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President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media following a Christmas Eve video teleconference with members of the military at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 24, 2019.
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media following a Christmas Eve video teleconference with members of the military at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., on Dec. 24, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The House managers prosecuting President Donald Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors have failed so far to persuade Senate Republicans to let them call new witnesses in his impeachment trial. But in their own way, they have come up with a star witness they can bring to the floor: Trump himself.

Barred at this point from presenting live testimony, the managers have offered up the president as the most damning witness against himself, turning his own words against him by quoting from his public remarks, citing accounts of private discussions and showing video clips of him making audacious statements that the House team argues validate its case.

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Thanks to screens set up in front of the senators, Trump’s voice has repeatedly echoed through the Senate chamber the past three days. There he was on the South Lawn of the White House publicly calling on Ukraine to investigate a campaign rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. There he was calling on China to go after Biden, too. There he was declaring that he would willingly take foreign help to win an election. And there he was back in 2016 calling on Russia, “if you’re listening,” to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email.

The strategy seeks to capitalize on Trump’s astonishingly unfiltered approach to politics, which has led him again and again to say openly what other presidents with more of an understanding of the traditional red lines of Washington — or at least more of an instinct for political self-preservation — would never say in front of a camera.

In effect, the managers are challenging the president’s own penchant for announcing his motivations without apparent regard for whether it could get him into trouble. At the same time, the managers are challenging the senators to take Trump at his word about what really drove him to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations into Biden and other Democrats.

While Trump’s lawyers have argued that he was legitimately concerned with corruption in Ukraine when he held up nearly $400 million in security aid to that former Soviet republic, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California and the other House Democrats on the managers team have pointed to the president’s own words to contend that he cared only about tarnishing his domestic rivals.

In his presentation Thursday, Schiff played about a half-dozen video clips of Trump, including one of the president on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 3 speaking with reporters who asked him what he was hoping to get Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to do when they talked by telephone on July 25.

“Well, I would think if they were honest about it, they’d start a major investigation into the Bidens,” the senators saw Trump saying.

“So here we hear again from the president’s own words what his primary object is,” Schiff then told the senators, “and his primary object is helping his reelection campaign, help to cheat in his reelection campaign.”

Schiff said Trump’s own words made clear that he learned nothing from the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “He was at it again,” Schiff said, “unrepentant, undeterred, if anything emboldened by escaping accountability from his invitation and willful use of Russian hacked materials in the last election.”

Under the trial rules, the president’s lawyers have had no chance to respond to their client’s star turn on the Senate floor over the past two days, but they are poised to open their own arguments Saturday. In the meantime, Trump’s team has been left to defend him in the hallways during breaks.

“You’re only hearing one side of the story here,” said Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, one of a squadron of House Republicans enlisted by the president to serve as an adjunct of his defense team, working the cameras outside the chamber rather than the senators inside.

Johnson said it was wrong to contend that Trump was not concerned about corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere around the world. “Of course he was,” Johnson told reporters. “He’s been talking about it as a central theme of his campaign before he was president. When he ran on the priority of America first, that’s what he meant. He wanted to make sure that American taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.”

Trump is not the only person who has been presented to the Senate via video clips during the prosecution arguments, but even the other witnesses against him were largely drawn from his own team. Many of them testified during House hearings last fall about their concerns over the president and his allies pressuring Ukraine for help with his domestic politics.

Among the prosecution’s key witnesses are officials appointed by the Trump administration itself, including Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union; Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine; Fiona Hill, the president’s former Europe and Russia adviser, and her successor, Tim Morrison; Christopher Wray, the FBI director; Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff; William Taylor Jr., the former top diplomat in Ukraine; and Thomas Bossert, the former White House homeland security adviser.

Others brought electronically into the chamber over the past three days include career public servants like Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine; Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council staff member; and State Department officials like George Kent and David Holmes.

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“Why did President Trump’s own officials — not so-called Never Trumpers, but public servants — report this in real time?” Schiff asked, referring to the mixing of politics with Ukraine policy. “Because they knew it was wrong.”

Indeed, the managers used Trump’s own appointees to rebut his assertion that he was right to push Ukraine to investigate its own supposed interference in the 2016 presidential election, a conspiracy theory that U.S. intelligence agencies have called a Russian disinformation operation. The managers showed clips of Wray, Bossert and Hill all debunking the theory.

But the most compelling voice in the chamber this week has been that of the president himself. In his three years in office, Washington has learned that when it wants to understand what Trump is doing or thinking, he will most likely spell it out in bracingly candid terms in front of a microphone or on Twitter — and not always follow the official party line offered by his aides.

That can make him a frustrating client for lawyers who would prefer he be more circumspect at the very least, but it makes his statements more important in judging him. Which is presumably one reason his legal team has resisted Trump’s suggestions that perhaps he should attend the trial and testify himself.

Absent that, there will be the television clips and quotes from the rough transcript of his call with Zelenskiy and recollections of people like Sondland.

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Schiff played one clip after the other that he said exposed Trump’s true intentions. In one, Trump told reporters: “There was a lot of corruption having to do with the 2016 election against us. We want to get to the bottom of it.”

When the clip was shown, Schiff focused on the “us” in Trump’s comment: “What does that president say? Corruption against us. He is not concerned about actual corruption cases, only matters that affect him personally.”

But the managers had it easy the past couple of days with exclusive access to the microphone and the screens on the Senate floor, and unchallenged by either the White House legal team or the senators. On Saturday, the president’s lawyers will have their chance to explain what Trump meant and provide the other side of the story, one that will interpret his words in a far different light than Schiff. Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, told reporters during a break Thursday that the managers had presented nothing new and hardly proved their case.

“I saw nothing that has changed in the last day and a half, 2 1/2 days, we’ve been going here,” he said. “We’re going to begin a robust case when the Senate says it’s time to start.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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