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Impeachment Hearings: Trump's Lawyers Present Spirited Defense Of Former President

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The defense had their day today in the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. Where Democrats spoke for about 10 hours, Trump's attorneys spoke for only three. Their argument, in short, cast the Democrats' case as just another partisan attempt to take out their political opponent. Here's Trump lawyer Michael van der Veen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL VAN DER VEEN: Like every other politically motivated witch hunt the left has engaged in over the past four years, this impeachment is completely divorced from the facts, the evidence and the interests of the American people. The Senate should promptly and decisively vote to reject it.

CORNISH: Trump's lawyers wrap their case in the afternoon ahead of some time for questions from senators. Joining us now are NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas - hey there, Ryan...

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: ...And congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Welcome back.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Ryan, I'm going to start with you. Give us a sense of the main theme of their argument.

LUCAS: Well, it wasn't a long defense. As you said, it was only about three hours. But they did throw a lot out there in those three hours. Trump's lawyers argued, as we heard a bit in that clip at the top, that House Democrats are driven by pure, unadulterated hatred for Donald Trump in these proceedings. They say that Democrats want to eliminate him as a political rival by disqualifying him from holding future office. They said that Trump ran as a law and order candidate, as a pro-police guy, so he couldn't possibly have incited violence against police. They say that Trump wanted a peaceful protest on January 6 but that it was hijacked by violent extremists. And they flatly deny the charge in the article of impeachment that he incited the violence at the Capitol.

CORNISH: How - what kind of evidence did they present to rebut that incitement charge?

LUCAS: Well, they tried to make this argument by focusing exclusively on the text of Trump's speech on January 6. They said that Trump told the crowd that day to march peacefully to the Capitol. He did use that word once. They also say some of the rioters had planned ahead of time to storm the Capitol, so Trump couldn't have possibly incited them.

Trump's lawyers did not, however, address the significant body of evidence that the House managers presented over two days to show what the managers say was a pattern of behavior from Trump over several months in which he primed his supporters, he fed them lies about election fraud and he gave them winks and nods about violence over several months. And then on January 6, they say, he aimed them at the Capitol, a pattern that the managers say prompted some of Trump's supporters to plan for violence on the 6, which would rebut that preplanning argument that the lawyers for President Trump made.

CORNISH: You mention the text of his speech. Did they talk about a kind of First Amendment defense as well?

LUCAS: They did. They did. They argued that former President Trump was just expressing an opinion when he claimed that the election was stolen. And they say that when he urged his supporters to, quote, "fight like hell," that he was just talking about the need to fight generally for election security. His lawyers argue that this is constitutionally protected speech and the Senate cannot convict Trump for that. Now, I have to say that this is an argument that legal scholars, including conservative luminaries, have called legally frivolous. House managers certainly reject it as well.

Trump's attorneys also tried to paint Trump's remarks to the crowd on January 6 as essentially just run-of-the-mill political speech, and they did this by zeroing in on the same words from that speech on January 6 that the House managers did when Trump told the crowd to fight like hell. Here's Trump's attorney, Michael van der Veen, again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VAN DER VEEN: This is ordinary political rhetoric that is virtually indistinguishable from the language that has been used by people across the political spectrum for hundreds of years. Countless politicians have spoken of fighting for our principles.

LUCAS: Now, to try to make that point, Trump's attorneys played a lengthy montage video - about 10 minutes or so - that showed almost every prominent Democrat using the word fight. They didn't get in the context in which those remarks were made. But more generally, van der Veen warned that convicting Trump for these sorts of words here would set a dangerous precedent.

CORNISH: Claudia, how did senators receive all this?

GRISALES: Yes. It was clear this was a new day in the chamber. I spent some time in the gallery, and the members appeared alert, attentive. I saw every seat filled, whereas yesterday towards the end of the presentation, I saw about a dozen seats empty. And so these presentations, such as this - these videos that were heavily produced, got members' attention. Democrats found this and other remarks frustrating and misleading. And impeachment managers were able to address this during the question and answer session. Here's lead manager Jamie Raskin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMIE RASKIN: They really didn't address the facts of the case at all. There were a couple propaganda reels about Democratic politicians that would be excluded in any court in the land. They talked about the rules of evidence. All of that was totally irrelevant.

GRISALES: And Raskin there is also rejecting claims made today by the defense lawyers that they didn't share all the evidence with the Trump team ahead of time. But largely, these senators' reactions are falling along partisan lines as Republicans have been steadfast in their defense of the president, also said they were impressed with the presentation today.

CORNISH: How do these arguments compare to the last two days?

GRISALES: These two days of opening statements that we saw by the House impeachment managers were very - two intense days in the chamber, while Trump's defense team aimed to rebut that presentation quickly and move on to the next stage of the trial. As we saw today, for example, the managers took 10 hours, and, as Ryan mentioned, the defense team only took about three - so comparatively brief, but all of this was well below the 16 hours allotted for each team.

CORNISH: We're in a new phase. What's happening now?

GRISALES: Yeah. So members announce their queries to the presiding officer, who asks the questions to the corresponding team. They alternate between the parties. Some members ask these questions solo, or they team up. And this is an interesting portion of the trial where we get additional insight of members' thinking and how they're evaluating the trial. And it perhaps helps their preferred legal team to make their points in a more expanded fashion. But following this, the chamber could take up debate on witnesses, followed by up to four hours in concluding statements, deliberation and a vote on whether to convict or not convict Trump.

CORNISH: That's Claudia Grisales and NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you both.

GRISALES: Thank you much.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.