President Donald Trump's lawyers opened their impeachment trial defense in a rare Saturday session by accusing Democrats of striving to overturn the results of the 2016 election, saying the Democrats' investigations into his dealings with Ukraine were not a fact-finding mission but a politically motivated effort to drive him from the White House.
“They're here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history," White House Counsel Pat Cipollone told senators. “And we can't allow that to happen."
The Trump legal team's arguments were aimed at rebutting allegations that the president abused his power when he asked Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and then obstructed Congress as it tried to investigate. Trump is mounting a wide-ranging, aggressive defense asserting an expansive view of presidential powers and portraying him as besieged by political opponents determined to ensure that he won't be re-elected this November.
“They're asking you not only to overturn the results of the last election, but as I've said before, they're asking you to remove President Trump from an election that's occurring in approximately nine months," Cipollone said. “They're asking you to tear up all the ballots across this country on their own initiative."
From the White House, Trump added name-calling, tweeting that his team was making his case “against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam “Shifty” Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nervous Nancy Pelosi” and others of “the Radical Left.”
The president's lawyers were making only a truncated argument on Saturday before resuming on Monday. The attorneys are responding to two articles of impeachment approved last month by the House — one that accuses him of encouraging Ukraine to investigate Biden at the same time the administration withheld military aid from the country, and the other that accuses him of obstructing Congress by directing aides not to testify or produce documents.
Trump's defense team took center stage following three days of methodical and passionate arguments from Democrats, who wrapped up Friday by warning that Trump will persist in abusing his power and endangering American democracy unless Congress intervenes to remove him before the 2020 election. They also implored Republicans to allow new testimony to be heard before senators render a final verdict.
“Give America a fair trial,” said California Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead Democratic impeachment manager. “She’s worth it.”
The defense team accused House impeachment managers of omitting evidence favorable to Trump and painting in a nefarious light actions that the president was legitimately empowered to take.
They argued that there was no evidence that Trump made the security aid contingent on Ukraine announcing an investigation into the Bidens and that Ukraine didn't even know that the money had been paused until shortly before it was released.
“Most of the Democratic witnesses have never spoken to the president at all, let alone about Ukraine security assistance," said deputy White House Counsel Michael Purpura.
Pupura told the senators the other main reason for the July 25 call in which Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the Biden investigation was in line with the president's concerns about corruption, though Trump never mentioned that word, according to the rough transcript released by the White House.
Pupura said everyone knows that when Trump asked Zelenskiy to “do us a favor," he meant the U.S., not himself.
Defense lawyers say Trump was a victim not only of Democratic rage but also of overzealous agents and prosecutors. The lawyers probably will cite mistakes made by the FBI in its surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide in the now-concluded Trump-Russia election investigation. In response to allegations that he invited foreign interference, they already have argued that it was no different from Hillary Clinton's campaign's use of a former British spy to gather opposition research on Trump in 2016.
Acquittal was likely, given that Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, and a two-thirds vote would be required for conviction.
Trump, with his eyes on the audience beyond the Senate chamber, bemoaned the trial schedule in a tweet, saying it “looks like my lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.”
The Senate is heading next week toward a pivotal vote on Democratic demands for testimony from top Trump aides, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton, who refused to appear before the House. It would take four Republican senators to join the Democratic minority to seek witnesses, and so far the numbers appear lacking.
Democrats on Friday tried to preempt anticipated arguments from Trump's lawyers, attacking lines of defense as “laughable."
Those include that Trump had a legitimate basis to be concerned about potential corruption in Ukraine and to pause military aid to the country. One of the president's lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, was expected to argue that an impeachable offense requires criminal-like conduct, even though many legal scholars say that's not true.
With Chief Justice John Roberts presiding, the final day of the Democratic arguments opened with Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, a former Army Ranger, saying the only reason Trump eventually released his hold on the aid Ukraine desperately relied on to counter Russian aggression was because he had "gotten caught.”
The Democrats' challenge was clear as they tried to convince not just senators but an American public divided over the Republican president in an election year.
A poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed the public slightly more likely to say the Senate should convict and remove Trump from office than to say it should not, 45% to 40%. But a sizable percentage, 14%, said they didn't know enough to have an opinion.
One issue with wide agreement: Trump should allow top aides to appear as witnesses at the trial. About 7 in 10 respondents said so, including majorities of Republicans and Democrats, according to the poll.
As for the Ukraine connections, evidence has shown that Trump, with Giuliani, pursued investigations of the Bidens and sought the investigation of the debunked theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor, Laurie Kellman, Matthew Daly and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.