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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Team Trump's distortions become part of the Senate trial

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a House impeachment manager,

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a House impeachment manager, at the Senate impeachment trial Tuesday. Credit: Senate Television via AP

Even on a playing field tilted sharply in President Donald Trump's favor, statements defending him raised familiar credibility issues last week in the Senate impeachment trial.

Team Trump's factual breaches could have proved costly — if the Senate's GOP majority had not been as bent on acquitting him as House Democrats were on impeaching him amid a still-simmering Ukraine scandal.

On Tuesday, four days before a fuller defense presentation began, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow said of the findings of former special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia report last spring:

"I know something about that report. It came up empty on the issue of collusion with Russia. There was no obstruction, in fact.”

Actually the report flagged several instances of possible obstruction of justice for potential action by Congress that were never taken up in the impeachment articles.

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said. Multiple cases of Russian contacts and pro-Trump actions in 2016 also were documented.

Speaking last Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, Trump said he was pleased with the state of the impeachment trial. “Honestly, we have all the material. They don’t have the material," he said.

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a House impeachment manager, responded: “The second article of impeachment was for obstruction of Congress: covering up witnesses and documents from the American people.

"This morning the President not only confessed to it, he bragged about it.”

White House counsel and lead Trump lawyer Pat Cipollone charged that Republicans were barred from attending the House impeachment inquiry's closed-door hearings.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.),  noted Republican committee members were given equal time to question deposed witnesses. Trump was invited to participate but declined.

But Cipollone returned to this misleading line anyway when he said Saturday: "Why would you lock everybody out of it from the president’s side?" 

One of the Trump team's key legal arguments seemed particularly controversial as the presentations unfolded.

His lawyers maintained that abuse of power by itself — as the president's extracurricular Ukraine dealings are described — cannot justify impeachment.

But even William Barr took what sounded like a different stance in a memo he sent Trump in 2018 before becoming attorney general. Barr wrote then that a president “is answerable for any abuses of discretion and is ultimately subject to the judgment of Congress through the impeachment process."

Trump has said he'd like to see witnesses testify at the Senate trial but that national security concerns wouldn't permit it. This echoed his claim during the Russia probe that he would have liked to sit for questions by Mueller's staff. Ultimately, Trump answered only written questions.

Back in July, Demings asked Mueller in a hearing: "Isn't it fair to say that the President's written answers were not only inadequate and incomplete because he didn't answer many of your questions, but where he did, his answers showed that he wasn't always being truthful?"

Mueller replied: "I would say generally."

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