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The gaping hole in Trump’s impeachment defense

His legal team spent very little time actually vouching for his Ukraine conspiracy theories. Instead, they watered them down.

On Jan. 28, President Trump’s legal team rested their case in the Senate impeachment trial amid uncertainty over whether witnesses will be called. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s defense team ended an extended opening argument Tuesday in which it laid out that Trump had legitimate reasons to ask Ukraine for specific investigations.

But it spent almost no time vouching for the actual investigations he wanted.

To the extent that Trump’s team tried to argue that the investigations were legitimate, it focused mostly on the idea that Hunter Biden’s employment at a Ukrainian gas company was problematic. It spent considerably less time arguing for the theory that Trump actually raised with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on their July 25 phone call: that then-Vice President Joe Biden sought to help his son by pushing out Ukraine’s top prosecutor.

Ditto the other investigation Trump sought. In fact, Trump’s legal team spent literally zero time talking about the one involving the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike and a server that was supposedly in Ukraine. Trump’s team didn’t utter the word “CrowdStrike” once in three days, in fact, nor did it even mention a “server” in Ukraine. It instead more broadly defended the idea that Ukraine might have interfered in the 2016 election.

But to be clear, the ideas that Ukraine interfered in the election and that Hunter Biden’s work was problematic weren’t what Trump asked Ukraine to investigate.

“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people. … The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said, according to the rough transcript of his call with Zelensky that the White House released. “There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation.”

Rather than dwell upon that or even address it, though, Trump’s legal team instead defended the idea that Ukraine could have simply interfered in some fashion in the election.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking a foreign leader to help get to the bottom of all forms of foreign interference in an American presidential election,” deputy White House counsel Michael Purpura said.

Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow accused Democrats of making a “straw man” argument that it was either Russia or Ukraine. He said they had implied that the Mueller report “somehow debunked the idea that there might be, you know, interference from other countries, including Ukraine.”

Jane Raskin, another lawyer on the team, said Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer accused of directing a shadow foreign policy campaign in Ukraine, “was gathering evidence regarding Ukrainian election interference to defend his client against the false allegations being investigated by special counsel Mueller."

None of these arguments addressed Trump’s actual conspiracy theory about CrowdStrike, though. And even if Trump’s interest was so broadly about interference, this is something that Trump’s own FBI director has repudiated.

“We have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election,” Christopher A. Wray said, encouraging people to be wary of those pushing this idea.

As for the Bidens, Trump’s legal team spent considerably more time talking about Hunter Biden’s employment at Burisma than Joe Biden’s efforts to remove Ukraine’s then-top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin. This despite Trump in his call with Zelensky explicitly focusing on the elder Biden, whom he twice accused of halting the prosecution of Burisma.

Graphic: Who’s talking the most during the impeachment trial

“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,” Trump told Zelensky, according to the rough transcript. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”

While Hunter Biden’s name was invoked more than 90 times over the three days, though, his father’s actions came up considerably less often. There were only two instances in which Trump’s team engaged in detail with the idea that Joe Biden actually sought to thwart a prosecution — both of them featuring logical holes.

Former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi focused on top State Department official George Kent testifying that Burisma had a corruption problem and that Hunter Biden’s employment there was problematic. But she left out that Kent said Joe Biden didn’t do anything improper.

Bondi also botched the details. She recounted that on Dec. 8, 2015, ″the New York Times publishes an article that Prosecutor General [Viktor] Shokin was investigating Burisma and its owner, [Mykola] Zlochevsky.” Except the actual story makes no mention of Shokin or even of Ukraine investigating Burisma. Instead, it refers to Ukraine declining to cooperate with a British investigation of Burisma.

The Bidens, Burisma and impeachment, explained

Bondi also said that, at the time Biden successfully got Shokin removed, “there was ongoing investigation into the oligarch Zlochevsky, the owner of Burisma.” But U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said Shokin wasn’t actively investigating Burisma at the time; indeed, he was accused of being too soft on corruption.

Trump lawyer Eric D. Herschmann also took a stab at the subject. He tempered Bondi’s claims somewhat, saying that Biden had gotten them to fire a prosecutor who was “reportedly investigating the very company that paid millions of dollars to his son” (emphasis on “reportedly”).

Herschmann then proceeded to float the idea that the ultimatum Biden gave to Ukraine — that the United States would withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees if it didn’t fire Shokin — wasn’t actually U.S. foreign policy. There is no evidence that Biden was freelancing on that particular threat, though. And either way, Biden was clearly pursuing a goal that was the Obama administration’s official foreign policy — and was an initiative shared by much of the Western world.

Part of the Trump team’s difficulty in defending him is that they had to establish that the investigations he was pursuing were legitimate. Otherwise, it looks much more like he was just out to tar the Bidens and pursue pet political causes, rather than actually rooting out “corruption.”

But rather than defend Trump’s actual theories, his own defense team steered well clear of them and pretended he was alleging somewhat-similar-but-less-conspiratorial ideas. With hours left on the clock in which they could have expanded their defense, they devoted precious little time to what Trump actually alleged. And the fact that they weren’t willing to completely vouch for the boss speaks volumes.