So how did the defense answer? Here are four takeaways from Monday’s Senate trial.
1. Trump’s defense dodges the Bolton revelation
President Trump’s lawyers more or less asked senators to ignore the news. “We deal with publicly available information,” Trump defense attorney Jay Sekulow said as the trial got started, without mentioning Bolton. “We do not deal with speculation, allegations that are not based on evidentiary standards at all.”
That’s a big ask; Bolton’s testimony would represent a major piece of evidence in the case against Trump.
Democrats detailed how Trump paused aid to Ukraine, perhaps even breaking the law by doing it, according to a nonpartisan government report. They’ve detailed how Trump wanted Ukraine to announce investigations into the Biden family. But they haven’t gotten a witness to link the two by speaking directly to Trump’s intent on pausing the aid.
Bolton may be that link. And he has said he’s willing to testify if subpoenaed by the Senate. Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate, seemingly blindsided by the reports, deployed a couple of tactics to defend their no-witness stance.
Some potentially vulnerable ones, like Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), appeared to ask the White House in coded language for guidance on how to defend Trump. “I want to hear from White House Counsel. I’m sure they will address this now and we’ll go from there,” she said before the trial started Monday.
The White House didn’t give her much, until the final minutes, when Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz made a scholarly argument that abuse of power is too slippery of a charge to throw out a president for: “Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense.”
2. The Trump team goes there on Biden
And by there, we mean mentioning his 2020 political opponent at all. The allegations facing Trump are that he was using official policy with Ukraine to kneecap former vice president Joe Biden in the 2020 election. Trump’s defense had no choice but to mention them because Trump himself brought up Biden on the July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, when he asked for investigations into Biden:
The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.Trump in a July 25th call to President Zelensky of Ukraine, according to a rough transcript
Trump’s defense argument goes like this: Biden’s son Hunter had a lucrative job with a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma. That was around the same time his father was urging Ukraine to fire its special prosecutor, in 2015. If the elder Biden was trying to protect the younger Biden’s business dealings, that’s potential corruption, and Trump was right to want to get to the bottom of that.
“And all we are saying is that there was a basis to talk about this, to raise this issue. And that is enough,” said Trump defense attorney Pam Bondi.
Those claims against the Bidens fall flat in several ways, which The Fix’s Aaron Blake goes into more detail here. Some key facts:
- The European Union and much of the Western world also wanted the special prosecutor in Ukraine gone. This wasn’t a controversial push on Biden’s part.
- Ukrainian officials have said the Burisma investigation was not active at the time Biden tried to get the prosecutor filed.
- The Ukrainian former official who fed this information to Trump’s team also recanted his allegation that Biden did anything wrong.
3. Ken Starr’s ironic warning on impeachment
Kenneth W. Starr was one of the defining figures in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment two decades ago. He was the independent counsel investigating Clinton, eventually uncovering his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton’s subsequent impeachment and acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate was one of the most divisive, partisan moments of that decade.
On Monday, Starr got before the Senate and argued that not only should the Senate keep Trump in office, but that they should be very wary of impeachment of a president at all — it’s too political.
“Impeachment and removal not only overturns a national election and perhaps profoundly affects an upcoming election … it entails a risk,” he said. Unless there were two-thirds majority of the Senate, constituting an overwhelming amount of support among the American public, he said, Congress shouldn’t impeach a president.
4. Trump’s team tries to sideline Rudy Giuliani
Trump’s defense folded in a character who has been a source of trouble for the president in this scandal: his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.
“Mr. Giuliani is just a minor player, that shiny object designed to distract you,” Trump lawyer Jane Raskin said. Her argument was that Giuliani came across what he thought was potentially damaging information about Biden in Ukraine in 2018, when he was looking for information to protect Trump in the Mueller investigation into Russian collusion.
The gist: Giuliani was acting in his capacity as a personal attorney to defend Trump, so what’s wrong with that?
What Raskin skipped over was testimony under oath in the House’s impeachment inquiry that directly contradicts her. Diplomats testified that Trump specifically told them to work with Giuliani on Ukraine.
“We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the president directed us to do so,” Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told the House.
Trump’s own words in that call with Zelensky undermine the idea that there was nothing to see with Giuliani. Zelensky tells Trump that one of his assistants “spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine, and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine.”
Trump replies: “Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York City, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you.”
It’s true Giuliani is not a government official, as Raskin argued. He’s Trump’s personal lawyer. But that’s precisely why his involvement in Ukraine was so troubling: He was the point person, running a shadow Ukraine policy that shut out the United States’ own diplomats.