WASHINGTON ― Lawyers are not supposed to make false assertions in a courtroom, but President Donald Trump’s legal team has already violated that standard by pushing a claim on the Senate floor disputed by former national security adviser John Bolton’s description of Trump’s hold-up of military aid to Ukraine.
“We’re in court,” Trump lawyer Ken Starr told senators Monday. “We’re in democracy’s ultimate court.”
If that were actually true, though, Trump’s legal team could face sanctions from the presiding judge for spending much of its argument period on Saturday claiming there was no evidence that Trump had held up the aid in an attempt to coerce Ukraine into announcing an investigation of his political opponent. Barely a day later, published reports revealed that Trump’s former national security adviser has stated exactly that in a book draft, which Trump’s White House has had access to for nearly a month.
Lawyers in courtrooms across the country are expected to behave as “officers of the court” and are not supposed to say things they do not believe to be true. As it happens, no such truth-only rule appears to apply to lawyers in impeachment proceedings.
“There is an obligation to be truthful to judges, but I suspect the lawyers for Trump would argue that the impeachment trial is not actually a legal proceeding but is instead a political process,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago.
The White House on Monday would not address HuffPost’s specific questions about when Trump’s legal team came to know what was contained in Bolton’s manuscript that was sent to the National Security Council on Dec. 30.
Officials would only refer to a statement from NSC spokesman John Ullyot: “Ambassador Bolton’s manuscript was submitted to the NSC for pre-publication review and has been under initial review by the NSC. No White House personnel outside NSC have reviewed the manuscript.”
That specific wording does not speak to whether White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and his staff learned about the contents by some other means, however. Last autumn, for example, the office and Trump himself learned of details in a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s actions on Ukraine and attempted to block it from being turned over to Congress before White House lawyers concluded that they had no legal basis for doing so.
On Saturday, Trump’s lawyers continued arguing the same thing the White House has been claiming since the impeachment inquiry began four months ago: that Trump had been fully within his rights to put a hold on the Ukrainian military aid and that his decision had nothing to do with the hope of harming the candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat whom Trump had most feared as a 2020 challenger.
Cipollone’s deputy Michael Purpura argued there was no coercion at all. “The best evidence that there was no pressure or quid pro quo is the statements of the Ukrainians themselves,” he said. “All the Democrats have to support the alleged link between security assistance and investigations is Ambassador (Gordon) Sondland’s assumptions and presumptions.”
On Monday, Trump lawyer Jane Raskin continued that theme, telling senators that the House managers presenting the impeachment case to the Senate had no proof of a link between the withheld aid and a request for politically useful investigations beyond “assumptions, presumptions and unsupported conclusions” ― essentially ignoring the existence of Bolton’s claims in his book manuscript.
Bolton, as first reported by The New York Times on Sunday, has included in his coming book a description of Trump’s explicit desire to withhold $391 million in military assistance to Ukraine until its new president announced investigations into Biden and his son Hunter, who had been a board member for a Ukrainian energy company.
“Their strategy seems to be to argue that the Senate should only act upon the evidence before it and that unsworn evidence not currently part of the record is irrelevant,” said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer who handles security clearance and employment law cases.
In a White House photo opportunity on Monday, Trump called Bolton’s allegations “totally false.”
However, Trump has made many thousands of false statements since taking office three years ago, including a great number of outright lies.