Pat Cipollone, the top White House lawyer, spent the weekend working from his office on the second floor of the West Wing, preparing to defend a client who, at one point, was on the second floor of the executive residence suggesting the impeachment charges against him should be dismissed outright.
After nearly a month waiting for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to transmit the articles of impeachment, administration officials and outside attorneys say the White House and President Donald Trump’s legal team are readying for the next phase of the process.
Trump’s defense team, with spots both for those inside the counsel’s office and defenders with established television track records, is mostly in place. And the outlines of the trial are coming into focus. But as Trump’s weekend messages make clear, there are still questions about the strategy, particularly as Trump grows impatient for the impeachment saga to conclude.
Sources say the President’s team feels confident, though they’ve had to adjust their plans in recent days after onetime national security adviser John Bolton offered to testify if subpoenaed. While they are sure that Trump will be acquitted by the GOP-led Senate they want to make the case that the President has been wrongly accused and that the charges are a sham.
“We’ve been prepared since before Christmas. And we remain prepared,” a White House official said.
The President spent the entire weekend inside the White House, despite unseasonable warmth in Washington, abstaining from the typical trips to his nearby golf club. A person familiar with his activities said he was focused both on protests in Iran spurred by the downed Ukrainian jetliner and the looming Senate trial, phoning allies to discuss the upcoming proceedings.
Cipollone, the White House counsel, has been quietly working on the President’s defense for weeks, officials familiar with the matter said. He’s expected to work in tandem with Trump’s outside attorney Jay Sekulow, who Trump has insisted must take “a big role” in the trial. One of Trump’s focal points is who will be the public face of his defense, and he has bragged about Sekulow’s strong television appearances, multiple people say.
Sekulow was at the White House several days last week as the administration was waiting on Pelosi to announce when she would send over the articles of impeachment and kick off the trial. Sekulow visited with the President in the Oval Office briefly before he departed for his campaign rally in Ohio but worked mostly with the counsel’s office while on the grounds, one person said.
Trump has also pushed for famed Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz to join his team, though it’s still unclear if he will. Some aides have privately voiced concern that his presence could be distracting given his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, the late pedophile businessman whom Dershowitz once represented. One source close to the legal team said Dershowitz could potentially make arguments on the Senate floor addressing constitutional issues.
Former South Carolina Congressman Trey Gowdy has spoken on multiple occasions with people in the President’s orbit in recent days, but he isn’t expected to join in a public-facing role at this time.
Eric Ueland, White House legislative affairs director, is also expected to play a political, not legal, role by coordinating with Congress during the trial, a White House aide said. Ueland’s internal clout has grown throughout the impeachment process so far, as he is seen as having helped maintain GOP unanimity in the House while notching several unrelated legislative wins.
Rep. Jim Jordan, one of several House Republicans who Trump is considering adding to his defense team, headed to the White House on Monday to meet with the President’s lawyers about the upcoming trial, a person familiar said.
Jordan was joined Monday at the White House by Stephen Castor, House Republicans’ counsel during the impeachment inquiry. Castor has been briefing Trump’s lawyers about the details of the case, in which he has been deeply involved since the closed-door deposition phase of the inquiry, and met with them last week at the White House to review the case as well.
Trump is still asking his aides regularly about who will defend him in television appearances during the trial, aware the messaging war will be waged not only during the parameters of the proceedings themselves. While the role of Republican House members hadn’t been decided, Trump has already made clear he wants his top allies in the lower chamber defending him on the airwaves whether they play a formal role or not.
That push has been met with resistance by the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as members of the President’s legal team. Sources said the debate over whether House members join the legal team fits into a broader push and pull between the President and his legal team over whether his defense should be a legally-focused one, or filled with the kind of political theater that Trump relishes.
One person close to the legal team said they may also make additions as they go — which wouldn’t be without precedent. In the last presidential impeachment, then-President Bill Clinton added former Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas to his team after opening arguments had already begun.
Timing and strategy
While the precise schedule for the trial hasn’t been set, there’s growing expectation that it could begin in earnest following the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday next week. That coincides with Trump’s planned trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an overlap that’s already led to some conversations among aides on whether that trip will proceed.
The President has voiced frustration on previous trips at being out of the country during contentious political moments, preferring to watch in real time from the White House.
Trump, who in the past has said he is eager for trial he insists will prove his innocence, signaled on Twitter this weekend he would prefer an “outright dismissal” of impeachment in the Senate.
“Many believe that by the Senate giving credence to a trial based on the no evidence, no crime, read the transcripts, ‘no pressure’ Impeachment Hoax, rather than an outright dismissal, it gives the partisan Democrat Witch Hunt credibility that it otherwise does not have,” the President wrote. “I agree!”
That’s different from what Trump has said previously. He has also named witnesses he’d like to see testify. In an interview that aired Friday on Fox News, he said he would “love” to have a bigger trial where “we bring in the whistleblower.”
The White House is urging Senate Republicans to preserve the option of moving to swiftly dismiss the charges against Trump after opening arguments in the impeachment trial, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
But moving ahead with a dismissal vote could put Republicans up for reelection in a tough spot if they are seen as moving too quickly to dismiss the case. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could not afford to lose more than two votes — and GOP sources say the Kentucky Republican currently does not have enough votes to simply dismiss the case.
One aspect being watched closely by some of the President’s allies: whether the trial will be wrapped by the time Trump delivers his State of the Union address in early February. Some inside the White House viewed Pelosi’s delay in transmitting impeachment articles as an attempt to prolong the trial past the speech. Trump hopes to enter her House chamber vindicated by a trial acquittal.
The House vote this week to name its impeachment managers and transmit the articles to the Senate will kick off a process that will see the White House issue its first official legal response to the President’s impeachment, likely by the end of the week.
After the House vote, the Senate is expected to send a summons to the President, which the President’s legal team will answer as a formality, a source close to the legal team told CNN. The answer is likely to argue that the impeachment charges do not rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
But the substance of the President’s defense will come in the form of a trial brief, which will address key legal arguments of the President’s defense and the legal issues at stake, the source said. That document is already largely completed and will likely be submitted within two days of the House vote to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate.