Impeachment Briefing: Working on the Weekend

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  • The impeachment trial of President Trump held its first Saturday session, which lasted just two hours. The president’s legal team teased its opening arguments, saying they would come in fuller form on Monday afternoon, when the trial resumes.

  • Saturday’s session was a landmark for Mr. Trump’s legal team: It was the first time it had formally made a case for him in a congressional proceeding since the House opened its impeachment inquiry in September.

  • The lawyers had little to say about Mr. Trump’s actions, focusing on the way the impeachment inquiry was opened, conducted and presented. Yet they maintained that Mr. Trump had every right to set foreign policy as he wanted, that he had legitimate concerns about Ukrainian corruption when he suspended military aid to the country, and that he was protecting presidential prerogatives when he blocked witnesses and documents.

Read our full story on the day. Here are some highlights from the session. And here’s video from Saturday.

The White House lawyers laid out different elements of a broader legal strategy they said will come in more detailed form next week. Here’s a sample of what they talked about.

Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, said that Democrats were attempting to nullify the 2016 election and pre-empt 2020. “They’ve basically said, ‘Let’s cancel an election over a meeting with the Ukraine.’” He also argued that the Trump administration’s hold on military assistance to Ukraine was driven by the president’s belief that other nations were not doing their share in supporting the country.

Jay Sekulow, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, said impeachment was just another example of Democrats looking to take the president down. He cited the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation, flawed wiretap applications into a former Trump campaign adviser, and the Mueller report, which he brandished in the Senate chamber. He accused the House Democratic managers of having “tried once again to re-litigate the Mueller case.”

Michael Purpura, a deputy White House counsel, said neither the White House nor Ukraine believed there was a quid pro quo. He said that Mr. Trump did not explicitly link aid to his demand for political investigations during his July 25 phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, and noted that Mr. Zelensky has said he did not feel pressured by Mr. Trump. Mr. Purpura dismissed much of the testimony collected by the House as hearsay and based on “presumption,” playing video clips of witnesses using that word.

Patrick Philbin, a deputy counsel to Mr. Trump, tried to cast doubt on the motives and background of the whistle-blower. He said that the whistle-blower whose complaint prompted the impeachment inquiry may have had a liberal bias, and that Adam Schiff, the lead House manager, changed his mind on wanting to question the whistle-blower once he learned of potential conflicts. (Mr. Schiff’s position changed as Mr. Trump began attempting to publicize the whistle-blower’s identity.)

Apart from the quiet, one of the first things to notice when visiting the Capitol on an Impeachment Saturday are the everyday tourists — groups with lanyards admiring the rotundas and statues just a few hundred feet from the Senate floor, in a building otherwise free of official activity.

Then there are the impeachment tourists — teenagers in orange polyester hooded sweatshirts fidgeting next to their parents, and the spouses of senators — who found seats in the half-empty gallery for a once (or perhaps twice) in a lifetime event.

For reporters covering the trial, sitting in the room is less a way to watch the proceedings than watch the people watching the proceedings. Many of the press seats don’t have a view of Chief Justice John Roberts, the Democratic managers or the White House legal team. Instead, you watch the Senate, and you hear the booming voice of Mr. Cipollone talking in their direction.

For all of the talk of history and solemnity, the senators looked tired, their attentiveness sagging. It was the end of a long trial week, and many of them seemed to have given up on careful note taking, with at least a couple exceptions: Kelly Loeffler, the newest member of the Senate, and Marco Rubio, who wore an aggressive Windsor tie knot and wrote at a rate faster than the pace of the presentation.

Others tried their best. Sherrod Brown appeared to at least begin dozing off, despite a focused expression on his face. Cory Booker stood in the back of the room, intent. Tim Scott occasionally glanced at the notes that the senator to his right, Rob Portman, was taking, like an anxious student.

The empty space abutting on the Senate subway, where reporters typically catch lawmakers on their way to vote, served as a kind of impeachment lounge.

After the trial adjourned this afternoon, a group of Mr. Trump’s most TV-prone supporters — Representatives Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, Lee Zeldin, Mike Johnson and Elise Stefanik — politely waited there behind Senator Tim Kaine, near a cluster of microphones, as dozens of reporters crowded around. They soon took turns delivering short talking points.

“Anything else?” Mr. Meadows asked the reporters at one point, searching for more questions. None came.

On my way out of the Capitol, the tiny elevator I was in stopped on the way down, the doors opened, and Mr. Sekulow and Mr. Cipollone were waiting to get in, smiling and offering well wishes to a new group of Senate pages, the high school student helpers who had been busy refilling water glasses in the chamber today.

The two Trump lawyers soon jumped into a waiting black van and sped away — past protesters, a senator catching a ride with an aide in a red SUV, and tourists in line to enter the Capitol, where a normal weekend quiet had returned.

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