Donald Trump’s lawyers tried to shift the focus of his Senate impeachment trial away from revelations from former national security adviser John Bolton, pledging to ignore “speculation” and only address evidence introduced to the proceeding.
“We deal with transcript evidence, we deal with publicly available information,” Jay Sekulow told senators on Monday. “We do not deal with speculation, allegations that are not based on evidentiary standards at all.”
Mr Sekulow’s comments came after reports that Mr Bolton, in his upcoming book, will accuse Mr Trump of saying that he was withholding aid to Ukraine until Kyiv complied with a demand to investigate former US vice-president Joe Biden.
The reports caught Republican senators off-guard. At least two — Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine — indicated on Monday that they would consider voting to call additional witness, such as Mr Bolton, in the trial.
Mr Sekulow, the US president’s personal lawyer, opened Monday’s proceedings by noting that Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukrainian president, had stated he had felt “no pressure” from the White House over the Biden investigation, and argued that impeachment was rooted solely in partisan policy differences.
“We live in a constitutional republic where you have deep policy concerns and deep differences that should not be the basis of an impeachment,” Mr Sekulow said. “Are we going to have every time there’s a policy difference of significance . . . we’re going to start an impeachment proceeding?”
Mr Trump’s lawyers attempted on Monday afternoon to turn the attention of senators to accusations of corruption and nepotism surrounding Mr Biden’s son Hunter and his business activities in Ukraine.
They argued Mr Trump was serving the US national interest when he urged Mr Zelensky to investigate whether Joe Biden forced out a top Ukrainian prosecutor who had responsibility for a probe into Burisma, the oil and gas company for which Hunter Biden served as a director. Democrats argue the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, was pushed out because he was not doing enough to tackle corruption.
Jane Raskin, a member of Mr Trump’s legal team, also defended Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who led the search for information on Mr Biden in Ukraine. Ms Raskin denied Mr Giuliani was on a “political mission” in Ukraine.
“He was doing what good defence attorneys do,” she said. “He was gathering evidence about Ukrainian election interference to defend his client against the false allegations being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller” — who was tasked with investigating claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
Earlier, Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel who led the effort to impeach Bill Clinton, pointed to the Clinton trial as an example of the dangers of impeachment.
“We are living in what can aptly be described as the age of impeachment,” said Mr Starr, who became a bête noire on the left for his role in Mr Clinton’s impeachment and the airing of the Monica Lewinsky affair.
“Those of us who lived through the Clinton impeachment, including members of this body, full well understand that a presidential impeachment is tantamount to domestic war, but thankfully protected by our beloved First Amendment, a war of words and a war of ideas,” said Mr Starr. “But it’s filled with acrimony and it divides the country like nothing else. Those of us who lived through the Clinton impeachment understand that in a deep and personal way.”
The former independent counsel suggested that Democrats were attacking Mr Trump for being “controversial” — a character attribute that did not meet the standard for impeachment.
“Have there been controversial presidents? Think of John Adams and the early Sedition Act,” he said.
Mr Starr’s statement — part of the 24 hours given to Mr Trump’s defence team for opening arguments at the outset of the impeachment trial — generated whiplash in Washington.
“Right now even GOP senators are looking at Ken Starr and thinking ‘WTF?!’,” Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, tweeted.
Mr Trump’s team spoke for just a few hours on Saturday, and was expected to speak for only part of the allotted time on Monday and Tuesday. House impeachment managers wrapped up their opening arguments last week.
Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey in Washington