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House and White House impeachment legal teams offer stark contrast on facts and style

Eli Stokols, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- After a Senate trial opening so contentious after nearly 13 hours that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. felt compelled to tell both sides to cool it, a weary Rep. Adam B. Schiff was perhaps stating the obvious early Wednesday when he admitted, "You're going to have tempers flare."

But when lawmakers reconvened later for the first substantive arguments in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, Democrats sought to avoid the kind of testy language and partisan free-for-all that had marred the first day and threatened to overshadow their case.

Still, Schiff could not resist adding a dig as he declared a semi-cease-fire.

"The president's team would like nothing more than to provoke a bitter conflict. We're not going to let them," Schiff said. "The facts are damning. We're going to lay them out in great detail."

As the lead impeachment manager for the House case, the California Democrat offered an opening salvo to the Senate that topped two hours, calling up video clips and other visual aids to help him present evidence in a direct, if sometimes moralizing argument -- but not impugning the motives of Senate Republicans.

As the presentations wore on, the House managers, White House lawyers and most senators sought to embrace a staid, solemn trial -- or at least, for some, to stay awake. Forced to stay seated and silent, some scribbled copious notes, read briefing books, made elaborate doodles, or just left the gilded chamber for extended periods.

Before flying back to Washington from the World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland, Trump weighed in with caustic comments that made clear he approved of the first day's friction. He praised White House counsel Pat Cipollone for his "great emotion" before denouncing Schiff and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, another House manager, as "major sleazebags."

Trump suggested he might like an invitation to attend his own trial, saying he would "sit right in the front row and stare at their corrupt faces. I'd love to do it."

But Trump also repeatedly said he would "love" for Mick Mulvaney, his acting chief of staff; John Bolton, his former national security adviser; Michael R. Pompeo, the secretary of state; and Rick Perry, the former secretary of energy, to testify -- before quickly backtracking, saying they could not testify because of "national security problems." Cabinet members regularly testify to Congress about national security issues.

Other than the president, the rhetoric was markedly cooler compared with the previous night, when tensions boiled over as Democrats offered motion after motion to call witnesses or make other rule changes -- and watched every one fail, mostly on a party-line 53-47 vote.

At one point, Democrats suggested the Senate would be party to a "cover-up" if it refused to subpoena witnesses and documents that the House was unable to obtain during its inquiry.

The president's lawyers responded angrily, often raising their voices as they decried the process as partisan and misguided, but mostly avoided the central allegations that Trump withheld $391 million in vital military aid to Ukraine for 74 days as his allies sought to pressure Ukraine's new president to announce a corruption investigation of Joe Biden.

Cipollone accused Democrats of trying to subvert democracy by impeaching Trump, and repeated false claims by Trump and Republicans that they weren't allowed to participate in closed-door depositions or call witnesses during the House investigation. The White House had been invited to take part but had refused.

Trump's personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, said the president's refusal to cooperate with the House inquiry was a matter of executive privilege, and that forcing him to reveal information to Congress about his national security decisions would mark "a dangerous moment for America."

After the arguments had stretched long past midnight, Nadler, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, accused GOP senators of "treacherous" behavior.

"Either you want the truth, and you must permit the witnesses, or you want a shameful cover-up," he said. "History will judge and so will the electorate."

That remark elicited groans from Republicans in the chamber, and Cipollone leaped up to respond.

 

"The only one who should be embarrassed, Mr. Nadler, is you, for the way you've addressed this body. This is the United States Senate. You're not in charge here," he said.

It prompted a rare chiding from Chief Justice Roberts, whose role presiding over the trial is largely ceremonial. He implored both sides "to remember that they are addressing the world's greatest deliberative body."

Schiff downplayed the fiery exchange Wednesday morning, but made it clear to reporters that he, not Nadler, who stood beside him, would respond to their questions. Around the Capitol, some Democrats vented privately about the late-night episode and Nadler's role in a Senate rules fight that became a toxic exchange.

"Nadler is exactly what the White House lawyers were hoping for -- someone who caters to the Manhattan chattering class but is politically tone-deaf about the rest of the country," said one Democratic Senate aide. "Every other manager has been the opposite of that. But Nadler is what Fox News dreams about."

Republicans claimed to be still livid about Nadler's remark when they returned to the chamber Wednesday afternoon.

"I am covering up nothing," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. "I'm exposing your hatred of this president to the point that you would destroy the institution."

"If the point was to go on for 13 hours to no apparent purpose ... and to alienate the very senators that they're trying to convince, then I'd say it was a raging success on their part," said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. "But if the point was to try to convince people, I think they're off to a terrible start."

For their part, Trump's critics were similarly unimpressed with the president's lawyers, at least so far.

"I had assumed the president's legal team would be reluctant to tell outright lies in front of the chief justice. I was wrong," tweeted Laurence Tribe, a constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School.

"If there's any unfairness in these proceedings, it's the astounding mismatch between the high skill and preparation of the House managers and the rambling, dissembling and gaslighting of @realDonaldTrump's counsel," tweeted George Conway, the conservative attorney and vocal Trump critic who is married to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

"It's like the New York Yankees versus the Bad News Bears," he added.

(Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.)

(c)2020 Los Angeles Times

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