Trump lawyers call impeachment probe brazen and unlawful

They respond to House Democrats' trial brief, with both sides seen aiming to sway voters

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the South Lawn of the White House last Friday. The White House is slated to file its more complete trial brief today at noon, which will expand on the arguments in Saturday's filing.
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at the South Lawn of the White House last Friday. The White House is slated to file its more complete trial brief today at noon, which will expand on the arguments in Saturday's filing.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON • United States President Donald Trump's attorneys and the House Democrats managing his impeachment trial have filed their first formal briefs in the case, pursuing familiar arguments aimed more at influencing the voters than the senators who will be his jurors.

In a 111-page trial brief filed last Saturday, the seven Democratic impeachment managers say the President's pattern of misconduct made him a "threat to the nation and the rule of law".

An initial six-page response from Mr Trump's own lawyers takes aim at the House Democrats who investigated the President, calling the impeachment probe a "brazen and unlawful" attempt to overturn the 2016 election.

The Senate will begin its first impeachment trial in 20 years tomorrow, a process that will end with the lawmakers rendering judgment on whether Mr Trump's presidency should be ended over his efforts to force Ukraine's government to open investigations into one of his political rivals.

The Republican-led Senate is exceedingly unlikely to convict Mr Trump, but the House managers are also targeting undecided voters, with polls showing Americans leaning towards replacing the President in this November's election.

Democrats called on senators to conduct a fair trial as part of the oath they took last week to "do impartial justice".

"President Trump has demonstrated his continued willingness to corrupt free and fair elections, betray our national security, and subvert the constitutional separation of powers - all for personal gain," the brief says. "It is imperative that the Senate convict and remove him from office now, and permanently bar him from holding federal office."

The White House declined to participate in the House's investigation, so their brief filing last Saturday is the first time that Mr Trump's counsel addressed the merits of the case against him, rather than simply criticising the process.

The President's legal team, including Mr Ken Starr, who served as independent counsel for the impeachment of then President Bill Clinton, wrote that the articles are unconstitutional and that Mr Trump "did nothing wrong".

"The articles of impeachment submitted by House Democrats are a dangerous attack on the right of the American people to freely choose their president," Mr Trump's team said. "This is a brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election and interfere with the 2020 election, now just months away."

House Democrats dismissed Mr Trump's response and said it demonstrates why he should be removed from office.

 
 

"Rather than honestly address the evidence against him, the President's latest filing makes the astounding claim that pressuring Ukraine to interfere in our election by announcing investigations that would damage a political opponent and advance his re-election is the President's way of fighting corruption," the impeachment managers said in a joint statement last Saturday night. "It is not. Rather, it is corruption itself, naked, unapologetic and insidious."

The White House is slated to file its more complete trial brief today at noon, which will expand on the arguments in Saturday's filing.

The President's legal team will be led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Mr Trump's private attorney Jay Sekulow.

Other members of the team are expected to give discrete presentations on specific topics.

Democratic officials close to the House impeachment managers refuted the White House's claims last Saturday that Democrats are trying to undo his election, saying Mr Trump's conduct is exactly what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they set up the impeachment process.

The officials also said that the House inquiry afforded Mr Trump the same chances to defend himself as previous presidential impeachments.

The House's prosecution team - seven impeachment managers led by Intelligence chairman Adam Schiff - will have the option to respond to Mr Trump's initial legal arguments before the Senate reconvenes tomorrow for the trial.

Most of the evidence in Saturday's House filing came from weeks of closed-door depositions and open hearings with witnesses who participated in the planning for - and fallout from - a pressure campaign from Trump associates to get Ukraine to announce an investigation of Mr Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.

Mr Trump and his allies frequently claim that Mr Biden acted corruptly to protect Burisma, a Ukranian gas company where his son was a board member.

Mr Trump's lawyers said he broke no laws and was acting within his powers when he asked Ukraine to investigate Mr Biden and his son.

They argued that he was not seeking political advantage but working to root out corruption in Ukraine.

The impeachment managers refute that claim in the filing.

The theory is "baseless" and there is "no credible evidence" to support the allegation that Mr Joe Biden acted improperly when he encouraged Ukraine to remove a prosecutor who was facing corruption accusations, the brief said.

 
 

Mr Joe Biden was carrying out official US policy, a view that was shared by European allies and the International Monetary Fund, according to the filing.

As leverage to demand an investigation of the Bidens, the White House blocked nearly US$400 million (S$539 million) in congressionally approved security aid for Ukraine, as well as a White House meeting sought by newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The brief includes evidence from witnesses making those connections as part of a quid pro quo.

The report also includes a finding released last Thursday by the Government Accountability Office that Mr Trump's withholding of military assistance for Ukraine violated federal law.

BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2020, with the headline 'Trump lawyers call impeachment probe brazen and unlawful'. Subscribe