Trump forced to take a back seat in his impeachment defense as trial begins

WASHINGTON — In what will be one of the most crucial moments of his presidency, Donald Trump will find himself in a position he’s proven uncomfortable with — having to take a back seat as someone else mounts his public defense.

With just days until opening arguments in his Senate impeachment trial, the president was still his own most visible and vocal defender. "I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!" he tweeted on Thursday. “They’re trying to impeach the son of a bitch, can you believe that?” he complained Friday to Louisiana State University's NCAA football champion team during their White House visit.

But as that trial begins in earnest on Tuesday, Trump will be handing over the reins for one of the most crucial moments of his presidency to a team of his staunchest cable TV legal defenders, including former independent counsel Ken Starr, famed defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, and former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi.

That group will be given a block of time by the Senate after Democrats make their case to lay out Trump’s side in a historic scene that will be watched on television by millions. But Trump — who has boasted about not needing a defense team, and often said he views himself as his own best spokesman — will have no choice but to watch along with the rest of the public.

If the House hearings are any indication, the Senate trials should draw millions of viewers, giving Trump’s team the opportunity to reach a broader audience than the one he and his allies can get to on Twitter or Fox News. About 13.8 million people watched the first public impeachment hearings in the House, which the White House refused to participate in, according to Nielsen.

Even with Trump having a hand in greatly shaping what his defenders will say, the somber setting for oral arguments in the Senate won't provide the same free-wheeling venue that the president is used to having in a Fox News interview, campaign rally or one-sided exchange with reporters as a helicopter roars in the background. And while all the members of his team have been solid defenders, none of the seasoned lawyers have the same bellicose style or flexibility with the truth as Trump.

But while Trump won’t have a visible role in the Senate impeachment, he isn’t expected to sit idly by and his allies anticipate the public relations battle will go well beyond what happens in the Senate chamber.

“The trial doesn’t necessarily begin and end when Justice Roberts convenes and dismisses each day's session,” said Jason Miller, Trump’s former campaign communications adviser who co-hosts a radio show on impeachment. “The overall public opinion battle will be raging 24 hours a day on the airwaves, that is important to keep in mind.”

But Trump weighing in also risks undermining his own defense, as he has done in the past, like admitting in a television interview that the firing of FBI Director James Comey was related to the Russia investigation.

Democrats are expected to get to make their case starting Tuesday and if the Clinton model is followed — and neither side pushes for any delays — that could put Trump’s team up next weekend.

Trump will have his own counter-programming lined up for the day the impeachment trial is set to begin — even beyond his Twitter feed. He is expected to speak to business executives and world leaders Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos and hold a series of meetings with his foreign counterparts while he is there, creating an opportunity to appear as a president hard and work and above the fray of impeachment.

But Trump has often chosen to use his moments on the world stage as a platform to attack his domestic political rivals, and he’ll have multiple opportunities to do that in Davos. At the NATO meeting of world leaders in London, while seated next to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump called House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff a "maniac" and "deranged human."

The trial could also stretch into the State of the Union address before Congress on Feb. 4, giving the president an uninterrupted, prime-time speech before the very body debating whether he should be removed from office.

The White House sent a six-page written answer to Congress Saturday that attacked the process used by House Democrats during the impeachment inquiry and addressed the substance of the articles of impeachment, arguing they don’t contain an impeachable offense, said a person close to the legal team. The White House plans to send a longer, more detailed brief by Monday.

While the issue of witnesses is yet to be decided, the person close to the legal team said White House is preparing for the possibility there will be witnesses called by both sides. The legal team is anticipating that Cipollone will open the defense, followed by Sekulow, who will detail more of timeline while Dershowitz and Starr will have “discrete functions” at certain times, the person said.

But even as the president's legal team gets ready to take center stage, Miller said the smart move for Trump himself would be to keep his own attacks going as well.

“If President Trump were to stay quiet, it will be 100 percent negative information flow,” Miller said. “It is up to him to get the information out. It should be a combination of pushing a positive message but don’t be afraid to call out these House impeachment managers when need be.”

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