You have to hand it to the legal team defending President Donald Trump in the Senate’s impeachment trial: It sticks to its story, even when confronted by new evidence pretty much demolishing that story.
In its first day of arguments, on Saturday, the president’s defense asserted repeatedly that the prosecution had failed to present evidence of a quid pro quo — by which they meant a lack of testimony from firsthand witnesses to whom the president had admitted that his decision to withhold aid from Ukraine was tied to it announcing investigations that would benefit him politically. The president’s delay of aid, his lawyers contended, was wholly in the national interest and in keeping with his broader concerns about corruption and burden-sharing. It was all perfectly perfect.
That defense was scrambled Sunday when The New York Times reported on a forthcoming book by Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton. Among other awkward revelations, Bolton wrote that the president told him — directly — in a conversation last August that the aid was being held to squeeze Ukraine into pursuing the investigations.
Let’s go over that just once again: On Saturday, the president’s lawyers mocked the prosecution for not having direct evidence of the quid pro quo for which Trump is on trial. One day later, that evidence erupted. Bigly.
But you’d never know it listening to the president’s team on Monday. Quite the contrary. The defense stood by its contention that the House managers had produced, as Michael Purpura, deputy White House counsel, put it, “not a single witness” with firsthand knowledge of a quid pro quo.
This explicit focus on the House’s official presentation was key. Purpura & Company were asking senators to ignore the Bolton revelations and focus solely on the official record compiled in the House proceedings.
This was not the defense’s only slippery piece of lawyering. It may not even have been the most outrageous. Ken Starr, the former independent counsel who brought us the salacious impeachment of President Bill Clinton, spent much of his presentation lamenting “the Age of Impeachment” and anguishing over how the nation arrived at this point. (Hint: Check the mirror, Ken.)
Starr then shared his thoughts on why the impeachment of Trump is invalid compared with those of the past.
No. 1: No crimes were committed. This claim is debatable — the Government Accountability Office has concluded that holding up the Ukraine aid violated federal law — and beside the point. Commission of a crime is not a precondition of impeachment.
No. 2: It does not have bipartisan support. To this point, the former Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger observed on Twitter that Starr, one of his former students, “assumes that is a criticism of Democrats who have proceeded alone rather than of the GOP members who have refused to consider joining in a serious critique of the president’s actions.”
No. 3: The process was so flawed as to be illegitimate and a danger to the Republic. This has been the Republicans’ claim from the start, and it is no more valid today than when this process began.
The main lesson of Starr’s presentation: Irony is dead.
Equally riveting was the presentation by Jane Raskin, whose job was to argue that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer and linchpin of the whole scheme, is a misunderstood patriot whom Democrats are scapegoating as a “colorful distraction” from the weakness of their case.
Uh, no. He’s colorful, all right, but he’s nobody’s fall guy.
Giuliani earns some ink in Bolton’s book. According to the Times account, Bolton writes in his manuscript that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted to him last spring that Giuliani’s smear campaign against Marie Yovanovitch, who was the American ambassador to Ukraine, was unfounded. Bolton also writes that he shared his concerns with White House lawyers last year that Giuliani was leveraging his work for the president to benefit his other private clients. Bolton, you will recall from the House hearings, once referred to Giuliani as “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”
Later in the afternoon Monday, it fell to Pam Bondi, the former Republican attorney general of Florida, to shift attention to the work done and the money made in Ukraine by Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
And so the defense plowed on, even as the smoke from the Bolton bombshell hung over the chamber.
All of this is enough to make a Republican senator wonder how many other shoes are yet to drop.
Worse still, from lawmakers’ standpoint, multiple people within the White House have known about Bolton’s revelation since December, when he submitted a manuscript for prepublication review, as required. This means that senior White House officials knew full well on Saturday that the basis for much of the argument that day by the president’s defense lawyers was false and the evidence was destined to become public soon.
Before the trial resumed on Monday, word around Washington was that Republican senators, feeling blindsided, were privately pressing the president’s team about who’d had access to the Bolton manuscript.
Trump, for his part, threw himself into a Twitter frenzy of denial, victimhood and sniveling about process.
Such protestations notwithstanding, the heat has been turned up on the Senate to hear from witnesses like Bolton. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Monday that it was “increasingly apparent” that lawmakers needed to hear from Bolton, and he predicted that more of his colleagues were moving toward the same conclusion.
The looming debate over calling witnesses just got so much more interesting.