Trump Legal Team Asks Senate for Speedy Acquittal in Impeachment Trial
WASHINGTON — President Trump’s legal team called on the Senate on Monday to “swiftly reject” the impeachment charges and acquit him, arguing that lawmakers would “permanently weaken the presidency” by removing him from office over what it characterized as policy and political differences.
In a 110-page brief submitted to the Senate the day before his trial begins in earnest, the president’s lawyers advanced their first sustained legal argument since the House opened its inquiry last fall, contending that the two articles of impeachment approved largely along party lines were constitutionally flawed and set a dangerous precedent.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers insisted that neither of the two charges lodged against Mr. Trump — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — is valid, because they do not state any specific violation of the law. They maintained that the accusations in effect seek to punish the president for foreign policy decisions and efforts to preserve executive prerogatives.
“They do not remotely approach the constitutional threshold for removing a president from office,” the brief said. “The diluted standard asserted here would permanently weaken the presidency and forever alter the balance among the branches of government in a matter that offends the constitutional design established by the founders.”
In their own detailed legal brief submitted on Saturday, the House impeachment managers outlined their case that Mr. Trump corruptly solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election for his own benefit, by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations into his political rivals while withholding a nearly $400 million package of military aid the country desperately needed.
The president’s brief did not deny that Mr. Trump leaned on Ukraine to announce the investigations into Democrats, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., but argued that the president had the right to conduct relations with other countries as he saw fit and that he had valid reasons to raise those issues with Ukraine to fight corruption.
The lawyers dismissed the notion that doing so was an abuse of power, as outlined in the first article of impeachment, calling that a “novel theory” and a “newly invented” offense that would allow Congress to second-guess presidents for legitimate policy choices.
“House Democrats’ concocted theory that the president can be impeached for taking permissible actions if he does them for what they believe to be the wrong reasons would also expand the impeachment power beyond constitutional bounds,” the brief said. “It is the president who defines foreign policy,” it added, and said Mr. Trump had “legitimate concerns” in raising the issues involving Democrats with the Ukrainians.
The lawyers argued that the second article, accusing Mr. Trump of obstructing Congress by blocking testimony and refusing to turn over documents during the House impeachment inquiry, was “frivolous and dangerous” because it would invalidate a president’s right to confidential deliberations in violation of separation of powers.
While the White House brief argued that the articles did not allege an actual crime, a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan government agency, found that the Trump administration did violate the law by withholding $391 million in security aid to Ukraine allocated by Congress. The decision to freeze the aid was directed by the president himself, and during the House impeachment inquiry, administration officials testified that they had raised concerns that were ignored.
The president’s legal team took issue with that interpretation and said that in any case it was irrelevant because it was not included in the articles of impeachment themselves. The brief stressed that Mr. Trump ultimately did release the aid without the Ukrainians announcing the investigations he sought. But the money was only delivered only after a whistle-blower had filed a complaint alleging impropriety by the president and lawmakers had opened their own investigation into why the money had been blocked.
The House Democratic managers had their own noon deadline to produce a response to a shorter filing by Mr. Trump’s team on Saturday that responded to the impeachment charges against him. Democrats argued that Mr. Trump’s behavior was not only amply proven during the course of their inquiry but clearly met the standard laid out by the framers of the Constitution for impeachable offenses.
The president weighed in himself from Florida, where he was spending the holiday weekend, complaining that he had not been treated fairly and dismissing demands by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, and other Democrats for a trial that would include witnesses and testimony that the president has so far blocked.
“Cryin’ Chuck Schumer is now asking for ‘fairness’, when he and the Democrat House members worked together to make sure I got ZERO fairness in the House,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “So, what else is new?”
He specifically mocked suggestions that the Senate call John R. Bolton, his former national security adviser, as a witness during the trial.
“They didn’t want John Bolton and others in the House,” Mr. Trump wrote. “They were in too much of a rush. Now they want them all in the Senate. Not supposed to be that way!”
In fact, House Democrats did want Mr. Bolton to testify in their proceedings, but he refused, citing Mr. Trump’s insistence that his current and former advisers not participate. House Democrats did not issue a subpoena or otherwise pursue the matter, concluding that a lengthy, drawn-out court fight to compel Mr. Bolton’s testimony would drag out the matter for months. Mr. Bolton has since said he would testify in a Senate trial if subpoenaed.
Mr. Bolton would be an important witness not only because his position gave him access to the president and his decisions on Ukraine, but because other witnesses have testified that he opposed the pressure campaign to obtain incriminating information about Democrats. He referred to it as a “drug deal” and called Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer who was pressing the Ukrainians to help, a “hand grenade” that would blow up in everyone’s face, according to testimony.
The Senate will dive head first into the trial with when it returns to Washington on Tuesday, beginning with what is expected to be a contentious partisan debate over the ground rules before moving to live oral arguments later in the week.
But by midday Monday, Republicans had not yet released a draft of the resolution governing the proceedings that they plan to muscle through along party lines, leaving the House managers and Senate Democrats grumbling and mostly in the dark about what was to come.
Modeled on the procedures for President Bill Clinton’s 1999 trial, a draft of the resolution prepared by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, affords the managers and the president’s lawyers 24 hours each to present their case. Unlike that earlier trial, however, this time Republicans are contemplating insisting that the prosecution and defense use their time over just two marathon days — allowing the Senate to get through opening arguments this week.
If it did, senators would then have time early next week to pose questions to the two sides before a undertaking a debate over whether to call witnesses or new documentary evidence. Democrats plan to oppose the organizing resolution on Tuesday because they want a built-in guarantee of witnesses at the outset, arguing that anything less constitutes an attempt by Mr. McConnell and his allies to rush an acquittal of the president.
A draft of the resolution also proposes giving Mr. Trump’s lawyers the right to make a motion early in the trial, before oral arguments, to dismiss the case altogether, according to Republicans who have reviewed it.
That presents Mr. Trump’s legal team with a dilemma. The president has called for an outright dismissal and his outspoken conservative allies say they want the opportunity to vote. But with moderate Senate Republicans insistent on hearing the case out, any motion to dismiss would almost certainly fail in a vote on the Senate floor, dealing Mr. Trump a setback at the outset of the trial.
Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York. Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting from Washington.
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