As one might expect given the advance notice that their argument would begin with a sort of movie “trailer” overview, and the constant sarodonic references to the length of the House managers’ presentation, the president’s attorneys took only two of the three hours they were scheduled for in the fifth day of the Trump impeachment trial. White House counsel Pat Cipollone and his deputies Patrick Philbin and Michael Purpura and private attorney Jay Sekulow did not, as some observers objected, dwell obsessively on Hunter and Joe Biden and their alleged corrupt activities. They did meet expectations by insisting repeatedly that “the president did nothing wrong,” and by attacking House Democrats — and particularly lead impeachment manager Adam Schiff — for pursuing impeachment in the first place.
Cipollone led off by stressing the consequences of removing Trump from office, which of course he characterized as overturning the 2016 election and destroying the integrity of the 2020 election by denying Americans the opportunity to reelect their beloved president (there was no mention, however, of the consequence that Trump’s trusty sidekick and chief sycophant Mike Pence would be able to run in November as an incumbent presumably untainted by the Ukraine scandal). The central argument, though, was that House Democrats in their rush to take down Trump had consistently put words in POTUS’ mouth. That’s why Purpura began his part of the argument by showing video of Schiff’s infamous parody gloss on Trump’s key July 25 conversation with Volodymyr Zelensky as resembling a mobster’s threats. Throughout the presentation, Team Trump continued to contrast Democratic characterizations of that call with the “transcript” (not actually a transcript, but a memo on the call) the White House released.
While Team Trump’s “overview” didn’t retail the common House Republican claims that impeachment represents a continuation of the Democratic conspiracy to shift blame to the president’s Russian allies for Ukraine’s efforts to rig the 2016 election for Hillary Clinton, Sekulow did promote the idea that the Ukraine scandal was cooked up when the Mueller investigation came up emptier than some had expected, as the New York Times observed:
President Trump’s defense lawyers echoed one of their client’s frequent lines of attack as they began their arguments on Saturday: that Democrats have been out to get him since long before Ukraine was a household word.
Standing at the lectern in the well of the Senate, Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, raised in one hand a copy of the report on Russian election interference submitted by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
Mr. Sekulow accused the House Democratic managers of having “tried once again to re-litigate the Mueller case,” which he described as costing the taxpayers $32 million and involved 2,800 subpoenas, 500 search warrants and 500 interviews with witnesses.
Team Trump characterized all the testimony in the House Intelligence Committee suggesting that the president was holding military aid hostage to a Ukrainian announcement of a Biden investigation as mere conjecture on the part of people not relying on POTUS’ own words. After the Senate adjourned, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer suggested that Trump’s attorneys may have accidentally reinforced the case to hear witnesses in the Senate, as the Washington Post reported:
[Schumer] said the Trump defense team “did something they did not intend” by making the case for more witnesses and documents. [He] focused on the defense team’s argument that there were no eyewitnesses and that no one knows what the president intended when he held the aid.
“But there are people who do know,” Schumer said, mentioning that former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were among them.
“Today we thank the president’s counsel for one thing, they made our case even stronger.”
Philbin was the attorney who took on the whole article of impeachment charging Trump with obstruction of Congress, and his response relied very heavily on the dubious claim that subpoenas issued before a formal House vote to authorize impeachment proceedings were invalid. It’s true that such a House vote took place during prior presidential impeachment efforts, but it hasn’t in other impeachments, and the requirement of a prior vote appears nowhere in the Constitution, which makes the House master of its own procedures. Philbin also ignored the fact that presidential refusal to cooperate in the impeachment inquiry didn’t end when the House did formally authorize proceedings in October.
While Trump’s attorneys were far from systematic in their initial presentation, it was enough for his political allies in and beyond the Senate, who treated its brevity as a virtue.
“In two hours, the White House counsel entirely shredded the case by the House managers,” insisted GOP senator Joni Ernst afterward. Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik also got the memo. “It took less than two hours to completely shred and eviscerate Adam Schiff’s failed case for impeachment,” she commented.
“There is no case for impeachable offenses here,” Stefanik continued. “And it took less than two hours to do so. I think the American people understand that.”
Thanks to the Senate standings rules’ stipulation of a break in impeachment trials on Sundays, we’ll have some time to find out what — if anything — “the American people” think about the trial so far. On Monday Trump’s attorneys are expected to use a full day for arguments; we’ll presumably see celebrity attorneys Alan Dershowitz, Ken Starr, and Pam Bondi then. NBC News is reporting that the president’s lawyers may not even use their allocated third day for argument on Tuesday. That could change (particularly if a recording of Trump ordering the dismissal of U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch in the kind of mobster tones Schiff parodied begins to make a difference), but it’s also possible Republicans think they have the votes to bring the trial to a quick conclusion and don’t really care about the strength of Trump’s defense.