Saying Trump did 'nothing wrong,' White House opens Senate defense


Washington (AFP)

White House lawyers began presenting their defense of Donald Trump at his historic Senate impeachment trial on Saturday, saying the president had done nothing wrong in his dealings with Ukraine and accusing Democrats of seeking to overturn the results of the 2016 election.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone took the floor for opening arguments at a rare weekend session of the 100-member Senate, which will decide whether the 45th US president should be removed from office.

Democratic prosecutors from the House of Representatives, which impeached Trump on December 18, had not made their case that the president was guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Cipollone said at only the third impeachment trial in US history.

"We don't believe that they have come anywhere close to meeting their burden for what they're asking you to do," he told a hushed Senate chamber. "In fact, we believe when you hear the facts... you will find that the president did absolutely nothing wrong."

House prosecutors spent the previous three days laying out a detailed case that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine to pressure his Ukrainian counterpart to open an investigation into political rival Joe Biden.

Cipollone said Democrats were asking the Senate to "overturn the results of the last election" and remove Trump from the ballot in the upcoming November vote.

"They're asking you to do something that no Senate has ever done," the White House counsel said.

"They're asking you to tear up all of the ballots across this country," he said. "Take that decision away from the American people.

"They are here to perpetrate the most massive interference in an election in American history and we can't allow that to happen."

- Insulting nicknames -

Shortly before the defense began its presentation, Trump fired off a tweet with insulting nicknames for leading Democrats and told his supporters to tune in to the live television broadcast.

The Republican president also tweeted remarks from supporters lauding his achievements since taking office in January 2017.

Trump's lawyers will have 24 hours spread over three days to present their defense of the president to the Senate, where Republicans hold a 53 to 47 seat majority.

They plan to speak for up to three hours on Saturday and resume their presentation on Monday.

The short session will be welcome to four senators battling for the Democratic presidential nomination, allowing them to return to the campaign trail ahead of the February 3 caucuses in Iowa, which kick off the primary season.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet have been forced to remain in Washington for the hearings.

A two-thirds majority, or 67 senators, is required to remove a president from office and Democrats do not appear to have made any inroads in Trump's wall of Republican support.

"I don't believe anything they've said so far is impeachable," Senator Rick Scott told reporters after Democrats wrapped up their case Friday night.

- 'Trump first' -

In his closing arguments, lead House prosecutor Adam Schiff warned that Trump would remain an "imminent threat" to American democracy if he stays in power.

"This is Trump first, not America first," Schiff said.

After the White House concludes its presentation, senators will have 16 hours to pose questions to both sides and consider whether they should subpoena witnesses, something Democrats have sought from the start.

If Democrats gain support for subpoenas, Republicans have threatened to call Joe Biden and his son Hunter to testify because their connections to Ukraine were at the heart of Trump's scheme to tarnish his election rival.

Democrats argued that Trump's refusal to allow top officials to testify and to supply subpoenaed documents to the House Ukraine investigation supported the second charge against him -- obstruction of Congress.

The questions from senators will be submitted in writing to US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial and will read them out loud.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a prominent Trump defender, could bring the trial to a vote on the charges by late next week, and see Trump acquitted along party lines.