WASHINGTON – White House lawyers are gearing up for a scorched-earth defense of President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, mounting a politically charged case aimed more at swaying American voters than GOP senators — and at damaging Trump’s possible 2020 opponent, Joe Biden.
Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, and Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney, plan to use their time in the trial to target the former vice president and his son, Hunter, according to multiple GOP officials familiar with the strategy. Trump’s allies believe that if they can argue that the president had a plausible reason for requesting the Biden investigation in Ukraine, they can both defend him against the impeachment charges and gain the added bonus of undercutting a political adversary.
The strategy — aimed squarely at muddying the waters surrounding the two impeachment articles of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — carries potential risk. Some congressional Republicans have encouraged the White House to prioritize a line-by-line rebuttal of the Democrats’ case, ensuring that wary moderates are provided enough cover to vote for Trump’s acquittal. It is unclear whether going after a former colleague will sway that core constituency, protecting moderates from possible political blowback at home — though a senior administration official made clear that Trump’s legal team would try to do both.
The official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The offensive will mark the first time lawmakers or the public have heard a full-throated White House defense. The president’s attorneys rejected the House invitation to participate in the last phase of the impeachment inquiry, making their presentation — expected Saturday and Monday — the team’s first major turn in the spotlight.
Until now, the White House has struggled to address why Trump froze military aid to Ukraine and repeatedly postponed a promised White House meeting with newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky while pressing for investigations of the Bidens and an unfounded conspiracy theory about Ukraine interfering in the 2016 election.
In October, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney openly admitted that a quid pro quo occurred, telling reporters to “get over it” — though he later walked back the comments.
The emerging strategy comes as the White House has heard conflicting advice from Republicans eager to share their opinion on the best rebuttal. In recent weeks, there has been a quiet, behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign by both GOP senators and Trump’s House allies on his defense team, creating confusion among Republicans about which strategy the White House will adopt.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican advising Trump’s defense team, told reporters that Trump’s lawyers needed to re-litigate what is considered a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to help Hillary Clinton — and, therefore, justified Trump pushing Ukraine to investigate the matter. But some Senate Republicans, including No. 2 leader John Thune of South Dakota, want the White House to avoid what they consider a baseless conspiracy theory.
“I think the intelligence community has very conclusively determined that it was Russia — and not Ukraine — that interfered in the 2016 election, so … I guess that’s not a direction I would have them go,” Thune said.
Other Senate Republicans, including Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have publicly pushed back on a key White House legal team talking point: that the charges against the president do not constitute a crime and therefore his actions are not impeachable.
Trump himself actively recruited lawyer and TV commentator Alan Dershowitz at a buffet at his Mar-a-Lago resort to make that very argument — then sought out Dershowitz’s wife to help persuade him to do it. “He wants me to make the argument that the case does not meet the grounds for impeachment,” said Dershowitz. “He knows that I feel very strongly about constitutional issues.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have been bracing for this moment, anxious about the Trump team getting 24 hours without any interruptions and pushback from impeachment managers. That concern only grew after Trump’s lawyers uttered several inaccuracies on the Senate floor Tuesday, including a claim that House Republicans were not allowed to question witnesses during closed-door depositions. They could, and they did.
Democrats want to ensure that the Trump team doesn’t get the last word, in part by using some of the allotted 16 hours of questions and answers to correct any misstatements.
“I’m concerned about their deceptive and misleading statements,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., promising that Democrats would “ask questions that are, in effect, an invitation to set the record straight.”