Trump’s Latest Impeachment Legal Strategy: Ignore It Entirely

The president called the Ukraine inquiry a “hoax” while his lawyer said Trump wouldn’t participate in Wednesday’s hearing.

WASHINGTON ― As the House gears up to consider formal articles of impeachment, President Donald Trump appears to have shifted to a new strategy: pretending it’s not even happening.

“The whole thing is a hoax,” Trump said Monday in answer to a question about why he would not be sending a representative to the House Judiciary Committee’s first impeachment hearing on Wednesday. The president was leaving for a NATO meeting in London this week.

The previous night, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone had written a letter to the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), to inform him of the decision.

Cipollone said the House Intelligence Committee’s refusal to let Trump’s lawyers present and cross-examine witnesses during its hearings last month had created “profound procedural deficiencies that have tainted this entire inquiry.”

Trump’s critics said the new approach is basically a continuation of the old approach ― which was to argue about an unfair “process” because the actual facts of the case are truly bad for the president.

“The only thing that Trump is entitled to is for the House to approve a statement of the charges against him by a majority vote,” said George Conway, husband of a top Trump aide and a lawyer who worked with Republicans in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. “How the House goes about deciding to do that ― whether it decides to hear live fact witnesses, as it did here, or to rely essentially on hearsay documents, as it did with the Starr report when it impeached Clinton in 1998 ― is entirely up to the House.”

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, after initially investigating Clinton’s real estate deals in Arkansas, ultimately reported that in a sexual harassment lawsuit Clinton had lied under oath about an unrelated intimate relationship with a White House intern. House Republicans impeached him for perjury and obstruction of justice.

The House gave Trump rights it didn’t have to give him, and yet he didn’t avail himself of them. Which makes clear not only that he has no substantive defense but that his procedural complaints are a sham, a political ruse to fool low-information voters. George Conway

While Trump and his supporters have frequently complained that he hasn’t even been given the “due process” rights of an accused criminal, in reality the opposite is true.

A mobster, for example, would not be able to prevent his top underlings from appearing before a grand jury, where prosecutors can compel testimony. In contrast, Trump has been able to stop senior officials with direct knowledge of the Ukraine situation from appearing before the House impeachment proceedings, including acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and even Vice President Mike Pence.

“A mafia don who ordered non-compliance with grand jury proceedings would be charged with witness tampering and obstruction of justice,” said Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor in New York City.

Not cooperating with the probe has been the through-line of Trump’s response from the very beginning.

In early September, as House leaders learned that an intelligence community whistleblower had filed a complaint about a Trump phone call with a foreign leader, the White House at first sought to prevent the complaint from being turned over to the House Intelligence Committee despite a law that requires it, arguing that the complaint was invalid because the president is not part of the intelligence community.

A few weeks later, the White House essentially took the position that the House had no right to conduct an impeachment inquiry and sent Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a letter saying it would not permit executive branch officials to testify or turn over documents.

As it turned out, current and former administration officials from the State Department and the National Security Council ignored that directive and testified anyway, providing damning evidence backing up the whistleblower’s complaint. The White House itself released a rough transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump responds with “I would like you to do us a favor though” immediately after Zelensky mentions military assistance.

According to witness testimony as well as the phone call memo, Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate the Democrat he most feared as a 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. He also wanted support for a conspiracy theory that falsely claims that Russian intelligence agencies did not help Trump win the 2016 election, but rather Ukrainian officials framed Russia using fake evidence. Trump made the congressionally approved security aid contingent on Ukraine publicly announcing the two probes, but then backed down after the White House learned that the whistleblower’s complaint was about to reach Congress.

The $391 million in military assistance to Ukraine, which is under continuing attack by Russia, was released on Sept. 11 – two days after the House announced it was opening an investigation into the matter.

“The American people deserve transparency,” Nadler said on Monday. “If the president thinks the call was ‘perfect’ and there is nothing to hide, then he would turn over the thousands of pages of documents requested by Congress, allow witnesses to testify instead of blocking testimony with baseless privilege claims, and provide any exculpatory information that refutes the overwhelming evidence of his abuse of power.”

In his Sunday night letter, Cipollone said the White House was reserving its right to participate in subsequent hearings held by Nadler.

Conway, who supported Trump during the 2016 general election but decided not long afterward that he was not fit for the Oval Office, said the White House’s refusal to take part now shows that Trump was never really interested in putting up a legitimate defense.

“The House gave Trump rights it didn’t have to give him, and yet he didn’t avail himself of them,” Conway said. “Which makes clear not only that he has no substantive defense but that his procedural complaints are a sham, a political ruse to fool low-information voters.”