WASHINGTON ― In a closely watched exchange during Wednesday’s Senate impeachment trial, President Donald Trump’s defense team struggled to point to any instances of his interest in rooting out corruption in Ukraine or Joe Biden’s involvement with that nation before the former vice president launched his Democratic presidential campaign last April.
The key moment came in response to a question posed to Trump’s lawyers by Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, two Republicans who may prove crucial to whether the chamber agrees to hear from witnesses and allow the presentation of new evidence in the case. For that to happen, Democrats need at least four GOP senators to break with their leadership
The timeline of Trump’s interest in Ukraine corruption is potentially crucial to the validity of the impeachment charges against him leveled by the House: that he withheld military aid to the country in exchange for its government opening an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of an energy company there while his father was vice president. If Trump and his team can establish that he cared about the issue before Biden began his campaign, or was gearing up for his run, it would undermine the charge that the president was acting merely in his own political interest ― his re-election.
But deputy White House counsel Patrick Philbin acknowledged he couldn’t point to a specific example of an earlier interest in the corruption matter by Trump, arguing that the president’s defense was limited to addressing only evidence presented by the House impeachment managers.
“There’s not something in the record on that. It wasn’t thoroughly pursued in the record. So I can’t point to something in the record that shows President Trump at an earlier time mentioning specifically something related to Joe or Hunter Biden,” Philbin said.
Philbin did try to establish that Trump’s interest in rooting out corruption in Ukraine predated Biden’s presidential run because the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, expressed a desire to travel to the country a month before Biden’s formally announced his presidential bid (speculation that he would run had been rampant for months).
Philbin also argued that one could draw a “reasonable inference” that Trump had simply gotten new information about the Bidens because of news coverage about his son’s business ties in Ukraine prior to the president’s now-infamous call last July 25 with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump’s prodding of Zelensky to investigate the Bidens kicked the impeachment push into gear.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House impeachment manager, rebutted Philbin by noting the president’s lawyers could call a witness to offer evidence of Trump’s interest in Ukraine prior to Biden’s presidential run if they so chose.
Republicans are eyeing a quick acquittal vote after senators later this week consider the issue of whether to call witnesses and allow for new evidence.
Collins and Murkowski, along with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), offered the first questions of the day. They asked Trump’s lawyers how the Senate should respond if it could be determined that Trump had more than one motive in withholding the military aid to Ukraine.
Philbin argued that House managers had to argue that there was no possible public interest in an investigation into the Bidens.
“Once you’re into mixed-motive land, it’s clear that their case fails. There can’t possibly be an impeachable offense at all,” Philbin said.
In response to another question from Romney about the specific date Trump ordered the hold on security assistance to Ukraine, and whether he gave a reason for doing so, Trump’s defense team again struggled to say.
“I don’t think there is evidence in the record of a specific date,” Philbin said, only pointing to testimony that U.S. officials were aware of the hold in early July.
But Romney, a Trump critic who has expressed an interest in hearing from witnesses, wasn’t satisfied with that answer.
“I’d like more information than they were apparently able to give, given the fact that that information was not in the record,” he told HuffPost on Wednesday.