Donald Trump's lawyers defended the president against articles of impeachment Saturday morning arguing it’s the Democrats trying to interfere in elections by seeking to remove Trump from the 2020 ballot for doing “absolutely nothing wrong.”
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone said Democrats have no case and are doing damage to democracy by trying to undermine the will of American voters.
“For all their talk about election interference, they're here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history,” Cipollone said in his opening remarks to the Senate. “And we can't allow that to happen."
Cipollone continued: “It would violate the sacred trust that the American people have placed in you and have placed in them. The American people decide elections. They have one coming up in nine months.”
Saturday was the first chance Trump’s lawyers had to refute the House’s case of impeachment and they came out making a forceful case that there are no grounds to remove Trump from office. Not only are Democrats asking the Senate to undo the results of the 2016 election but to tear up all ballots in the 2020 election with Trump’s name, Cipollone charged.
“They're asking you to do something that no Senate has ever done and they're asking you to do it with no evidence. And that's wrong,” Cipollone said.
Billed as a teaser for next week's argument, Trump's legal team gave a 2-hour preview of their legal argument. All told, they'll have three days and up to 24 hours to launch their defense - the same amount of time as House managers -- but Cipollone told senators up front they would be "respectful" of their time and make their presentations shorter and less repetitive than Democrats.
House impeachment managers spent the prior three days arguing that Trump needs to be removed from office because he’s put his own self-interests before that of national security by pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and withholding nearly $400 million in security assistance to a country at war with Russia.
In smoothly choreographed presentations that relied on videos from witnesses and slideshows, the seven House Democrats drilled home the narrative that Trump needs to be impeached for abusing his oath of office by soliciting foreign election inference solely to boost his 2020 reelection chances. Trump, they charge, then obstructed Congress from investigating when he got caught.
But Trump's legal team sought Saturday sought to dismantle the argument on several fronts. First, Trump couldn't have pressured Ukraine because President Volodymyr Zelensky didn't know it was on hold until after his phone call with Trump, they said.
Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said the president's actions can't be viewed in a "vacuum" and reminded that Trump was "subjected" to the "Crossfire Hurricane" FBI probe before he was president and then Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe after he was in office. Trump had reason to not "blindly trust" the intelligence community and turned instead to his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters, he said.
Sekulow noted the administration has placed holds on aid to a number of countries, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The U.S. withheld $300 million in military aid to Pakistan because it wasn't meeting counter-terrorism obligation, he said.
"You didn't hear about any of that from my Democratic colleagues, the House managers," Sekulow charged.
But Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, noted the big difference was Congress was notified and supportive in previous cases. She pointed to a GAO report that found the Trump administration broke the law by withholding the aid against Congress's wishes.
"He did actually break the law," Stabenow told Fox News. "And so I'm going to be interested in hearing how the White House responds to the fact, that in this particular case ...Congress was not informed and not involved, which is the process they're supposed to take."
Trump's legal team went on offense by targeting the lead impeachment manager, Rep. Adam Schiff -- first showing the Intelligence Committee chairman reading the essence of Trump's July 25 phone call with Zelensky -- and ripping Schiff's rendition as "a fake." They also showed contradictory videos of Schiff's comments about first wanting to hear from the whistleblower and then changing course over security concerns for the person who blew open the Ukraine case.
"Adam Schiff got kneecapped," Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla, told Fox News after the opening statements.
But Schiff called any allegations he colluded with the whistleblower "nonsense."
“I don’t even know who the whistleblower is,” Schiff, D-Calif., said Saturday at a press conference.
The fifth full day of impeachment trial proceedings began around 9:50 a.m. with a procession of the House managers and their aides wheeling the 28,578-page trial record to the Secretary of the Senate. The binders and files transported in carts will serve as the permanent historical record of the evidence against Trump. Democrats believe the record should have been thousands of pages longer if the White House hadn’t thwarted their attempts to get documents related to dealings with Ukraine.
House managers, led by Schiff, have an upward climb of getting two-thirds of the Senate to convict Trump on the two articles of impeachment, especially when Democrats are in the minority with 47 seats and GOP senators have little political incentive to defy Trump, who remains extremely popular among his Republican base.
Instead of winning them over, Schiff and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., ticked off two key GOP swing voters this week with unforced errors on the Senate floor. Both Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska., said they were upset that Nadler accused Republicans of engaging in a “cover-up” for taking a “treacherous vote” to deny new witnesses.
Nadler's language and Cipollone's lashing back that Nadler should be "embarrassed" prompted Chief Justice John Roberts to admonish both sides.
And Schiff brought up CBS News' reporting Friday night that GOP senators were warned “your head will be on pike” if you vote against Trump. Republicans groaned at Schiff’s assertion and Collins, visibly agitated, shook her head on the Senate floor and loudly shot back at Schiff: “Not true!”
The Democrats argued that Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors are such an offense to the constitution and a threat to the fairness of the 2020 election that senators must remove him from office immediately, rather than wait for voters to decide at the ballot box in November.
“If he [Trump] is not removed from office, if he is permitted to defy the Congress entirely, categorically, to say that subpoenas from Congress in an impeachment inquiry are nonsense, then we will have lost ... all power to hold any president accountable,” Nadler, D-N.Y., said. “This is a determination by President Trump that he wants to be all-powerful. He does not have to respect the Congress. He does not have to respect the representatives of the people. Only his will goes. He is a dictator. This must not stand and that is another reason he must be removed from office."
With little hope of winning a conviction in the GOP-controlled Senate, Democrats have turned their attention to forcing a vote on calling new witnesses and obtaining White House documents, which would take the support of just 51 senators--or four GOP defections.
Another vote on witnesses is expected next week after Trump’s defense team finishes its arguments and senators complete 16 hours of questioning to both sides.
Fox News’ Adam Shaw contributed to this report.