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Impeachment defense’s aim: A swift Senate trial with no witnesses

  • Author: Toluse Olorunnipa and Josh Dawsey, The Washington Post
  • Updated: January 16
  • Published January 15

WASHINGTON — White House lawyers are trying to engineer the fastest impeachment trial in American history, aiming to have President Donald Trump acquitted by the Senate without witnesses and after just a few days of proceedings, according to senior administration officials.

Trump's desire for a short trial has solidified over the past few weeks, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., delayed transmitting two impeachment articles to the Senate due to concerns about how the trial would be structured. The White House, which previously supported a more expansive trial in the GOP-led Senate, has now coalesced around the idea that senators should make quick work of acquitting Trump.

"I think it's extraordinarily unlikely that we'd be going beyond two weeks," said a senior administration official, who briefed reporters Wednesday on condition of anonymity. "We think that this case is overwhelming for the president, and the Senate's not going to be having any need to be taking that amount of time on this."

President Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial in 1868 lasted for 11 weeks. The President Bill Clinton impeachment trial in 1999 lasted more than a month.

The trial, which begins Thursday in the Senate, will be the Trump legal team's first official attempt to substantively defend the president from charges that he abused his power by politicizing the U.S. relationship with Ukraine and obstructed Congress by blocking lawmakers' attempt to investigate him.

The White House has derided the House impeachment inquiry as politically motivated and based on second hand information and flimsy evidence. During the Senate trial, the president's lawyers plan to dissect the testimony of Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, according to senior administration officials who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Sondland, a Trump donor, made explosive revelations during a televised November hearing implicating the president and others in a "quid pro quo" scheme to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Trump's political rivals.

Sondland had to revise his testimony several times between his closed door meeting with lawmakers and his public appearance before Congress, an issue the president's lawyers hope to use to cast doubt on his reliability.

White House aides are also gaming out how to manage Trump during the trial, which they expect him to watch and possibly live tweet like he did during the House impeachment hearings, according to the officials. Trump allies plan to have several surrogates on television during the trial defending the president. Republican House members, many of whom jockeyed for an official role on the defense team for the Senate trial, will instead fan out across television networks to ensure the president's message gets out and Trump feels he is receiving a robust defense, the officials said.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, right, attends a Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor presentation ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington on May 22, 2019. President Donald Trump is turning to an unassuming jurist with little trial experience but high regard in conservative Washington legal circles to lead his defense in his impeachment trial. Cipollone has spent most of his career in commercial litigation.(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone is expected to lead the president's team during the trial, after Trump heeded the advice of Senate Republicans who urged him not to appoint House members to his legal team. Trump's outside counsel Jay Sekulow and deputy White House counsel Pat Philbin are also likely to have a role in the Senate proceedings, officials said.

Some White House officials are questioning whether Cipollone, a longtime commercial lawyer who does not usually appear on television, will turn in the kind of a performance that will please Trump during the televised proceedings and keep him supportive of the trial strategy that his aides and Senate Republicans leaders are advocating.

Trump, who has vacillated on the idea of whether to have a lengthy trial or quick proceedings, has been influenced by his recent travel outside Washington to friendly locales.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who attended the college football national championship game with the president in Louisiana on Monday, said the cheers from the crowd "buoyed Trump's spirits" significantly.

This helped get Trump on board with the plan by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to conduct a swift trial without hearing from key witnesses.

"He wants it done sooner rather than later," Graham said in an interview. "I've told him, in my view, the sooner the trial is over, the better."

The briefing for reporters Wednesday came after House Democrats named seven impeachment managers and voted to send the two articles of impeachment to the Senate. Democrats said the managers, six lawyers and one former police chief, signify a desire for a full trial with witnesses, documents and other evidence implicating Trump. Anything short of that would be a "coverup" said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The crux of the case is the allegation that Trump tried to leverage a White House meeting and military aid, sought by Ukraine to combat Russian military aggression, to pressure Zelensky to launch an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, as well as a probe of an unfounded theory that Kyiv conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

"The president violated his oath of office, undermined our national security, jeopardized the integrity of our elections, tried to use the appropriations process as his private ATM machine . . . in order to advance his own personal and political advantage," Pelosi said Wednesday.

A senior administration official briefing reporters said that House Democrats' case lacked evidence of wrongdoing by Trump, while refusing to address new documentary evidence that Democrats say further implicates the president.

The official indicated that Trump would likely block efforts by Democrats to further build their case through new witnesses, including Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton. Allowing testimony from a former presidential aide about his discussions with Trump on foreign policy would be "extraordinary," said the official, who added that he did not think the Senate should hear from any witnesses. Another official said the White House was prepared to exert executive privilege if the Senate subpoenas Bolton, who has said he is willing to testify about Trump's dealings with Ukraine.

On Wednesday, House Democrats continued to press for Republicans to allow evidence that the White House has so far blocked.

"We have only obtained a very small sample of the universe of documents that the president is withholding," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., after he was named one of the impeachment managers. "If Mr. McConnell wants to follow the Clinton model, as he keeps professing, all of the documents were provided before the trial. Those documents should be demanded by the senators."

Several members of Trump's legal team, including Cipollone and Sekulow, have expressed expansive views on executive power and have experience rebuffing congressional inquiries.

Cipollone was at White House last weekend preparing for the case and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland, has talked to aides extensively about rules and procedural motions they can make during the trial, officials said. Ueland worked as a staffer to a Republican senator during the Clinton impeachment trial.

In an Oct. 8 letter to the House, Cipollone declared the impeachment inquiry unconstitutional and illegitimate and said the Trump administration would not participate.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California at Berkeley's Law School, said the "very disturbing" letter was an indication that Cipollone would take the same antagonistic approach to the Senate trial.

"The October 8 letter was very disturbing because of its very aggressive and combative tone. It also reflected no recognition of the importance of accountability and congressional oversight," he said. "I expect that his taking the lead will mean the same very aggressive and combative approach that puts the president above the law."

During Clinton's impeachment trial, his legal team spent three days methodically addressing the various charges against him as the chief justice of the United States presided and most senators sat silently.

Trump's defense could be considerably shorter. A senior administration official said the White House would mount a "strong case" for the president but that a long trial would not be necessary.

"The reason it doesn't take a very long time is that the facts are simple, and the facts are on the president's side," the official said. "When you have an easy case, you don't need a long time to present it."

Trump will spend some his time trying to build a case for the president outside the halls of the Senate, officials said.

Over the next two weeks, Trump plans to travel to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, host a political fundraiser in Florida, speak to farmers in Texas and hold at least two political rallies. "After President Trump signs the historic China Trade Deal greatly benefiting the people of this country, he will continue working and winning for all Americans, while the Democrats will continue only working against the President," White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.

White House officials sought to draw a contrast between the Democrats pursuing impeachment and Trump carrying out his duties as president.

Trump, the first president in history to face impeachment while running for reelection, has spent much of his time recently discussing his reelection, talking to advisers about rallies and specific states, according to people familiar with the situation. He spent a good part of the day Friday with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, aides said, and regularly asks about specific states and Democratic presidential candidates.

Graham said the president has already begun thinking of ways to turn the page from the Senate trial.

"He's really thinking about what to do after impeachment," he said. "He wants to come out with something strong after impeachment to challenge Democrats."

In recent days, however, Democrats have emphasized that regardless of the outcome of the Senate trial, the record of Trump's impeachment will last indefinitely.

"The president is not above the law. He will be held accountable. He has been held accountable," Pelosi said Wednesday. "He has been impeached. He has been impeached forever. They can never erase that."

While Trump has complained often about the "stigma" of impeachment he mentions it unprompted almost daily.

On Wednesday, Trump was holding a signing ceremony for a partial trade deal with China when he noticed a representative of a top legal firm in the room. He quickly pivoted to impeachment.

"I could use some good legal advice. Do you have some good lawyers? He said. “I could use some good lawyers, right? Ah, the hell with it, I just have to suffer through it the way I have all my life.”