The Senate impeachment trial hadn’t been in session for an hour on Monday before the man famous for his drive to impeach Bill Clinton was lecturing senators on the solemn nature of impeachment and bemoaning the politicization of the process.
“Like war, impeachment is hell—or at least, presidential impeachment is hell," said Kenneth Starr, the special counsel who investigated Clinton for years and is now serving as part of President Donald Trump’s defense team. His words carried not a whiff of irony. “Instead of a once-in-a-century phenomenon, which it had been, presidential impeachment has become a weapon to be wielded against one’s political opponent.”
The combination of the declaration and the person making it seemed to stun Democrats in the chamber. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) looked up from his notes and glanced around at his colleagues as if to see if they too were in disbelief.
It was appropriate that the second day of the White House’s defense of the president began with a bit of shock and awe. After all, the proceedings appeared designed not only as a vigorous challenge to the case laid out by House impeachment managers, but also an elaborate troll aimed at triggering them and the Senate’s Democratic jurors. By the end, at least one GOP senator had seemed to concede that the entire spectacle hadn’t been about defending Trump at all, but, rather, damaging a leading Democratic rival to Trump on the eve of a contentious primary season.
“I'm really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Democratic caucus goers,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) told reporters. “Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?”
Well before then, the mood was highly charged, as Democrats who entered the chamber were already buzzing about breaking revelations in the New York Times detailing ex-Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton’s account of the president’s scheme to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.
In addition to Starr’s lamentations, Trump’s team of attorneys threw out a number of topics seemingly designed to make Democrats’ blood boil—and delight the president and his supporters.
One of the first things mentioned by the president’s counsel Jay Sekulow, for example, was pens. Specifically, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to hand them out to lawmakers during the December signing of articles of impeachment—a common practice with significant legislation—has become proof beyond doubt among the pro-Trump internet that Democrats’ talk about the sadness and solemnity of impeachment was bunk.
There were also, on Monday, discussion of the so-called “basement bunkers” where Democrats allegedly held the impeachment depositions without Republican participation (in reality, more than 45 House Republicans were permitted to attend and ask questions). Trump attorney Patrick Philbin at one point declared House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA) a “fact witness” in the matter of the Ukraine scandal as Schiff sat just feet away, stone-faced.
Then came White House lawyer Jane Raskin’s lengthy, back-handed defense of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Guiliani, whom she described as “a minor player” in the scandal; “that shiny object designed to distract you” who had, in the end, been right more often than Schiff.
“The score,” said Raskin. “Rudy Giuliani, four. Adam Schiff, zero.”
As the day wore on, Trump’s lawyers turned the Senate floor into a corruption trial for former Vice President Joe Biden, his son, Hunter, and Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Hunter’s involvement on the company’s board is relevant to the impeachment at hand in the Senate only in that Republicans charge that the story validates Trump’s stated desire to get to the bottom of corruption in Ukraine.
The Biden part of the presentation was no surprise: Sekulow telegraphed the attacks last week. And Republicans largely seemed to delight in the spectacle. “I'm sure it's very hard for them to listen to all of these facts that the managers left out,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND).
But when it was folded into a case for why former President Barack Obama should be impeached, it became too much for some Democrats to take seriously. And as Eric Herschmann, another member of the president’s team, spoke, Democratic senators—who had sat largely expressionless throughout the day— tittered at the analogy drawn between Trump and President Obama’s 2012 “hot mic” moment with then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, during which Obama said he’d have more “ flexibility” on issues like missile defense after winning re-election.
Leaving the Senate floor afterward, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) described the presentation as “a campaign ad, oppo research, and a little bit of owning the libs, just for yuks.”
“They can’t help themselves,” he added.
Beyond the political point-scoring, however, was some substance too. The president’s legal team spent time laying the legal foundation for their case that Trump should be acquitted, which leans hard on two claims: that the president’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reveals no quid pro- quo, and that any other evidence to that point is based on unreliable hearsay.
Philbin, a member of the defense team who has impressed Capitol Hill Republicans, argued that House Democrats ran roughshod over law and precedent in pursuing Trump’s impeachment.
The Trump team’s final presenter, Harvard Law professor and celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, took a GOP argument—that Democrats’ articles of impeachment are weak because they do not allege crimes—to its logical extreme.
"Purely noncriminal conduct, including abuse of power and obstruction of Congress,” said Dershowitz, “are outside the range of impeachable offenses."
As Trump’s legal team worked the Senate, outside the chamber his allies were busy trying to dull the impact of the explosive Times report on Bolton’s forthcoming book, which details how Trump himself linked Ukrainian aid to an investigation into the Bidens.
Victoria Toensing, an informal legal adviser to Trump, posted to Twitter, “It matters NOT AT ALL what @realDonaldTrump told John Bolton. We do not prosecute people for thoughts or words. Only for conduct.”
Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney whose role is at the center of the Ukraine saga that led to Trump’s impeachment, messaged The Daily Beast on Monday evening that “of course” he agreed with Toensing’s analysis, but added that “I am sure Backstabber Bolton is not telling the truth. What POTUS said when he was unknowingly tapped [sic] is definitive: ‘no quid pro quo.’”
Privately, numerous senior administration officials and Trump associates began to rally around a simple explanation for what was going on—that Bolton was merely a liar out to make a quick buck. Four White House officials who spoke to The Daily Beast since Sunday each independently denounced Bolton as a habitual double-crosser and notorious “rat” and “leaker,” an allegation he has emphatically denied in the past.
All of which created a scene odd enough to match the moment: Democrats pining for a longtime GOP nemesis to come testify before them, Republicans—many of whom had been supported by Bolton in the past—acting as if he was suddenly persona non grata, and the president’s legal team simply ignoring the bombshell he’d set off.
“This was out-of-body surreal,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said. “The rest of America is talking about John Bolton, and not a single mention of him in this chamber.”