Trump is currently on trial in the Senate after being impeached by the House for pressuring the Ukrainian government to open an investigation that could benefit him in the 2020 presidential election and withholding military aid until it did so, and then obstructing Congress’s efforts to look into the matter. Trump himself has said he wanted Ukraine to launch an investigation into the son of potential 2020 opponent and former Vice President Joe Biden.
But Trump’s defense argued that Trump wasn’t the one interfering with the election ― in fact, they said, now Democrats are, through a process that has involved selective leaks, closed door meetings and incomplete presentation of facts.
“They’re here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history, and we can’t allow that to happen,” said White House counsel Pat Cipollone.
He said earlier that Democrats were asking the Senate to overturn the 2016 election and interfere in the next one ― something that could be argued for any removal from office in an election year.
“They’re asking you to remove President Trump from the ballot in an election that’s occurring in approximately nine months,” Cipollone said. “They’re asking you to tear up all of the ballots across this country ... take that decision away from the American people.”
Trump’s attorneys suggested at the beginning of the day that they plan to spend far less time defending the president than House Democratic impeachment managers spent arguing for the prosecution. While Democrats spent all of the 24 hours allotted by the rules, Trump’s team spent about two hours on Saturday and far less than the 24 total. They argued that they don’t need the time, again referring to the election.
“We will finish efficiently and quickly so we can all go have an election,” Cipollone said.
The fact that Democrats took up all of their allotted 24 hours to argue their case came up repeatedly. Trump’s attorneys argued that, in all of that time, the House managers had failed to include certain details. Mike Purpura, deputy counsel to the president, noted that Ukrainian leaders have said they did not feel pressured, that some top officials in the U.S. and Ukraine have said they didn’t know the assistance was paused, that aid was eventually approved and that Trump’s support for the nation was stronger than his predecessor’s.
Purpura said that by suggesting Trump did pressure Ukraine, Democrats were effectively accusing Ukrainian leaders of lying.
“There can’t be a quid pro quo without the quo,” Purpura said, arguing Ukrainian officials couldn’t have been pressured by the Trump administration if they were unaware of the hold on the aid.
But Olena Zerkal, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs of Ukraine, said Ukrainian diplomats in Washington knew there was a problem with the aid as early as July 25, the day of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that prompted the impeachment inquiry. Her account was backed up by congressional testimony from Laura Cooper, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia.
Trump’s lawyers also sought to aggressively undermine the House managers’ arguments by suggesting the Democrats’ witnesses only “presumed” Trump’s hold on Ukraine aid was linked to investigations, calling it a “fatal” blow to their case. They showed video footage of testimony from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who told House impeachment investigators last year it was his understanding that Trump sought to extort Ukraine’s government for personal political gain. Sondland later amended his testimony, saying he told a top Zelensky aide on September 1 that the aid was linked to opening investigations into Biden.
Trump’s defense implied that Democrats were overstepping simply because they didn’t agree with the president’s decisions.
“Disagreeing with the president’s foreign policy is not an impeachable offense,” Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said.
Trump’s team accused Democrats of acting nefariously behind the scenes ― Republicans have claimed that interviewing witnesses in a secure room (that was accessible by many GOP lawmakers) was part of a cover-up ― and holding only staged public hearings. The first clip Trump’s defense played was a favorite among Republicans: video of House impeachment manager Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) doing an exaggerated paraphrase of Trump’s call with Ukraine.
They said repeatedly that the House Democrats had held something back.
“The House managers didn’t tell you ― why not?” Purpura said at one point.
Schiff responded after the Senate ended its day, writing that Trump’s defense was trying to distract from the truth but hadn’t actually contested the facts.
“They don’t contest the basic architecture of this scheme,” Schiff said. “They do not contest that the president solicited a foreign nation to interfere in our election, to help him cheat. I think they acknowledge by not even contesting this that the facts are overwhelming.”
Trump’s lawyers are expected to continue their opening arguments on Monday. Following the conclusion of their arguments, and a period of questioning by senators from both sides, the senators will vote on whether to consider witnesses and other evidence.
Democrats want to hear from witnesses like Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and several of his top deputies, who could answer questions about Trump’s hold on Ukraine aid. The White House blocked Mulvaney and the others from testifying in the House impeachment inquiry, and most Republicans are opposed to calling them in the Senate trial for fear of lengthening the proceedings.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said afterward that Trump’s defense team did a “good job” and is “making me think about things.” But the moderate Democrat added that their argument underscored the need to call witnesses like Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton.
“One thing that stuck in my mind is they said there isn’t a witness they have had so far that had direct contact with the president. I’d love to hear from Mulvaney and Bolton,” Manchin said.
But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) dismissed the point raised by Manchin and other Democrats on Saturday, questioning why witnesses were needed when the House managers had already described their case against Trump as rock-solid.
“They said their case was overwhelming and undisputed. In a court of law, if a party says their evidence is undisputed, then you say why do you need any more witnesses?” Cornyn said.
This story has been updated with additional comments from lawmakers.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article identified Adam Schiff as a Republican. He is a Democrat.