The White House’s team of lawyers opened their case to acquit President Trump by relying on one phrase: Adam Schiff didn’t tell you that.
Though Trump’s defense team only spoke for about two hours on Saturday morning, they invoked that phrase over and over again.
The Democrats’ lead impeachment prosecutor, they argued, took 24 hours to make his side’s case but failed to mention that in Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, the president simply reminded his counterpart that the U.S. was unfairly doing more than Europeans for Ukraine’s security. “We do a lot for Ukraine,” said Trump, “We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time.”
Schiff didn’t disclose, they said, that a key witness—U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland—presumed there was a quid-pro-quo between U.S. security aid and a Ukrainian investigation to dig up dirt on Trump’s rivals, based on everything he knew. But, they said, Sondland was never informed directly of any quid-pro-quo.
And Schiff definitely didn’t disclose, said presidential counsel Jay Sekulow, that Trump has also withheld aid to other countries, nor did the Democrat mention that Trump had good reason to be suspicious of official Washington after being “subjected” to investigation by Robert Mueller.
Leading up to Saturday’s arguments, there had been some anxiety among Democrats for the moment that Trump’s defense team would step on the Senate floor and make their case in earnest. Signs had indicated they’d pursue a caustic, scorched-earth approach—the kind preferred by their client.
The four attorneys who took the stand for Trump—who used the rare weekend session to offer a brief preview of their arguments to come during a longer Monday presentation—didn’t look or feel much like a Fox News panel, to the relief of some Democratic lawmakers.
But in their choice of rhetoric and topics, it was clear Trump’s lawyers sought to change the channel from the impeachment show that Schiff and his fellow managers had run for the last three days. The goal was to plant the notion that there is another side to the impeachment story—not one that renders Trump’s conduct questionable yet unimpeachable, as some Republicans have ventured, but one that completely exonerates him.
What’s more, the White House team employed a favorite argument of their client’s: that the Democrats who would impeach him are the ones doing the real election interference, not him.
Democrats, said White House counsel Pat Cipollone, are determined to perpetrate the “most massive interference in an election in American history.”
“We can’t allow that to happen,” Cipollone told the 100 senators listening. “It would violate our Constitution. It would violate our history. It would violate our obligations to the future. Most importantly, it would violate the sacred trust the American people have placed in you.”
To Democrats, it was clear who that message—and the other ones touching on other Trump favorites, like the surveillance of his 2016 campaign—was meant for.
“I think they're doing that to make the president happy,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). “I think they want to make the president smile, or laugh, or tweet, or something.”
Senate Republicans, however, were clearly pleased that the time had come for the White House to present its case. The past three straight days of Democratic arguments appeared to alternately frustrate and bore them. As the four Trump attorneys sketched out their case, Republicans were visibly engaged and ready for their turn at righteous indignation.
When Trump attorney Michael Purpura played a clip showing Sondland’s remarks that he presumed there was a quid-pro-quo, GOP senators chuckled in disbelief and shook their heads. Several nodded along as the presentations were made.
“It was refreshing,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN). And Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) said the White House lawyers were talking directly to senators, instead of Democrats, whom he said seemed to arrange their case so it could be picked up by cable news viewers. “That was a real effort, I think, to connect with the seriousness of this with us, and to fill in gaps.”
The presentation, which was hailed as solid not only by Republicans but Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), gave Republicans hoping for a speedy trial and acquittal of Trump more cover to push for a rejection of additional witnesses and documents. Four Republicans are needed to join with all Democrats in order to issue a subpoena any new material.
“I’m more intent on ending this thing now with my vote,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters after the Saturday session wrapped. “It’s best for our country to vote on the record established.”
Though Graham was hardly ever on the fence on witnesses, other Republicans whose votes were considered in play sounded closer than ever to shutting the door on a longer trial with new evidence. GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, who is up for reelection in Iowa this November, said leaving the trial that she was leaning toward voting no on new evidence.
In justifying it, Ernst turned to a now-familiar argument: if Democrats’ case was so good, they shouldn’t need any more evidence.
It’s a point Trump’s defense team reinforced in their remarks—emphasizing repeatedly that the Democrats’ case was flimsy because House investigators didn’t hear from more people with direct contact with Trump.
“They’re asking you to do something no Senate has ever done,” Cipollone said of Democrats. “And they're asking you to do it with no evidence.”
The White House, of course, has fought Democrats’ subpoenas and requests for evidence—including testimony from officials who spoke directly with Trump—tooth-and-nail in order to shield it.
The defense team, said Kaine, had inadvertently “made the most powerful case that can be made for the necessity of witnesses and documents.”
And Manchin, who said he found Saturday’s arguments compelling, nevertheless told CNN “one thing that stuck in my mind is they said there isn’t a witness they have had so far that had direct contact with the president. I’d love to hear from Mulvaney and Bolton.”
Senators will vote on whether or not to call new witnesses after the president’s team finishes its case and they pose questions to both sides. Many of them say they are reserving judgment or public comment until Team Trump wraps up its case on Monday or Tuesday.
But for the president, two hours on Saturday had already made it a done deal.
“Any fair minded person watching the Senate trial today would be able to see how unfairly I have been treated,” Trump tweeted. “This should never be allowed to happen again!”