U.S. President Donald Trump had perfectly valid reasons for freezing military aid to Ukraine, asking that country to investigate his political rivals and refusing to co-operate with a congressional investigation of his actions, the president’s lawyers told his impeachment trial.
In a two-hour opening presentation Saturday morning, Mr. Trump’s legal team largely did not dispute the facts of the case previously laid out by Democratic prosecutors. But they argued that the President’s actions were not a nefarious plot to solicit foreign election interference.
Rather, they said, Mr. Trump was motivated purely by a desire to fight corruption in Ukraine and encourage European countries to share more of the burden of defending the country. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone also appeared to argue against the power of impeachment itself, saying that voting to remove the President from office would be a “completely irresponsible abuse of power.”
“They’re here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history we can’t allow that to happen,” he said of the Democrats. “The American people decide elections. They have one coming up in nine months.”
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives impeached Mr. Trump last month, charging him with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The President withheld US$400-million in military aid to Ukraine, demanded Kyiv tarnish Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee by announcing investigations into them, and stonewalled the House’s inquiry into the matter.
The President is currently on trial before the Republican-majority Senate. It would take a vote by two-thirds of senators to throw him out of office. The prosecution, consisting of seven Democratic House members, spent three days laying out their case against Mr. Trump.
The President’s lawyers began their defence Saturday, and will continue on Monday and Tuesday. Mr. Trump’s legal team went through the basic narrative of the case and argued that each of the President’s actions had an innocuous explanation.
In the July 25 telephone call in which Mr. Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Mr. Biden, Mr. Cipollone pointed to a passage in which Mr. Trump complained that Germany was not providing Ukraine with enough military aid.
This, Mr. Cipollone said, was evidence Mr. Trump withheld the US$400-million for “burden-sharing” reasons: He wanted to push other countries into shouldering more of the burden of helping Kyiv defend itself. Mr. Cipollone did not explain how freezing the aid had helped get Germany to step up its own commitments.
Mike Purpura, another of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, said the President’s request during that call that Mr. Zelensky investigate a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to help the Democrats was also above-board. This conspiracy theory was pushed by Russian government-run media outlets in a bid to deflect attention away from the Kremlin’s own 2016 election interference.
“There is nothing wrong about asking a foreign leader to help get to the bottom of accusations of foreign election interference,” Mr. Purpura said.
The President’s lawyers argued that U.S. diplomats who testified last year that Mr. Trump wanted to trade the military aid for an investigation of Mr. Biden in a “quid pro quo” simply misunderstood Mr. Trump’s intentions. Rather, the lawyers said, Mr. Trump froze the aid because he wanted to see if Mr. Zelensky was serious about fighting corruption generally.
They raised Mr. Trump’s words to Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union: “I want nothing, I want nothing, I want no quid pro quo.” The Democrats have previously said Mr. Trump invalidated this denial on that same phone call by also telling Mr. Sondland to continue pushing Mr. Zelensky for the investigations.
And Mr. Trump’s lawyers pointed out that Ukraine never investigated Mr. Biden but ultimately got the military aid anyway. The President released the aid in September, after members of Congress had found out about freeze and his demands for an investigation.
Deputy Counsel to the President Patrick Philbin sought to justify Mr. Trump’s decision to order his administration not to turn over any documents to the House impeachment inquiry, or allow government officials to testify. Mr. Philbin said Mr. Trump was under no obligation to comply with the subpoenas because the House issued them before voting on a resolution authorizing the inquiry.
Adam Schiff, the Democrat serving as the de facto lead prosecutor on the case, said Mr. Trump had not refuted any of the basic narrative of the case. “They’re trying to deflect, distract from, and distort the truth,” he wrote on Twitter. “And they are continuing to cover it up by blocking documents and witnesses.”
The Republican majority in the Senate earlier this week shut down several Democratic attempts to call witnesses and gather more evidence for the trial.
The trial continues at 1 pm Monday.
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