WASHINGTON – White House lawyers are gearing up for a scorched-earth defense of President Donald Trump in the impeachment trial, mounting a politically charged case aimed more at swaying American voters than GOP senators – and damaging Trump’s possible 2020 opponent, Joe Biden.
Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney, plan to use their time in the trial to target the former vice president and his son, Hunter, according to multiple GOP officials familiar with the strategy. Trump’s allies believe that if they can argue that the president had a plausible reason for requesting the Biden investigation in Ukraine, that they can both defend him against the impeachment charges and gain the added bonus of undercutting a political adversary.
The strategy – aimed squarely at muddying the waters surrounding the two impeachment articles of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – carries potential risk. Some congressional Republicans have encouraged the White House to prioritize a line-by-line rebuttal of the Democrats’ case, ensuring that wary moderates are provided enough cover to vote for Trump’s acquittal. It is unclear whether going after a former colleague will sway that core constituency, protecting moderates from possible political blowback at home – though a senior administration official made clear that Trump’s legal team would try to do both.
The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter frankly.
The Biden campaign condemned the strategy.
“Donald Trump is so terrified of facing Joe Biden that he became the only president in American history to attempt to coerce a foreign nation into lying about a political rival,” spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. “Even members of his own administration – including his former top envoy to Ukraine – have refuted the conspiracy theory that he tried to force Ukraine to spread to bail out his struggling reelection campaign.”
The offensive will mark the first time lawmakers or the public have heard a full-throated White House defense. The president’s attorneys rejected the House invitation to participate in the last phase of the impeachment inquiry, making their presentation – expected Saturday and Monday – the team’s first major turn in the spotlight.
Until now, the White House has struggled to address why Trump froze military aid to Ukraine and repeatedly postponed a promised White House meeting with newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky while pressing for investigations of the Bidens and an unfounded conspiracy theory about Ukraine interfering in the 2016 election. The White House also has had difficulty explaining why Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani was the point person on policy toward the Eastern European nation.
In October, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney openly admitted that a quid pro quo occurred, telling reporters to “get over it” – though he later walked back the comments.
Trump is eager for his team to take the stage and has been trying to strategically time it to maximize TV viewership. He has told allies that while he’s fine with the defense beginning its presentation Saturday for a few hours starting at 10 a.m. – in part because he hopes it will drive discussions on Sunday morning talk shows – he prefers the bulk of their arguments to happen Monday when more Americans will be watching television, according to White House officials who were not authorized to speak publicly.
“After having been treated unbelievably unfairly in the House, and then having to endure hour after hour of lies, fraud & deception by Shifty Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer & their crew, looks like my lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.,” Trump tweeted Friday morning.
The emerging strategy comes as the White House has heard conflicting advice from Republicans eager to share their opinion on the best rebuttal. In recent weeks, there has been a quiet, behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign by both GOP senators and Trump’s House allies on his defense team, creating confusion among Republicans about which strategy the White House will adopt.
The deliberations occasionally have been marked by intense discussions, including debates about whether to push a process-focused case against Democrats or take on each of their points and accusations individually, according to senators and congressional aides familiar with the talks. Over the past 24 hours, the debate has focused more on how much time should be dedicated to going after the Bidens.
Those divergent views were on full display in the Capitol this week. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican advising Trump’s defense team, told reporters that Trump’s lawyers needed to re-litigate what is considered a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to help Hillary Clinton – and, therefore, justified Trump pushing Ukraine to investigate the matter. But some Senate Republicans, including No. 2 leader John Thune of South Dakota, want the White House to avoid what they consider a baseless conspiracy theory.
“I think the intelligence community has very conclusively determined that it was Russia – and not Ukraine – that interfered in the 2016 election, so . . . I guess that’s not a direction I would have them go,” Thune said.
Other Senate Republicans, including Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have publicly pushed back on a key White House legal team talking point: that the charges against the president do not constitute a crime and therefore his actions are not impeachable.
Trump himself actively recruited lawyer and TV commentator Alan Dershowitz at a Mar-a-Lago buffet to make that very argument – then sought out Dershowitz’s wife to help persuade him to do it. “He wants me to make the argument that the case does not meet the grounds for impeachment,” said Dershowitz. “He knows that I feel very strongly about constitutional issues.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have been bracing for this moment, anxious about the Trump team getting 24 hours without any interruptions and pushback from impeachment managers. That concern only grew after Trump’s lawyers uttered several inaccuracies on the Senate floor Tuesday, including a claim that House Republicans were not allowed to question witnesses during closed-door depositions. They could, and they did.
Democrats want to ensure that the Trump team doesn’t get the last word, in part by using some of the allotted 16 hours of questions and answers to correct any misstatements.
“I’m concerned about their deceptive and misleading statements,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., promising that Democrats would “ask questions that are, in effect, an invitation to set the record straight.”
Democrats have been anticipating that the defense would shift attention from Trump’s alleged misconduct to focus on the Bidens. That, in part, is what drove House managers to devote a considerable portion of their Thursday presentation to a preemptive rebuttal on those points, arguing that several Republicans and Europeans had supported Biden’s efforts to push out corrupt former Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin.
Trump and Republicans have accused Biden – without proof – of ousting Shokin because the prosecutor was investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that employed Hunter Biden on its board while the elder Biden was vice president.
But former U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said the prosecutor’s investigation of Burisma had been dormant, and many had hoped that the change in prosecutors backed by Biden and others would lead to more aggressive anti-corruption investigations.
Republicans also have pointed to concerns about the appearance of a conflict of interest, which were expressed by some of the Democrats’ top witnesses in the impeachment inquiry.
“The House managers sort of drove a knife through the heart of those false arguments ahead of time . . . and I think that will help make the case,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Thursday.
Not all Republicans are eager about a singular focus on the former vice president. In an unusual role-reversal, Trump’s most aggressive House allies have urged the legal team to focus on trying to undercut the Democrats’ timeline and arguments.
“You can’t talk about corruption broadly without talking about Burisma and Hunter Biden’s involvement,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who also is assisting the defense team. “That being said, I think the vast majority of this emphasis is on what were the components that led the president to ultimately release the aid.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and his top attorney on the House Oversight Committee, Steve Castor, both of whom participated in the House investigation, have been working with the Trump team to try to highlight what they see as weak spots in the impeachment case.
As the impeachment managers showed clips of Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland confirming a quid pro quo, Jordan has pushed for the team to counter by highlighting Sondland’s changing statements as well as his own admission that he never heard such a directive from Trump.
“Remember, Sondland is the guy who had to amend his testimony, the guy who had to clarify his testimony, is the guy they rely on the most?” Jordan said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has been on the other side of the argument, working closely with the White House and meeting with Trump’s legal team as recently as Thursday evening to encourage them to go hard on Hunter Biden’s Burisma position.
“Focus on what matters, which is the substance,” he said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Friday morning, summarizing his advice to Trump’s team. “And I told them, ‘Look, nothing matters more than the facts on Burisma.’ . . . Lay out substantive, factual reasons why investigating Burisma, the president had a responsibility to do so.”
Senate Republicans said they have been eager to hear what Trump’s team has to say – in part because they don’t know what line of attack it will take. Privately, some Republican senators have groused in recent days that the Trump team is “everywhere but nowhere,” as one described the dynamic, speaking on the condition anonymity to give a frank assessment.
“They are on TV and at the Capitol yelling at the Democrats, but I’m not really sure what the whole range of the argument is. Are you?” the GOP senator asked, adding that the frustration was shared by other Republicans.