The American public and U.S. Senate got its first real introduction on Tuesday to Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel who has been a key player on impeachment for President Trump.
The former corporate lawyer had not been a major public face for the president until Tuesday, when he offered a passionate defense of Trump that might have surprised even his boss with its made-for-a-television-audience salvos.
“Pat Cipollone is a high-quality human being. I was very impressed with Pat. He had great emotion yesterday,” Trump told reporters at a news conference in Davos, Switzerland. “Pat is a brilliant guy, but I’ve never seen that emotion, and that’s real emotion.”
Cipollone’s performance was part of a fiery defense of Trump on the first real day of the impeachment trial that played on some of his own talking points and included fervent attacks on House Democrats. It was enough to capture Trump’s attention while he was more than 4,000 miles away in Davos.
Cipollone and Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow, who are leading the president’s impeachment team, set the stage for his opening arguments, which are expected to be delivered to the Senate beginning Saturday.
Based on Tuesday, they will paint Trump as a victim of a partisan charade while focusing less on challenging the specific evidence cited by Democrats.
“We will challenge aggressively the case that they’re putting forward based on what we’re hearing, and we also have an affirmative case as well,” Sekulow told CNN on Wednesday.
It’s a defense designed for a TV audience and is likely to play well with the president’s base of supporters.
“I think they were more television arguments rather than courtroom arguments,” said Jack Sharman, who served as special counsel in the impeachment investigation of former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R).
Cipollone has been a huge part of the White House effort on impeachment, lending his name to a number of letters refusing to participate in the House investigation and instructing aides not to testify.
But he hasn’t been in the public spotlight as much as Sekulow or Rudy Giuliani, a Trump attorney who is at the center of the impeachment controversy.
The president seemed to welcome Cipollone’s back-and-forth barbs with Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the impeachment managers.
But it led to an admonishment from Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, who scolded both Nadler and Cipollone after they traded fire on the issue of executive privilege in the late-night hours of Tuesday’s proceedings.
The Judiciary chairman claimed Trump and Republicans were “afraid” to allow former national security adviser John Bolton to testify and accused senators of engaging in a cover-up, angering Cipollone, who then demanded the lawmaker apologize to Trump and his family, the Senate and the American public.
Roberts urged both “to remember that they are addressing the world’s greatest deliberative body.”
Cipollone earlier in his remarks went on the attack against House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a favorite Trump target, criticizing him for a parody of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine’s president that Schiff read during an open hearing.
The White House counsel also chastised House Democrats for what he termed a “partisan impeachment … delivered to your doorstep in an election year.”
“They’re not here to steal one election. They’re here to steal two elections,” Cipollone said. “It’s buried in the small print of their ridiculous articles of impeachment. They want to remove President Trump from the ballot.”
Clips of his and others’ remarks were promoted by the White House and Republicans on Twitter, advancing the narrative that Democrats are out to get Trump ahead of 2020.
But the lawyers’ remarks prompted a fair share of criticism, underscoring the high degree of scrutiny of the president’s team surrounding the trial.
Trump’s attorneys have mostly focused on challenging Democrats’ case on procedural and constitutional grounds. A legal brief filed by the lawyers on Monday dismissed much of the evidence collected by Democrats as “hearsay and speculation” and insisted Trump had legitimate reasons to raise former Vice President Joe Biden and a debunked theory about 2016 election interference on the call with Ukraine at the center of the case.
In addition to accusing Democrats of trying to use impeachment as a political tool — a key facet of their arguments against impeachment thus far — they have asserted that the articles accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress fail because they do not allege criminal wrongdoing.
That interpretation of “high crimes and misdemeanors” referenced in the Constitution has been subject to plenty of legal debate in recent days, with a number of legal experts disagreeing by saying that a crime is not required for impeachment.
“The team is advancing the narrative maintained by President Trump that the call and handling of the aid was ‘perfect,’” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University constitutional law professor and contributor to The Hill.
“It has also constructed much of its case around the untenable interpretation that ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ must involve a crime. I believe that the history and precedent in both England and the United States clearly refute that argument,” said Turley, who was called as a witness by Republicans during the House impeachment proceedings.
Harvard Law Professor Emeritus Alan Dershowitz, who has been a proponent of the argument, is expected to make that argument on the Senate floor when Trump’s team presents its defense.
Trump’s attorneys did give some ammunition to critics by at times playing loose with the facts.
Sekulow, for instance, misrepresented the findings of former special counsel Robert Mueller by asserting that his investigation found “no obstruction” — mimicking a remark Trump has consistently made in the past.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) portrayed their arguments as “totally unconvincing” and having “discreet and demonstrable factual errors” in remarks on Wednesday.
Conservative lawyer George Conway, a fierce Trump critic and husband of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, also asserted on CNN that Trump’s attorneys were making “deceptive arguments” and “treating the Senate like they’re morons.”
But overall, the news was good for Trump’s team.
It included an expected victory when the Senate in a party-line vote approved a resolution laying out the rules for the trial that punted any decision on witnesses. Republicans defeated a number of amendments from Democrats that called for witnesses and documents to be subpoenaed.
For the next few days, Cipollone will again be out of the spotlight. But he will return to it on Saturday, when the Trump team mounts its defense.
He’ll also share the stage with a slate of high-profile made-for-TV attorneys representing Trump, who were added to the defense team to much fanfare at the end of last week. They include Dershowitz as well as Kenneth Starr, the former independent counsel who investigated former President Clinton.