On the eve of his likely impeachment, President Donald Trump has opted to act as his own defense lawyer.
In a six-page, stream of consciousness diatribe sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and released by the White House on Tuesday afternoon, Trump denounced the Democrats’ two articles of impeachment—abuse of power and obstruction of Congress—as “not recognizable under any standard of Constitutional theory,” engaging with a process the White House had until now spurned in protest.
Crafted more like one of his signature tweetstorms than a legal document, the letter was written “for the purpose of history and to put my thoughts on a permanent and indelible record,” according to the president. Replete with grammatical errors, odd capitalizations and language rarely seen in official White House documents, it castigates Pelosi for “declaring open war on American democracy” and “offending Americans of faith” in what Trump called an “election-nullification scheme.”
A White House official denied that Trump was “frustrated” and venting in the letter. “What do you mean frustrated?” the official said. “Why would he be frustrated if there’s not a single Republican that is going to vote for his impeachment? He won.”
In the letter, Trump repeated many of the themes he’s expressed in 280-character bursts and impromptu remarks at rallies and in the West Wing. But he also presented four main arguments that could preview the Republicans’ talking points during next month’s Senate trial:
The articles of impeachment contain “no crimes, no misdemeanors, and no offenses whatsoever,” thereby making the process “invalid” and “unconstitutional.”
Trump cast the articles and the broader impeachment process as a “policy disagreement” weaponized by Democrats, who have shown “utter contempt” for the Founding Fathers by impeaching him over a lawful exercise of executive power.
Three constitutional scholars called by Democrats who testified before the House Judiciary Committee, however, all agreed that the framers of the Constitution considered abuse of power—the first of the two articles of impeachment against Trump—to be the essence of a high crime and misdemeanor. And a fourth, called by Republicans, conceded that an impeachable act need not be a crime.
The Judiciary Committee ultimately did accuse Trump of committing “multiple federal crimes” in a report released on Monday, which were addressed under the broad umbrella of the “abuse of power” article unveiled last week.
The second call with Zelensky has been “misquoted, mischaracterized, and fraudulently represented”
Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he asked Zelensky to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and interference in the 2016 election, has been the “smoking gun” at the center of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, according to Pelosi.
Trump has long argued that the call was “perfect,” a claim he repeats in his letter along with a newer defense first floated by GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz last week: “I said do us a favor, not me,” Trump wrote, referring to the comment—”I’d like you to do us a favor, though”—that Democrats have seized upon as proof of an improper quid pro quo.
Trump has lately argued that he was speaking on behalf of the country when he asked about the Bidens and 2016 because he was concerned about American taxpayer money fueling corruption in Ukraine. “Every time I talk with a foreign leader, I put America’s interests first, just like I did with President Zelensky,” he wrote in the letter to Pelosi. Trump also invoked comments Biden made at a 2018 event about pressuring Kyiv to fire a prosecutor who at one point investigated the company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter sits, arguing that the former vice president is the one who abused his office.
But Democrats have noted that the international community, not just Biden, called for the firing of the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was considered weak on corruption. And they’ve argued that Trump’s claims about suddenly being tough on Ukraine in the interest of the United States are undercut by the fact that Trump approved lethal weapons and funding to Ukraine in the years before Biden became his chief 2020 opponent, only withholding military assistance as of June 2019, and by the fact that Trump never mentioned “corruption” in either of his calls with Zelensky.
“President Zelensky has repeatedly declared that I did nothing wrong”
Zelensky and several of his senior officials, including his top aide Andriy Yermak and his Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, have told reporters in recent weeks and months that they did not feel pressured by Trump’s comments and did not tie the withholding of military assistance aid to Trump’s requests for political investigations. “Many meetings have been held between representatives of Ukraine and our country,” Trump wrote. “Never once did Ukraine complain about pressure being applied — not once!”
Anonymous Ukrainian officials have told reporters otherwise in private. And in a recent interview with Time Magazine, Zelensky subtly rebuked Trump’s decision to withhold military assistance while Ukraine, a key U.S. ally, is at war with Russia, a U.S. adversary. “I don’t want us to look like beggars,” Zelensky said. “But you have to understand. We’re at war. If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us. I think that’s just about fairness. It’s not about a quid pro quo. It just goes without saying.”
Democrats and foreign policy experts have noted, moreover, that the government in Kyiv has no choice but to stay on Trump’s good side. “They continue to play footsie with the Trump administration, not really realizing they’re doing so to the detriment of their credibility with lots of influential stakeholders,” said one American who frequently engages with the Ukrainian government. “Their thinking is that Trump is likely to get re-elected, and that this is how they should be hedging in preparation for that.”
“Constitutionally based privileges”
In response to the second article of impeachment introduced by House Democrats, obstruction of Congress, Trump argued that he had “constitutionally based privileges” to refuse to cooperate with congressional subpoenas for documents and testimony. “Under that standard, every American president would have been impeached many times over,” Trump wrote. He then quoted constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley, who argued that Democrats would be committing an abuse of power by not going through the courts to enforce subpoenas.
Past presidents have aggressively defended their need to receive confidential advice, claiming “executive privilege” when confronted with what they’ve seen as legislative overreach. But the Trump administration’s blanket refusal to provide documents and witnesses demanded by Congress is unprecedented, scholars say.
Democrats and legal experts counter, moreover, that the Constitution does not require that the courts weigh in before Congress can legitimately conclude Trump is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. Trump’s “refusal to comply with the subpoenas is an independent event that is apart from the courts,” Professor Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina testified earlier this month. “It’s a direct assault on the legitimacy of this inquiry.”
Whereas Bill Clinton, during his impeachment, voluntarily submitted documents to Congress and appeared before a grand jury to testify, Trump refused to cooperate at all with the House impeachment inquiry and ordered Cabinet officials not to comply with congressional requests for interviews and documents. “It was a complete stonewall,” the House Democrats’ counsel, Daniel Goldman, testified last week.
Daniel Lippman contributed reporting.