Laying out their impeachment defense, President Donald Trump's lawyers perpetuated a baseless claim that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election as they argued that Trump had good reason to withhold military aid to the country.
It was one of several statements surrounding Week 1 of the impeachment trial where truth came up short.
Democrats on the prosecution team, facing a tall task of persuading a Republican-led Senate to remove the president from office, occasionally stretched beyond the facts as they presented their case that he abused power and obstructed Congress. But in large measure they hewed closely to testimony from government officials and the record.
Get San Diego local news, weather forecasts, sports and lifestyle stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC San Diego newsletters.
During opening arguments, Trump's lawyers accused the Democrats of giving senators selective facts in the case. Indeed they did — but Trump's lawyers did the same, as each side argued whether Trump was guilty of the impeachment charges.
A look at some of the claims heading into Week 2 of the trial:
TRUMP LAWYER JAY SEKULOW: Rep. Jerry Nadler, a member of the prosecution, said “President Trump thought, ‘Ukraine, not Russia,’ interfered in our last presidential election. And this is basically what we call a straw-man argument. Let me be clear. The House managers over a 23-hour period kept pushing this false dichotomy that it was either Russia or Ukraine, but not both.” -- impeachment trial Saturday.
THE FACTS: No evidence exists that it’s both — just Russia.
Trump has repeatedly shrugged off not only testimony of current and former aides at the House impeachment hearings, but advice going back months from officials who told him such assertions are invalid. As recently as December, FBI Director Christopher Wray rejected the idea of Ukraine’s involvement.
“We have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election,” Wray told ABC News, adding: “Well, look, there’s all kinds of people saying all kinds of things out there. I think it’s important for the American people to be thoughtful consumers of information and to think about the sources of it.”
None of the witnesses who testified at the House hearings — including those the Republicans wanted to hear from — gave credence to Trump’s theory that Ukraine attacked the U.S. election and tried to make Russia look like the villain.
Even before his July phone call pressing Ukraine’s president to investigate the theory, Trump's own staff repeatedly told him it was “completely debunked,” Trump’s first homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, said in September.
“Fictions,” a former senior director on the National Security Council for Russia and Europe, Fiona Hill, testified in November.
SEKULOW, on special counsel Robert Mueller: The Mueller report found “the investigation did not establish that the (Trump) campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-related interference activities.” — impeachment trial Saturday.
NADLER: Trump “worked with the Russians to try to rig the 2016 election.” — speaking as a House impeachment manager on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Jan. 19.
THE FACTS: Sekulow omits some key findings from the Mueller report, while Nadler stretches the finding too far.
Mueller's two-year investigation and other scrutiny did reveal a multitude of meetings with Russians. Among them: Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russian lawyer who had promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.
And at one point, in a July 27, 2016, speech, then-candidate Trump called on Russian hackers to find emails from Clinton. "Russia, if you're listening," Trump said, "I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing." Hours later, the Main Intelligence Directorate in Moscow appeared to heed the call — targeting Clinton's personal office and hitting more than 70 other Clinton campaign accounts, according to a grand jury indictment in 2018.
Still, the special counsel looked into a potential criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign and said the investigation did not collect sufficient evidence to form criminal charges. So Sekulow is correct that Mueller “did not establish” conspiracy.
However, Mueller also noted some Trump campaign officials had declined to testify under the Fifth Amendment or had provided false or incomplete testimony, making it difficult to get a complete picture of what happened during the 2016 campaign. The special counsel wrote that he "cannot rule out the possibility" that unavailable information could have cast a different light on the investigation's findings.
The point is key as Democrats argue that Trump should be removed from office because he has a history of trying to cheat in elections and will do so again. But whether his behavior is illegal or an abuse of power is left unanswered by the Mueller report.
NADLER: “Is there a consequence for a president who defies our subpoenas absolutely; who says to all branches of the administration, do not obey a single congressional subpoena —categorically, without knowing the subject of the subpoena—'just never answer a congressional subpoena,’ who denies Congress the right to any information necessary to challenge his power?” — impeachment trial Friday.
THE FACTS: To be clear, that accusation applies to the impeachment proceedings, not to everything involving the Trump administration. The president has not issued a blanket order that administration officials defy all subpoenas from Congress, though he’s seen to it that plenty have been defied on a variety of matters.
In early October, the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, sent a letter to House leaders branding the impeachment process invalid and saying the administration won’t participate. The letter signaled that Trump would seek to block administration witnesses from testifying if summoned. But a number of administration officials testified anyway, among them Trump’s ambassador to the European Union.
The White House has also pointed to Justice Department legal opinions that say close and senior advisers to the president cannot be compelled to testify before Congress about their interactions with the president, and that congressional committees cannot issue subpoenas in an impeachment inquiry if the full Congress has not authorized such an investigation.
Trump’s resistance to subpoenas in the Ukraine-impeachment inquiry gave rise to the impeachment article accusing him of obstructing Congress.
SEKULOW, on the findings of the Mueller report: “There was no obstruction, in fact.” — impeachment trial Tuesday.
THE FACTS: The report did not exonerate Trump on the question of whether he obstructed justice.
Instead, it factually laid out instances in which Trump might have obstructed justice, leaving it open for Congress to take up the matter or for prosecutors to do so once Trump leaves office.
“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said after the report was released.
QUID PRO QUO
TRUMP LAWYER MIKE PURPURA: “Not a single witness testified that the president himself said that there was any connection between any investigations and security assistance, a presidential meeting, or anything else.” — impeachment trial Saturday.
THE FACTS: It’s true that no witnesses testified that they heard Trump admitting a quid pro quo, or exchange of favors. Still Purpura is incorrect in suggesting the impeachment inquiry is based purely on secondhand and thirdhand information.
As one of the officials most deeply involved in trying to get Ukraine to do Trump's bidding, Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, “said he came to understand that there was a quid pro quo” and “everyone was in the loop.” Specifically, Sondland said it was understood that Ukraine's new president would only get a meeting with Trump in the Oval Office if he publicly pledged to investigate Joe Biden and the Democrats.
“Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ Sondland asked in his statement to the House Intelligence Committee. ”As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes."
Testimony from Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council staffer, and text messages of discussions between William B. Taylor, then the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and Sondland and Kurt Volker, another envoy, also lay out the contours of a quid pro quo for a White House meeting.
Moreover, on the more serious matter of withholding military aid to Ukraine unless the country investigated Democrats, Sondland testified that a this-for-that explanation was the only one that made sense to him.
Meanwhile, the White House has sought to prevent those closer to Trump from testifying, including former national security adviser John Bolton and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who initially confirmed that Trump froze nearly $400 million in military aid to press the country into investigating Democrats. Mulvaney later denied making those comments but they are on the record.
More broadly, the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine's leader does not clear Trump. It is largely in sync with the whistleblower’s complaint and the words of a succession of career civil servants and Trump political appointees brought before Congress.
PURPURA: “President Zelinskiy and high-ranking Ukrainian officials did not even know the security assistance was paused until the end of August, over a month after the July 25 call.” — impeachment trial Saturday.
THE FACTS: That’s misleading. Ukrainians knew or at least suspected that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid were frozen when the call took place, according to testimony heard by House investigators.
Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense, told the House Intelligence Committee that her staff received an email on July 25 from a Ukrainian embassy contact asking “what was going on with Ukraine's security assistance." That's the same day Trump spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and pressed for an investigation of Democrats.
Cooper said she "cannot say for certain" that Ukraine was aware the aid was being withheld, but said, "It's the recollection of my staff that they likely knew."
Republicans have argued there couldn’t be a quid pro quo — investigations into Democrats in exchange for military aid — if Ukrainians weren’t aware of a hold on the aid at the time. Even so, Zelenskiy knew months before the callthat much-needed U.S. military support might depend on whether he was willing to help Trump by investigating Democrats.
PURPURA: "The security assistance flowed on Sept. 11 and a presidential meeting took place on Sept. 25 without Ukrainian government announcing any investigations.” — impeachment trial Saturday.
THE FACTS: He’s omitting key context. The military aid was released on Sept. 11 after Trump's pressure campaign on Ukraine for a political “favor” had been exposed. A whistleblower's complaint alleging Trump abused his office had surfaced before that.
The Democrats opened a congressional investigation of the episode only a few days before Trump released the military assistance that Congress had approved early in the year.
It's true Trump and Zelenskiy met Sept. 25. The meeting was in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. It did not carry the prestige of the White House meeting that Zelenskiy wanted and Trump tentatively offered in the July phone call. In that call, Zelenskiy thanked Trump for inviting him not only to the U.S. but “specifically Washington” and Trump said: “Give us a date and we'll work that out.”
TRUMP lawyer PAT CIPOLLONE: “Why would you lock everybody out of it from the president's side? ... It’s evidence they themselves don’t believe in the facts of their case.” — impeachment trial Saturday.
THE FACTS: Trump wasn't locked out. He rejected an invitation from the House Judiciary Committee to participate in the hearings that ultimately produced the articles of impeachment.
On Nov. 29, the committee's chairman, Nadler, D-N.Y., sent a letter to Trump “to determine if your counsel will seek to exercise the special privileges set forth in the Judiciary Committee's Impeachment Procedures ... and participate in the upcoming impeachment proceedings. In particular, please provide the Committee with notice of whether your counsel intends to participate, specifying which of the privileges your counsel seeks to exercise. ...”
On Dec. 6, Cipollone signaled Trump would not participate, telling Nadler in a letter that "House Democrats have wasted enough of America's time with this charade." Trump and his team did not take part.
The first round of hearings, by the House Intelligence Committee, was not opened to participation by Trump's team. Those hearings resembled the investigative phase of criminal cases, when the subject of the investigation is ordinarily not brought in. Trump complained about not being invited, then said no when the next panel invited him.
CIPOLLONE: “The fact that they ... hid evidence from you is further evidence that they don’t really believe in the facts of their case.” — impeachment trial Saturday.
THE FACTS: This is an iffy definition of hiding something. Cipollone spoke about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine's president, which is at the heart of the impeachment case, and cited certain passages that Democrats did not play up or mention in their prosecution argument.
The rough transcript of that conversation is a matter of public record, having been released by the White House, and is far from hidden.
The passages in question were when Trump complained about Germany and other European countries doing nothing to help Ukraine, putting the burden on the United States. For the record, his complaint, which he has voiced many times since, is inaccurate.
European Union institutions have given far more development assistance to Ukraine than the U.S. has provided, and individual countries in Europe as well as Japan and Canada have contributed significantly, too. The U.S. is the primary supplier of military aid.
In the July 25 phone call, after Zelenskiy said his country wanted more anti-tank missiles from the U.S. to help defend itself against Russia, Trump then and repeatedly pressed him to investigate Biden, Trump's potential 2020 election rival, and Democrats.
Trump held up the military aid to Ukraine until Congress got wind of the freeze.
PURPURA: “The record that we have to go on today is based entirely on House Democratic facts precleared in a basement bunker.” — impeachment trial Saturday.
THE FACTS: That's not true. The case also is based on text messages, emails and other documents provided to the House Intelligence Committee, which had public hearings. Many witnesses testified and Republicans on the committee attended and questioned them, just as Democrats, did.
As for the dark reference to a “basement bunker,” that's a secure facility at the Capitol where, at times, dozens of members of the House, from both parties, attended depositions and meetings.
When Republicans controlled the House before the last elections, the Intelligence Committee held its entire Russia investigation in that “bunker."
SEKULOW: “I remember in the Mueller report there were discussions about insurance policies. Insurance policy that didn’t work out so well, so then we moved to other investigations.” -- impeachment trial Tuesday.
THE FACTS: Sekulow is attempting to give weight to a 2016 text message between two FBI employees that Trump continually misrepresents. Trump depicts the two as referring to a plot — or insurance policy — to oust him from office if he won the election. It’s apparent from the text that it wasn’t that.
Agent Peter Strzok and lawyer Lisa Page, both now gone from the bureau, said the text he sent to her was about how aggressively the FBI should investigate Trump and his campaign when expectations at the time were that he would lose anyway.
Strzok texted about something Page had said to the FBI's deputy chief, to the effect that “there’s no way he gets elected.” But Strzok argued that the FBI should not assume Clinton would win: “I'm afraid we can't take that risk.” He likened the Trump investigation to “an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you're 40." He was not discussing a post-election cabal to drive Trump from office.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.