After months of anticipation, legal auditions on cable news and daily preparatory sessions inside West Wing conference rooms, President Donald Trump will get his proverbial day in court this weekend – though he’s not sure anyone will be watching.
Most of his team – minus two of its more notorious lawyers – has been huddling daily inside the West Wing to craft a response to the methodical presentation of evidence laid out by House Democratic managers, led by Rep. Adam Schiff, who even some of Trump’s allies concede delivered a compelling performance.
Trump has been quick to downplay the impeachment and declared himself bored by the proceedings, according to a confidant.
But the stakes remain high for the Saturday morning kickoff of Trump’s legal defense. It marks the first real chance for his lawyers to demonstrate to senators that his conduct doesn’t warrant removal from office. For Trump, it’s the culmination of a months-long effort to clear his name even as Democrats make the case he abused his office and obstructed their investigation.
Long viewed as a push not just for acquittal but for vindication, the defense team’s argument is expected to be that no crime is actually alleged in the articles of impeachment and that Trump was denied due process in the inquiry led by House Democrats.
Trump, however, has agitated for a more robust defense of his actions, which included asking Ukraine’s President to launch an investigation into one of Trump’s political rivals. He’s favored a defense argument that deems his actions without fault – a prospect that even some Republican senators are eyeing warily.
“The majority of the conference thinks removal from office is wrong, and is also worried that the White House’s team is going to give a bulls*** ‘perfect call’ defense,” a senior Republican aide said on Friday, referring to Trump’s rote defense of his July 25 phone conversation with Ukraine’s President.
A person working on Trump’s legal team said Friday that his lawyers would “present a robust defense on both the facts and the law, on the substance of the President’s conduct.”
Already, Trump has identified a problem with his team’s presentation: its time slot. Because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made a last-minute change to the trial’s organizing resolution that allowed each side’s opening arguments to stretch into three days instead of two, Trump’s big debut will fall on a Saturday instead of during the week.
“Looks like my lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.” he grumbled on Twitter Friday.
The complaint was a useful insight into Trump’s view of his legal defense as a television event – staffed partly by lawyers he identified from their cable appearances.
Right now, the White House expects to present for only a few hours on Saturday before delivering more extended arguments on Monday, when the trial resumes. Because the President’s defense team will have made only a brief argument Saturday, at least one of his attorneys, Robert Ray, is expected to appear on the Sunday talk show circuit, given how closely Trump watches the coverage of the day’s political shows.
“Tomorrow, I think you’ll see – I guess I would call it trailer, coming attractions would be the best way to say it,” one of the President’s attorneys, Jay Sekulow, said on Friday. “We have three hours to put it out so we’ll take whatever time’s appropriate during that three hours, kind of lay out what the case will look like. Next week is when you’ll see the full presentation.”
Feeling comfortable that Democrats will not have the votes to convict the President, the White House’s No. 1 goal right now is to ensure there are no witnesses, sources close to the legal team said. That will require the handful of on-the-fence Republican senators to vote against allowing new witnesses and documents into the trial. And while Trump may be making his intentions known publicly, people close to the situation say he’s been advised against pressuring those Republicans directly, in the belief that the tactic could backfire.
The President’s legal team has been meeting at the White House every day around 11 a.m. since the trial started to go over what Democrats said the day before and to prep for their own opening statements. Around noon, the President’s lead attorneys – White House counsel Pat Cipollone and outside lawyer Sekulow – have piled into a black SUV to travel to Capitol Hill.
Other members of the legal team have followed behind in a black van. As Democrats lay out their arguments, Trump’s team has listened from several feet away on the Senate floor, while their aides are in the vice president’s Capitol Hill office across the hall.
Coaching the defense
While Trump was traveling in Europe last week, he participated in late-night phone conversations with the team. He’s participated directly since returning.
And as he’s done during past watershed moments, he’s also spent hours on the phone with outside allies, Republican lawmakers and Fox News hosts. Trump praised Cipollone’s rare display of emotion during the opening debate over amendments, telling reporters in Switzerland his top lawyer was a “high-quality human being.”
“I was very impressed with Pat. He had great emotion yesterday,” Trump said on Tuesday as he was departing the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Pat is a brilliant guy, but I’ve never seen that emotion. And that’s real emotion. That’s because he knows this is a hoax. And I was very proud of the job he did.”
Multiple people familiar with the matter have privately cautioned, however, that the White House counsel is expected to act as a more staid attorney during the trial proceedings, allowing a more boisterous performance from his counterpart Sekulow, who has regularly appeared on television to defend Trump.
Pat Philbin, the White House deputy counsel, also earned praise inside the West Wing after he addressed the Senate floor Tuesday night. He and Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general acting as a White House impeachment adviser, were not originally slated to speak, but the White House was caught slightly off guard by how many amendments Democrats offered so they sent other members of the team up to break up the arguments.
As of Friday, it did not appear there had been extensive preparatory sessions with Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz, two of the notorious outside attorneys the White House announced as part of Trump’s legal team last week, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.
They have neither been involved in the sessions on Capitol Hill nor been seen in the White House, several of the people said, though they are expected to coordinate with Sekulow and Cipollone before Monday.
Aides close to Cipollone and Sekulow don’t predict Starr, the independent counsel who headed the investigation that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, or Dershowitz, the Harvard Law professor emeritus and famous defense attorney, to have an outsized role on the Senate floor, though that could change with the President’s nudging. Robert Ray, who succeeded Starr as independent counsel, has been flooding the airwaves with the White House messaging over the last several days.
Schiff’s star turn
As House Democrats were wrapping up their arguments for why Trump should be removed from his office on Friday, there’s been an unexpected reaction from the President’s allies: praise for Schiff, the House Intelligence chairman acting as the lead impeachment manager.
Several people close to Trump have praised the California Democrat’s performance, believing his narrative has been polished and compelling, though the President’s disdain for him remains.
“He said he thought Schiff did a bad job,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a top ally of the President, describing a phone conversation he had with Trump this week. “I said, ‘No, I thought he actually did a pretty good job. I thought he actually, you know, took the evidence and wove a coherent story.’ “
Trump’s allies have also conceded that Democrats’ use of video clips and slides was effective in capturing senators’ attention, particularly during the hours-long stretches of the trial that led to evident restlessness on the floor.
One person familiar with the preparations said the President’s legal team has been readying video clips they say will offer a counter-narrative to the ones shown by the Democratic managers.
During the debate over the trial’s rules on Tuesday, Democrats made ample use of video and slides – a major difference from Trump’s team, who relied only on the attorneys’ speeches.
The President’s lawyers had always planned to use some visual aids during the arguments section, but the disparity on Tuesday made it clear to them that the tactic is effective during the presentation, leading to a renewed effort to identify clips that will help make Trump’s case.