and Robert Ray, and former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi.
Trump’s lawyers filed a legal brief earlier this week that outlined many of their upcoming arguments.
They will say the charges against him are unconstitutional and that abuse of power is not a criminal offence and therefore not an impeachable one. They’re also expected to assert that the president is immune from not just prosecution but any kind of congressional or law enforcement investigation while he’s in office.
Here are some other arguments they might lay out:
- “The call was perfect.”
- This refers to the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the centre of the impeachment inquiry. During the call, Trump repeatedly pressured Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and a conspiracy theory promoted by Russia about purported Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. He voiced these requests right after Zelensky said Ukraine was ready for more US military aid.
- Several White House officials who listened in reported the phone call to John Eisenberg, the National Security Council’s chief lawyer. Officials testified to Congress that they thought it was “wrong,” “improper,” and “inappropriate.”
- According to a whistleblower complaint about the phone call, White House lawyers believed the president violated the law during the call by soliciting foreign interference in the upcoming election.
- Eisenberg also warned officials not to tell anyone about the phone call and had a transcript of the conversation moved to a top-secret, codeword NSC server typically used to house sensitive information pertaining to US national security.
- “There was no quid pro quo.”
- Trump has been accused of engaging in a quid pro quo with Ukraine by refusing to release military aid or grant Zelensky a White House meeting until he publicly committed to the investigations Trump wanted.
- The president’s allies claim that because Trump ultimately released the aid, there was no actual quid pro quo.
- But the administration only released the funds after Politico reported on the aid freeze in late August, and after Congress and the public learned of the existence of the whistleblower’s complaint.
- “This is a well-known principle of criminal law that if the defendant says he didn’t do it, he couldn’t have done it,” Schiff said Friday evening. “If the defendant learns and he’s been caught and he says he didn’t do it, he couldn’t have done it. That doesn’t hold up in any court in the land. It shouldn’t hold up here.”
Where is the whistleblower?
- Trump and his allies have repeatedly called for the identity of the whistleblower to be revealed to the public, even though the individual’s anonymity is protected under federal law.
- Trump himself has accused the whistleblower of espionage and treason, crimes that are punishable by death.
The Obama administration also withheld foreign aid from countries.
- It’s true that Barack Obama and other presidents withheld or froze foreign aid. None of them did so for their personal benefit.
Trump never specifically said he was bribing Ukraine, and if a witness didn’t directly see the president do this, it couldn’t have happened.
- Schiff underscored the absurdity of this claim, saying it was akin to telling jurors not to consider anything but “a televised confession by the president.” And even then, he said, they would urge the public not to consider it.
You can’t impeach the president over the exercise of executive privilege.
- The White House did not invoke executive privilege even once throughout the impeachment process.
Here’s a summary of what’s happened so far
For roughly 23 hours spread out over three days, House impeachment managers pelted the Republican-led Senate with what they said was “overwhelming” and undisputed evidence against the president.
They detailed the charges against him and laid out an intricate timeline of his months-long effort to strong-arm Ukraine into acceding to his personal demands, and leveraging official US policy while doing so.
The impeachment managers, a group of seven Democratic lawmakers with a range of experience in the legal field and law enforcement, flooded the Senate with documentary evidence and video footage of career foreign service officers who testified that Trump harmed the US’s national security and repeatedly ignored warnings that the administration may be violating the law by withholding security assistance from Ukraine.
House prosecutors highlighted testimony from Trump’s own officials who said his actions were “wrong,” “inappropriate,” and “improper.” They discussed the constitutional grounds for impeaching Trump, and why his actions rise to the level of impeachable conduct.
And they hammered the president for what they said was his “unprecedented” obstruction of the impeachment inquiry and his false belief that he has the “absolute power” to do whatever he wants under Article 2 of the Constitution.
The impeachment managers also made a forceful case for calling witnesses to testify in Trump’s trial. Indeed, the president and his Republican allies have complained that so far, they have learned nothing new in the trial compared to what emerged from the House’s impeachment hearings.
At the same time, those same Republicans have shot down calls from Democrats to allow more witnesses to testify.
On Friday, as Schiff made his final remarks before prosecutors concluded their opening arguments, he implored the Senate to bring in witnesses.
“Americans get a fair trial,” he said as he addressed the chamber. “And so I ask you, I implore you, give America a fair trial. She’s worth it.”
Bill Bostock and John Haltiwanger contributed reporting.
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