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Who’s on trial? Trump’s defense team turns impeachment toward major counteroffensive

Molly O'Toole
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s defense lawyers said their opening foray this weekend in the impeachment trial was only a “trailer” and “sneak preview” of “coming attractions” — making it clear that Monday is the main event.

A partial roster of Trump’s legal team addressed senators for just two hours on Saturday, arguing that the president “did nothing wrong” when he pushed Ukraine to open investigations into his political opponents as he withheld a White House meeting and millions in military aid.

Trump’s team has reserved its more incendiary attacks for Monday, when they plan to try to shift scrutiny onto former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter — effectively giving Trump the public inquest against his potential rival in the 2020 presidential election that he sought from Ukraine.

Kenneth W. Starr, the prosecutor whose investigation led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and Alan Dershowitz, the veteran defense attorney, have yet to appear in the Senate chamber as part of Trump’s defense team. But they are expected to take the lead for the bulk of the counteroffensive this week, which could last just one day.

Last week, seven House managers argued that Trump abused the power of the presidency and then obstructed Congress to cover it up, filling the 24 hours allowed by Senate rules with three days’ worth of PowerPoint presentations, video clips, detailed timelines and impassioned speeches.

Dershowitz said the Democrats were overcompensating for a dearth of evidence with political persuasion.

“Much of what was presented by the Democrats were not impeachable offenses,” Dershowitz said Sunday on Fox News. “They were campaign ads.”

Trump’s counsel made clear they won’t use their full 24 hours to make the case that Trump should be acquitted, an almost certain outcome in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Trump, the most important audience for the Republican Party, as well as his lawyers, trumpeted his approval on Sunday for the abrupt, aggressive defense strategy.

“The Impeachment Hoax is a massive election interference the likes of which has never been seen before,” Trump said in one of a number of tweets Sunday morning about the trial. “In just two hours the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats have seen their phony case absolutely shredded.”

Vote by Friday? As the chances of Republican support for witnesses dim, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is strongly considering moving quickly to an acquittal vote, potentially as soon as this Friday. Per the trial’s rules, if efforts to subpoena additional witnesses or evidence fail this week, Republicans could effectively shut down debate and quickly call for the up-or-down vote to determine whether Trump will remain in office.

With Trump complaining that the Saturday session was “Death Valley in T.V.,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., predicted his team would go big on Monday. “They might have some sense that they need a little prime time themselves,” Blunt said.

Trump continued his lawyers’ line of argument on Sunday that the impeachment is merely a political vendetta, singling out Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the lead House manager and Intelligence Committee chairman, in a thinly veiled threat.

“He has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country!” Trump tweeted.

Schiff not only spoke far more than the other managers over their three days of trial arguments on the floor last week — he spoke more than three-quarters of senators did in all of 2019, according to data from C-Span, underscoring how little debate there was in the Senate at all.

The California congressman pointed to the president’s remarks on Sunday as further evidence of the difficulty for Republican senators of standing up to the president.

“This is a wrathful and vindictive president; I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Schiff said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “If we can’t even get the senators to agree to call witnesses in a trial, it shows you just how difficult that moral courage is.”

Next stage: Trump’s defense counsel and some Republican allies in the Senate have spent days priming the president and the public for the trial to enter a more provocative stage, seeking to keep the Bidens front and center.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., repeatedly claimed that “no one” had looked into the Bidens’ activities in Ukraine. But he also said he’d vote against witnesses, even the Bidens.

“If we begin to open this up, the court of impeachment, to the Hunter Biden, Joe Biden thing, where does that take us?” Graham said. “How long does that take? What acrimony does that create for the country?”

Hunter Biden joined the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, in April 2014. At that time, Ukraine and its fight against corruption was in his father’s vice presidential portfolio.

In the nearly six years since — during roughly half of which Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress — no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the Bidens has emerged.

Jay Sekulow, Trump’s private counsel, said Saturday in the Senate that Trump was right not to “blindly” follow the U.S. intelligence community’s assessments that it was Russia, not Ukraine, that meddled in 2016 on his behalf.

“They kept telling you it was Russia alone that interfered in the 2016 election,” Sekulow said, “but there is evidence that Ukraine also interfered.”

In November, U.S. intelligence officials told senators and their aides that this debunked theory had been pushed by Russia for years as part of a long-running effort to frame Ukraine for its own interference. The officials warned that Moscow was intensifying its misinformation campaign as the 2020 election approaches.

Schiff argued Sunday that the attempt by Trump’s counsel’s to justify his distrust of the U.S. intelligence community only underscores the continued danger if he remains in office.

“He continues to believe Russian propaganda over his own intelligence agencies, over his own FBI director,” Schiff said on “Meet the Press.” “And that makes him dangerous to our country.”

The Bidens, Schiff said, are being used as a political bogeyman to distract from the facts of the case against the president.

“Hunter Biden,” he said, “can’t tell us anything.”

But Schiff has invited his own distractions. As he closed the prosecutors’ case for Trump’s impeachment Friday, he cited a news story with an anonymous quote that the president had threatened Republican senators who might defy him, prompting outcry in the chamber, including from several who’d expressed support for calling witnesses.

Sen. Jim Lankford, R-Okla., dismissed the president’s attacks on Schiff on Sunday. “I just don’t think it’s a death threat,” Lankford said of Trump’s tweet on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It’s political.”

Even if Trump is acquitted, Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., expressed hope that he’ll learn from his impeachment.

“He was taken to the carpet,” Braun said on “Meet the Press.” “Hopefully, it’ll be instructive.”

Schiff argued that the damage will be far more lasting.

“If they’re successful in depriving the country of a fair trial,” Schiff said. “There is no exoneration.”