Donald Trump’s lawyers have laid out his defence a day before the start of his impeachment trial, arguing the president did nothing wrong and that allegations of abuse of power were a “novel theory” that did not support his removal from office.
In a 171-page legal brief filed on Monday, Mr Trump’s legal team accused Democrats of carrying out a “dangerous perversion” of the constitution and urged all 100 senators who will serve as jurors in his trial to “swiftly and roundly condemn” the process that has led to the third presidential impeachment trial in US history.
Mr Trump’s lawyers argued that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, which drew up two impeachment charges alleging abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, failed “to allege any violation of law whatsoever” by the president and therefore had not been accused of any “impeachable offence”.
“House Democrats’ novel theory of ‘abuse of power’ improperly supplants the standard of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ with a made-up theory that would permanently weaken the presidency by effectively permitting impeachments based merely on policy disagreements,” the brief said.
The filing is the clearest signal yet that Mr Trump’s team will not focus on challenging the underlying facts in the case, which show that a coterie of Mr Trump’s aides attempted to coerce the Ukrainian government into investigating the president’s Democratic rivals and unfounded theories of Kyiv’s interference in the 2016 election.
Instead, his lawyers appear to be mounting a defence that even if all the allegations against Mr Trump are true, such pressuring of foreign governments is part of the presidency’s legitimate powers, regardless of the fact the scheme was intended for his personal political benefit rather than wider US foreign policy goals.
Mr Trump was impeached in December by the House, which voted last week to send the articles of impeachment to the US Senate after delaying the action for weeks to press the upper chamber to allow key witnesses to testify at the trial. The White House had instructed administration officials not to testify before the House.
The issue of whether new witnesses will be allowed to testify in the Senate trial is expected to be a central issue in the first days of the trial, which is set to begin on Tuesday after John Roberts, the chief justice of the US Supreme Court who will preside over the proceedings, swore in all senators last week.
In Monday’s filing, the president’s lawyers maintained he “did absolutely nothing wrong” and accused House Democrats of failing to call a “single witness who claims, based on direct knowledge” that the Mr Trump conditioned the release of military aid to Ukraine on the announcement of investigations into the Bidens or alleged interference by the Ukrainians in the 2016 US presidential election.
Mr Trump himself reinforced that message, writing on Twitter: “They didn’t want John Bolton and others in the House. They were in too much of a rush. Now they want them all in the Senate. Not supposed to be that way!”
But Democrat Adam Schiff, the chair of the House intelligence committee who will help manage the prosecution in the Senate, hit back at the argument, noting that it was the White House — not House Democrats — who blocked first-hand witnesses from testifying.
“No, Mr President, we did ask John Bolton to testify. You ordered him not to, and blocked others, like Mick Mulvaney,” Mr Schiff wrote on Twitter. “All Americans know what a fair trial includes documents and witnesses.”
At the weekend, the seven House Democrats who will prosecute Mr Trump in the Senate trial filed a 110-page legal brief, saying Mr Trump’s efforts to get his Ukrainian counterpart to publicly announce an investigation into former US vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden amounted to the “worst nightmare” of America’s founding fathers.
Mr Trump is expected to be acquitted in the Republican-controlled Senate, as his removal from office would require 20 Republican senators to vote against him.
His lawyers argued in Monday’s brief that the articles of impeachment “do not remotely approach the constitutional threshold for removing a president from office”. Echoing claims that the president has made, Mr Trump’s attorneys argue that the articles of impeachment were borne of a “rigged process” in the House, and “must be rejected”.
House Democrats and the president’s lawyers are expected to make opening statements in Mr Trump’s trial on Tuesday, but lawmakers remain fiercely divided about the rules governing the proceedings.
The rules of a trial need the approval of a simple majority of senators, and while Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, has insisted that he “has the votes” to proceed without the co-operation of Democrats, he has yet to publish a resolution laying out how the trial will be run.
Democrats have pushed for the admission of fresh evidence — such as the Government Accountability Office report last week saying the White House violated the law by withholding US military aid to Ukraine — and the inclusion of testimony from witnesses who did not participate in the House investigation, including former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
A handful of moderate Republicans have indicated they would be open to hearing from witnesses after opening statements from both sides.