President Donald Trump’s legal defence team strenuously denied Saturday that he had committed impeachable acts, denouncing the charges against him as a “brazen and unlawful” attempt to cost him re-election as House Democrats laid out in meticulous detail their case that he should be removed from office.
In the first legal filings for the Senate impeachment trial that opens in earnest Tuesday, the duelling arguments from the White House and the House impeachment managers previewed a politically charged fight over Trump’s fate, unfolding against the backdrop of the presidential election campaign.
They presented the legal strategies both sides are likely to employ during the third presidential impeachment trial in American history. They also vividly illustrated how the proceeding is almost certain to rekindle feuding over the 2016 election that has barely subsided during Trump’s tenure, and reverberate – whether he is convicted or acquitted – in an even more brutal electoral fight in November.
In a 46-page trial memorandum, and an additional 60-page statement of facts, House impeachment managers asserted that beginning in the spring, Trump undertook a corrupt campaign to enlist a foreign government to help him win the 2020 election. He did so, Democrats argued, by pressuring Ukraine to publicly announce investigations of his political rivals, withholding as leverage vital military aid and a White House meeting for the country’s president.
The president then sought to conceal those actions from Congress, they said, posing “a serious danger to our constitutional checks and balances” by ordering administration officials not to testify or turn over documents requested by a House impeachment inquiry.
“President Trump’s conduct is the framers’ worst nightmare,” wrote the seven Democratic managers, led by Rep. Adam Schiff of California.
In a six-page filing formally responding to the House impeachment charges submitted shortly after and filled with partisan barbs against House Democrats, Trump’s lawyers denounced the impeachment case as constitutionally and legally invalid, and driven purely by a desire to hurt Trump in the 2020 election.
“The articles of impeachment submitted by House Democrats are a dangerous attack on the right of the American people to freely choose their president,” they said in the response, which was Trump’s first legal submission in the impeachment proceeding, ahead of a fuller brief that is due Monday. “This is a brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election and interfere with the 2020 election, now just months away.”
The president’s lawyers did not deny any of the core facts underlying Democrats’ charges, conceding what considerable evidence and testimony in the House has shown: that he withheld $391 million in aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine and asked the country’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.
But they said Trump broke no laws and was acting entirely appropriately and within his powers when he did so, echoing his repeated protestations of his own innocence. They argued that he was not seeking political advantage but working to root out corruption in Ukraine.
“President Trump categorically and unequivocally denies each and every allegation in both articles of impeachment,” wrote Pat A. Cipollone, White House counsel, and Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer.
The managers’ filing repeated many of the same arguments they laid out last fall in a report on the findings of their two-month impeachment inquiry. But it also indicated that they intended to make use of information that has come to light since the House’s impeachment vote in December.
They cited new documentary records handed over by Lev Parnas, an associate of the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, about the pressure campaign on Ukraine, and a Government Accountability Office report released this past week that found that Trump violated the law when he withheld the military aid.
And though the House ultimately declined to bring charges based on the special counsel’s Russia investigation, Saturday’s filing indicates the managers are poised to reprise its findings as they argue that Trump’s behaviour toward Ukraine fits a pattern that poses a continuing threat to American elections. They argued that, just as Trump welcomed interference on his behalf from Russia in the 2016 election and then sought to thwart a federal investigation into the matter, he solicited Ukrainian assistance in the 2020 contest and then obstructed Congress’ ability to investigate.
The nation’s founders, the House Democrats said in their brief, “designed impeachment as the remedy for such misconduct because a president who manipulates U.S. elections to his advantage can avoid being held accountable by the voters through those same elections.”
They called Trump’s attempt to get Ukraine to discredit his political adversaries “part of an ongoing pattern of misconduct for which the president is unrepentant.”
The president, who spent Saturday at his golf course in West Palm Beach, Florida, has made no secret of his disdain for the House’s charges and its inquiry. He has repeatedly professed his total innocence in general terms, and specifically insisted that a July phone call in which he pressed President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to investigate Biden and other Democrats was “perfect.”
But when invited to take part in the proceedings or mount a defence before the House Judiciary Committee, he refused. The closest the president’s lawyers had come to weighing in on the case was an eight-page letter to House Democrats in October in which they unequivocally refused to furnish any documents or allow any witnesses to testify.
Like that letter, Trump’s answer to the Senate on Saturday was heavy with political messaging even as it asserted broad constitutional principles and general legal arguments to proclaim the president’s innocence.
In a statement later in the evening, the House managers criticized the claim by the president’s legal team that the pressure on Ukraine was just Trump’s way of fighting corruption.
“It is not,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote. “Rather it is corruption itself, naked, unapologetic and insidious.”
The defence filing was far shorter than the House managers’ memorandum, but White House lawyers have until noon Monday to produce a more comprehensive legal brief laying out the case they will make on the floor of the Senate.
The House can then submit a written rebuttal by Tuesday. If all goes according to plan, the managers will begin live presentations in the Senate on Wednesday, and under an expedited schedule being contemplated by Senate Republicans, the president’s team could begin its presentation Friday.
The defence filing Saturday argued that Trump “has not in any way abused the powers of the presidency,” and that the July 25 call between Trump and the president of Ukraine was “perfectly legal, entirely appropriate, and taken in furtherance of our national interest.”
The arguments by Trump’s lawyers tracked closely with those presented throughout the House inquiry by Republicans in that chamber, like Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who did not dispute what had occurred so much as the idea that the president had been acting on some corrupt scheme.
The document appeared intended to appeal to Trump’s sensibilities. It accused Schiff of “creating a fraudulent version” of the July 25 call when he jokingly offered a hypothetical conversation during a congressional hearing, something that Trump has repeatedly mocked Schiff for doing.
As they have said for weeks, the president’s lawyers asserted that the articles of impeachment against Trump are “invalid on their face” because they do not accuse the president of breaking any law.
But Democrats argued in their memorandum that impeachable actions “need not be indictable offences,” a theory that has been espoused by many legal scholars. The framers of the Constitution, they argued, intended the remedy for “acts committed by public officials that inflict severe harm on the constitutional order.”
The president’s legal team also rejected the charge that Trump is guilty of obstruction of Congress. They argued that Trump’s attempts to prevent witnesses from testifying in what the president has called a “sham” impeachment inquiry is a legitimate exercise of executive privilege that is essential to guard the authority and prerogatives of the presidency.
The House concluded that Trump’s claims of “absolute immunity” or other privileges on behalf of 12 officials and his decision to block the delivery of documents amounted to flagrant obstruction. The president’s lawyers made clear that they disagreed, saying that “asserting valid constitutional privileges and immunities cannot be an impeachable offence.”
The president’s lawyers also accused Congress of denying Trump due process during the impeachment proceedings, including “the right to have counsel present, the right to cross-examine witnesses and the right to present evidence.”
While the president’s lawyers were not allowed to attend closed-door depositions of some witnesses, Republican allies of the president attended every interview and asked questions, according to transcripts of the sessions.
The president rejected Democratic offers to present evidence, question witnesses or otherwise mount a defence during hearings before the House Judiciary Committee.
Cipollone and Sekulow will lead the president’s defence at trial. The White House announced Friday that the team would also include Ken Starr, the former independent counsel whose investigation of President Bill Clinton led to his impeachment, Robert Ray, who succeeded Starr, and Alan Dershowitz, a celebrity defence lawyer.
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