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U.S. President Donald Trump's personal attorney Jay Sekulow (C) and White House counsel Pat Cipollone arrive as the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump continues in Washington, U.S., January 25, 2020. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

The strategy behind Team Trump’s impeachment defense

President Donald Trump’s legal team began presenting their defense on Saturday with the goal of acquitting the president in the Senate, but more immediately to convince the Republican majority to vote against having witnesses testify as part of the impeachment trial.

Political analysts and leading Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have said an acquittal of the president is all but certain. But whether Republican senators will reject the option to call any witnesses is less clear. Trump’s legal team is working to ensure they will not seek further testimony, according to sources familiar with the president’s legal strategy.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone said during his opening remarks that House managers, who concluded their three-day presentation Friday night, did not come “anywhere close to meeting their burden” of proving that the president committed an impeachable offense.

The president’s legal team argued Saturday that Trump had done “absolutely nothing wrong” and that House managers are asking senators to reject the will of their constituents.

“They’re asking you not only to overturn the results of the last election, but as I’ve said before, they’re asking you to remove President Trump from an election that’s occurring in approximately nine months,” Cipollone said. “Let the people decide for themselves.”

The president’s team also claims that a recording of Trump calling for the firing of then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, which surfaced Friday, is not relevant to the proceedings. The recording was turned over to the House Intelligence Committee by Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who said he was at the meeting with the president and aided Giuliani’s efforts to uncover damaging information about the Bidens in Ukraine.

In his closing remarks Friday night, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., referenced a CBS report that said Republican senators were warned to vote with the president, or their heads would be put “on a pike.” That remark didn’t sit well with Republican senators — notably moderate senators like Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins — who Democrats have been hoping to convince to vote for witnesses.

White House officials have denied that anyone from the president’s team made the statement.

“The president has a broad array of relationships in Washington across the partisan and ideological divide,” Eric Ueland, White House legislative affairs director, told the PBS NewsHour. “I have no knowledge that anyone working for the president has ever made such a statement, and I know he would never tolerate a mindset like that.”

The presidents’ team was pleased Republican senators quickly pushed back on Schiff’s comments. They believe his remarks, which suggested Republicans are at risk of failing the moral obligation of their offices, will help convince moderate GOP senators to oppose Democrats’ efforts to call witnesses.

White House officials and the president’s legal team have also dismissed Schiff’s call Friday night for senators to vote for witnesses and then let Chief Justice John Roberts settle any disputes over executive privilege, should it be invoked by the White House.

Trump’s lawyers have said that additional witnesses, including former national security adviser John Bolton, aren’t necessary.

After Saturday’s proceedings, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer suggested that the president’s legal arguments had backfired. “The president’s counsel did something they did not intend. They made a really compelling case for why the Senate should call witnesses and documents,” he said at a news conference.

“They made the argument that no one really knows what the president intended; it’s speculation what the president intended when he cut off aid. But there are people who do know,” he said, adding that Bolton and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney might have insight.

In the next two days of arguments, the president’s team plans to speak at length about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine, in order to justify Trump raising the Biden family in his July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to sources on the president’s legal team.

The president’s lawyers also plan to raise the so-called Steele dossier, as part of their argument that Democrats are seeking to overturn the results of the 2016 election and remove Trump from the 2020 ballot. Trump has railed against the document — compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele as opposition research for both Republicans and Democrats — that contains unfounded, salacious claims against Trump.

The president’s legal team spent approximately two hours Saturday giving an overview of the “coming attractions” of their case. The early dismissal for senators sitting in the chamber on a weekend allows presidential candidates to head to Iowa to campaign, and for weary lawmakers to head home for a quick reprieve before the defense team resumes their case Monday.

The Trump team plans to use the entire day Monday to wrap up their opening arguments, using two of their three allotted days.

An early ending to the arguments would allow two days of senators’ questions to take place over Tuesday and Wednesday. Senators could debate issues such as calling witnesses on Thursday, and possibly a vote on the issue the same day. If no witnesses are called, senators would deliberate about the big question on Friday: whether to remove Trump from office.

On that schedule, the president’s team hopes he can be acquitted — and take a victory lap — when he is scheduled to deliver the State of the Union in the House chamber the following Tuesday, Feb. 4.

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